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A First-Timer’s Guide to Taiwan’s Highlights and Lowlights

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In many cases, Americans don’t even know where Taiwan is and fewer have ever gone there. Despite posturing about “who really is China” and “who belongs to whom,” we’ve always believed travel is an excellent tool to break down barriers, so we sent Julie Alvin, who’d never been there, to report back on what to see, what to miss and some of the country’s biggest surprises.

Off the Southeast coast of China, Taiwan is home to over 22 million people and is slightly smaller than both Maryland and Delaware combined (35,980 square km). From nature tourism to culinary trends and aboriginal experiences, see what this diverse nation has to offer.

Worth the Trip

Night Markets

Beed Noodle Soup.

Taiwan boasts a remarkable variety of street food, and the ubiquitous night markets and open-air vendors around the country are the best spots to sample national and local specialties. A port city, Kaohsiung’s proximity to the ocean means that Liuhe Night Market is replete with fresh seafood. Silvery belt fish, steamed clams with water spinach, shrimp and pigeon egg nuggets and huge prawns are on offer. Customers can hand-pick their meal, then pass it to the cooks to prepare it in an open-air kitchen. Taichung is the birthplace of bubble milk tea, and the Feng Chia Night Market offers fresh batches of the beverage, plus pineapple and sun cakes. Taipei City alone has more than half a dozen night markets, the most famous of which is the Shilin Night Market. Other favorites are Shida and Huaxi Street night markets. These spots serve both local specialties and favorites from around the island, like beef noodle soup, oyster omelets and stinky tofu.

Aboriginal Culture

Aboriginal chicken.

Many aboriginal tribes exist in Taiwan, and they seem committed to keeping the food and music of their people alive and relevant. I visited one such tribe at the Shuilian Village in Hualien—I spent the day learning to gather water from the stream, identify medicinal herbs, harvest vegetables and make fire from bamboo stalks. Then I dined on a spectacular lunch of traditionally prepared foods; chicken cooked underground for hours, steamed greens, fresh snails and grilled pork. I had a similarly delicious aboriginal meal at Tsai Gong Dian on our way to Alisan, and on my final day I visited the Gu-lu Gu-lu restaurant, where a creative young chef marries the cookery of all 12 aboriginal tribes with inventive modern cuisine. I ate while being serenaded by an aboriginal musician. This window into the original people of Taiwan is worth peering through.

Tea Farm

Tea Farms

It takes nearly 10 hours of driving up through the cloud forests of the central mountains of Taiwan in order to reach Alisan, the little town situated in the peaks. The scenery along the way was stunning and I was told that sunrise views and redwood hikes in this area can be superb, so if you have time to spend there it could surely be worth the detour. I arrived once it was dark and left the next morning, and I would not recommend making the drive up for such a short stay, but, in addition to the aboriginal restaurant I visited for lunch, a stop at the famous Sheng Li tea farm and b&b made for a pleasant break from the bus. Tourists come to the Alisan area for tea trips and often stop here, where guests can see the tea leaves drying, taste various rare and specialty teas, meet the elderly woman who tends the farm, and see the tea plants themselves, planted meticulously in lush rows like in a topiary garden. This was certainly deserving of a visit, and tea lovers may want to book a tea-centric day trip in this region.