By Trista di Genova
Published in ‘Travel & Culture’ Magazine May 2010
If you’ve travelled around the world but never had the chance to explore Taiwan’s East Coast, congratulations! You’ve likely saved the best for last.
Spring is one of the best times of year to travel in Taiwan, as is early September. It’s cool, rainy at times, but not as swelteringly sultry as in summer. And, as many a traveler has noted, in Taiwan it’s super easy to get out of the city fast, to appreciate astonishing natural beauty.
Unless you have at least a week or two, it would be impossible to see all the places of interest the East has to offer. So this article covers the top sites to visit, for either a series of short day trips – or perhaps one long one — from North to South.
A popular day trip is dinner and a stroll on Fisherman’s Wharf in Tamshui, a 45-minute MRT ride away from Taipei, both a fine place to wander, with its boardwalk, semi-carnival atmosphere and lovely sunsets. Snacks are ubiquitous here, and seafood restaurants a big draw. Red Castle Restaurant, built in 1899 (#6, Lane 2, San Ming St., tel: (02) 8631-1168) offers a surprisingly classy dining experience and the best views of Tamshui, east of the bearded Mackay statue and a short hike up 106 stone steps from the night-market bustle of Tamshui Old Street’s (Lao Jie) vendors, craft shops and xiao-che (cheap eateries).
Take the Fisherman’s Wharf ferry (NT$50) across Tamshui River to Bali to visit Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology in Bali. Alternatively, take the MRT to Guandu station, and bus Red 13 takes you directly there. Fort San Domingo was constructed by the Spanish in 1629, then used by the Dutch as Fort Anthonio in 1641, and the old British Consulate in late 19th and early 20th centuries; now it’s a museum on early Taiwan colonization over-looking the mouth of Tamshui River, well worth a gander (take bus Red 26).
Just a 20-minute bus ride from Tamshui toward Jinshan is Baishawan Beach; well-kept, with swimming, jet-ski rides, a few cafes, nearby accommodation and view of one of Taiwan’s nuclear plants!
Taiwan has taken great ‘strides’ in recent years to make cycling ‘round the island an appealing prospect, with 150km of cycling paths in the Taipei area alone (see www.bikelane.org.tw). Many MRT stations now allow bicycles on cars; in this case, heading out on a coastal bike tour from Keelung is a real possibility. Scooters can often be sent by train in advance, too. Throughout Taipei County, cycling along the waterways (particularly Keelung, Hsintien and Tamshui River Trails) is a growingly popular pastime. Pick up brochures at MRT information desks: It is feasible to rent push bikes (NT$40/hour) in Tamshui, and ride down to historic Daodao Wharf in west Taipei in a leisurely hour or two.
Another excellent coastal adventure is to explore Taiwan’s old gold and copper mining communities near Jiufen and Keelung on the northeast coast, best seen by hiring a car (He Jing (HLC) car rentals: 0800 024550). From the early years of Japanese occupation and up until the mid to late 1990s mining was a major source of industry around Jiufen and Houlong, whose landscapes are scarred by decades of heavy industry, old mining railways, and littered with hundreds of derelict buildings. The copper mine at Jinguashi was the largest copper mine in the Japanese empire and the abandoned copper refining plant sits derelict today on a steep slope facing the Pacific Ocean. Also at Jinguashi is the memorial to the 1000-plus Allied soldiers who were detained as prisoners of war at the Japanese Kinkaseki POW camp from 1942-1945, and the gold ecological park at Jinguashi — essentially a gold mining museum. For a small entrance fee, walk around a Japanese-era village and learn about the region’s mining history, or head down a former gold mining tunnel. Houlong village is easily accessible by train from Taipei. Just one stop from Rueifang, Houlong village was built up around the coalmines, and today offers an old street where you can buy snacks and coffee, and a visitor center near the railway station to learn about the area’s history.
While you’re in a car on the northeast coast, just before the town of Jinshan on a side road, head inland to the Ju Ming Museum, the 26-acre museum and sculpture gardens of one of Taiwan’s foremost artists. Three miles east of Jinshan is the Yeliou Geological Park’s strange sandstone rock formations by the sea.
For outdoorsy types, the Northeast Coast has it all in terms of hiking, rock-climbing, snorkeling in Longdong South Ocean Park on the tip of the cape, as well as diving certification classes in Longdong (“Dragon Cave”) Bay Park.
Or reach the beach. With Hsuehshan Tunnel’s recent opening a few years ago, Ilan’s seaside now only 40 minutes away. An hour by train from Taipei Main Station is Fulong, the closest real beach from Taipei, and most popular among locals. Concerts such as the Fulong Music Festival in summer and mass beach parties also take place here on national holidays.
Fulong beach sports a bridge to nowhere, a fisherman’s wharf — all popular sites for wandering and snack hunting, and everything’s five minutes’ walk from Fulong train station. There’s windsurfing, kayaking and nearby Longmen Campground (200m from Fulong Beach. Tel: 02 2499 1791; http://lonmen.cjb.net; basic NT$800 for tent for four, plus NT$40 each for camping sites, subtract NT$150 with own tent). Just south of Fulong is point of entry to Caoling Historic Trail, cleared in 1807 to facilitate Chinese immigration from Taipei Basin to fertile Yanyang Plain of Ilan (Silver Grass season is in November).
Fulong’s really more of a wading beach, though, for two reasons: the Taiwanese are not great swimmers, and East Coast currents are particularly strong — the ocean floor drops precipitously into the sea. This is why Fulong’s waters are usually cordoned off 20 feet or so from the beach, monitored a little too closely by lifeguards and shut down at sunset. Accommodation is easy to find, around NT$1,000/night; Haidu Hotel, across from the train station, #25 Fulong St. Tel: (02) 2499 1839; English service: 09 3040 4235.
About 20km south of Fulong there are better beaches for camping and swimming, such as Daxi, known for its summer weekend beach parties, complete with DJ setups, and my personal favorite (not on the maps yet!), Wushe Port’s black sand beach near Toucheng train station, with its parasols and surfboard rental shops (NT$400-500/day). A cab from Fulong to Daxi Beach or ‘Wushe Gang’ is affordable, although hitching 20 minutes with locals is easy and safe in Taiwan.
Wushe Port not only has a sweet beach, it’s a good launching point for an afternoon ferry to Turtle Island (Guaishan Dao), Taiwan’s only active volcano. This ferry must be reserved in advance (02) 2499-1115) or in person early that morning with your ID, for either “insurance purposes,” “environmental protection,” or the fact the former military base still has a half-dozen personnel stationed there (it’s only been open to tourism since 2000). There’s a 250-visitor limit per day, no overnight accommodation, and hiking to Turtle Island’s summit requires special advance reservation. But the journey is well worth the NT$1500 for boat trip, sightings of 10 dolphin and whale species (March-October), stunning views and short (Chinese only) tour of part of the island. The island was formerly populated by about 700 aboriginals and fisherfolk who were relocated to Toucheng by 1977. Smell that whiff of sulfur even from the coast? There is an underwater geyser off Turtle Island, one of four places in the world with such geological manifestations.
Suao is a charming and important fishing port, and is one of two places in the world with carbonated cold springs (the other’s in Italy). This is also where the ride down the East Coast starts to get interesting – and hot up, temperature-wise — with an absolutely stunning ride of precipitous cliffs and the Pacific Ocean rivaling even California’s Big Sur. Suao to Hualien is a windy, 119km trip best done by car, or better yet motorcycle for the adventurous, although grimy due to long-haul trucks sharing the route along Provincial Highway 9 (Xiang Dao), an appellation from when Taiwan was administered as part of China’s Fujian Province. First built as a series of trails in the Qing Dynasty, this Suhua Highway route through subtropical forest and screw pines was later rebuilt by the Japanese. The marble and gneiss Cingshui Cliffs average an awe-inspiring 45 degrees here, 200-1,300m above sea level; watch for monkeys! This is geologically the oldest part of Taiwan, formed 250 million years ago.
There is only one true east coast route from Hualien to Taipei, aside from the railway. Another option is to travel from Loudong to Lishan, then Lishan to Hualien through Toroko Gorge – but this takes much longer. Also, there’s Taipei to Nantou (Gouxing) and Gouxing to Hualien using the Central Cross-Island Highway to Hualien. These are the only options and Suhua is by far the quickest. Highway 11 starts in Hualien and continues down the east coast to Taitung. Highway 9 is the continuation of the SuHua Highway, but it continues to Taitung through the East Rift Valley.
Hualien Visitor Information Center, in front of the train station: 03 8360634.
Hualien is famous for its white-water river rafting from Reuisuei to Big Harbor, whale and dolphin watching, deep-sea night fishing (Seawhale Ocean Tours, tel: 03 8781233; www.seawhale.com.tw), hot springs, and Hualien Ocean Park. It’s also a good point de depart for renting scooters and exploring the stunning mountainous areas of Taroko Gorge, which would surely give even Arizona’s Grand Canyon a run for its money for majestic beauty. Another way to enter Taroko National Park is from the Coastal Highway 9 from Hualien. The turnoff marked ‘Taroko Gorge’ begins a trip that still features the remnants of ancient trader pathways built into the mountainsides, good for hiking. This is an unforgettable trip, Taiwan’s top attraction, enveloping you with cavernous, overhanging cliffs and subtropical forestscapes. As you climb higher, there are mountain Buddhist monasteries (where you can retreat for a more spiritual experience); simple roadside shrines, the occasional, random tea-egg vendor or a few rest stop areas catering to the down-to-earth dining requirements (plastic chairs and tables) of busloads of Mainland Chinese tourists. Past all this, you will reach a wondrous acme: the sea of clouds phenomenon above the serene mountaintops, resembling Chinese paintings of a bygone era.
An as yet little-known getaway possibility is the aboriginal town of Sanjhan, after the confusingly named Sinhjeng on the road to Taroko. Take the turnoff with the sign, Tbsagan Pratan, soon cross railroad tracks, then a small bridge — it’s just to the right. The Hoping for Hoping (Peacefest) Music Festival was held here in November, but the rest of the year it is an idyllic place for hiking, nature getaways, even romantic weekends, with easy walks to crystal-clear waterfalls, and inexpensive short-term (and longer-term) homestay opportunities.
Visiting villages like Sanjhan both provide the best experience and are a much-welcomed stimulation for the local economy (Moon River Guesthouse, rooms and tours: 0916 235977; Pratan Guest House: (03)8612684; 09 72 100684).
In fact, the recent proliferation of homestays (“Taiwan’s version of the bed and breakfast”), hostels and guesthouses (ranging NT$300-500NT) show they’re an increasingly popular option. Within a decade, 2,976 homestays have been registered around the island, not including those advertising by word-of-mouth. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau lists 115 of the best homestays in Taiwan online: http://info.taiwan.net.tw/homestay/english/index.html.
Halfway between Hualien and Taitung is an under-appreciated heritage spot in Taiwan: Baxian’s Caves of the Eight Immortals, named after Chinese settlers began setting up altars to worship their gods. Today the caves may seem a bit overcolonized after Buddhists’ care-taking for the past 100 years, with shrines set up in most, but the caves’ history goes back to ancient times. Amis tribespeople believed the raised hilltop was a manifestation of a sacred goddess and named it “Kapela nu puki,” or “Place of the Goddess.” According to Amis myth, the caves formed in stone cliffs that arose after the execution of a tribal beauty named Ilin. Geologically, the caves resulted from sea erosion at different levels as techtonic plates pushed stone up from the sea. In 1969, a number of Stone Age artifacts — pieces of slate and slate tools — were found inside the Chauyin Cave (“Sound of water”). The laterite layer yielded traces of ancient culture, including tools likely for fishing (Visitor center 9-5pm with a few new exhibits; Tel: 089 881418).
Taitung County is a favorite of Taiwan travel aficionados, an amazing place described as “truly Taiwan’s treasure” by ‘Fun Taiwan’ travel show host Janet Hsieh, for its pristine rivers and mountains and thriving aboriginal cultures. Genetically, the East Coast and mountain tribes (Puyuma, Amis, Atayal, Rukai, Bunun) are said to be related to Southeast Asian peoples (particularly Malaysia, Philippines), and thanks to the Central Mountain Range least affected by past immigrations from South China (about 70% of Taiwanese have ancestors that migrated from Southern Fujian (Minnan) Province), Japan’s later colonial rule (1895-1945) and subsequent KMT administration.
Fifty-minute flights to Taitung leave from Songshan domestic airport in Taipei (around NT$2,000, NT$1,800 with advance reservation). Another convenient way to Taitung is to take the last train from Taipei Main Station around 10:30 p.m., sleep on the train and arrive at 6:05 a.m. with the whole day’s travel ahead. Scooter rental shops right outside Taitung train station require a Taiwan or International driver’s license.
While you’re at the Taitung train station, take a taxi or walk a 1km scenic route to the Beinan Cultural Park. Of particular interest is this area’s historic role within Asia-Pacific cultures; archaeologists now believe it may have been the origins of many Pacific Bin migrations over history. Well-presented exhibits at the Beinan Cultural Park do a surprisingly good job in bringing many aspects of Taiwan’s prehistoric civilizations to life (English audio tours available). Nearby is an important excavation site – a 3,500-year-old Neolithic village – ‘jade civilization’ — with 1,500 slate stone coffins and over 20,000 stone and pottery artifacts discovered in July 1980 during the construction of a train station. The National Museum of Prehistory (NMP), no doubt one of Taiwan’s top museums, was built 5 kilometers away to protect this site. The museum’s a palatial building with well-designed, informative exhibits comprehensively covering Taiwan’s geological formation, pre-history, ecology and early civilizations. Free bus tours will be available June 25 through August, going to Beinan Cultural Park, the NMP and Dulan’s Sugar Factory.
Taitung’s upcoming cultural offerings include the Harvest Festival from July 10 to the end of August, the Austronesian Culture Festival October 16-23, and the Tao (or Yami) Tribe’s Flying Fish Festival on Orchid Island that runs from spring through the end of September [check the Taitung County website for a schedule of activities: www.ccl.ttct.edu.tw/en/e_index.aspx ].
Taitung’s coast comes alive in the summer months; with vendors in driftwood stalls showing crafts at the seaside park, and outdoor movie screenings. Surfing is possible but not recommended for inexperienced surfers in this area (Taitung Surf Shop, lessons and guesthouse for NT$1,600-2,500/night: Tel: 089 896 179).
Just north of Taitung City is Dulan, and Mt. Dulan, a sacred area. Indeed, Dulan’s Sugar Factory (Tang Chang) has become a creative mecca for both local and international artists. The Taisugar factory was built in 1937, stopped production at the end of World War II after U.S. attacks, and reopened in 1962 to become one of the largest sugarcane distribution centers in Taiwan until its closure in 1991.
Today, it makes for interesting industrial architecture as well as provides workspace for contemporary artists and wood sculptors in the area — the Siki Wood Carving Workshop. The Sugar Factory Café next door is an important watering hole, with live local entertainment on weekends and a lively, intellectual atmosphere rarely seen in Taiwan. The hostel next door costs NT$1,200 a night. For other local homestays, check information at the bar, or see Xiao-Tang at the mini-café next door or an aboriginal homestay, Xiao Fangtze (Contact: 09 2805 0114; NT$300/night).
Taitung’s nightlife is low-key. But check out Surfer Dave’s Kasa for coffee, beer, wine, dinner, Western snacks (#102 Hu-pin St.) or Echo’s Curry Café & Guesthouse (#231, Shiwei Rd. Section 3; tel: 09 36 908 603).
In Taitung proper, new and old cycling paths have recently linked Forest Park with two lakes, and more; it’s now possible to rent a bicycle and ride from Beinan to Taitung city. In future, trains will have facilities for bikes.
From Taitung’s Fugang Port, one can take the ferry to Green Island. A great weekend trip would be to stay overnight. Scooter rentals are cheap and run like clockwork, with a circuit of the island easily made in an hour — without lingering at shrines, Guanyin Cave, hot springs or stunning views along the way. Dive shops are readily available – take advantage, because with over 300 species of fish even snorkeling here is spectacular, one of the best in the region. It’s hard to imagine that thirty years ago, Green Island was known mainly as a penal colony for political dissidents during Taiwan’s Martial Law period (late 1940s to late 1980s). In fact, don’t miss a trip to the Green Island Prison Museum, which just reopened after renovation. See www.greenislandadventures.com for a wide variety of package deals.
Orchid Island is the kind of special, almost unearthly place that visitors often feel protective about. For sure, it helps that to reach Orchid Island takes a NT$1,345 plane ride (one-way) from Taitung Airport or 3-hour ferry ride (NT$2,000 each way) from Taitung’s Fugang Port, subject to cancellations due to inclement weather, once a day on average (Taitung airport: www.tta.gov.tw; ferry (Chinese only) www.ezboat.com.tw). The Yami or Tao tribes people have managed to protect their way of life from influences of ‘Mainland’ Taiwan.
Nevertheless, travelers appreciate the island’s rainforest, beaches, informal camping possibilities and warm welcome by its friendly inhabitants (Homestay: Grace House, #69 Dongcing Lane 089 732885). Orchid Island package trips: 2 days, 1 night including pickup, ferry, meals, NT$3,500 on weekdays, add NT$200 weekends. Contact Mr. Lin (Chinese only) 09 1298 2330.
Southward to Jhrben, about 20 hot spring hotels have “sprung” up here since the Japanese era, catering mostly to Mainland tourists, but fairly empty November-March (Tel: Hotel Royal: 089 510 666; NT$3,000+/night); Dongmei Hotel is NT$800-1,000/night; a private hot spring spa for two: NT$500.
The little-known southeast leg of the Coast is also a pretty, windy seaside ride, past mothballed military sites and now-empty checkpoints; a secret military base once set up shop here.
Finally, in Kenting, we have reached the southernmost tip of Taiwan, with its great beaches; the main strip in Kenting is controlled by the resorts, some require a small fee to use. Nanwan Beach is well-known for water sports, and thus many dive shops and surfing, snorkeling, diving opportunities. Bicycle rentals are a good way to explore the area.
As a footnote, Taiwan’s tourism industry – with its paucity of visitor information at each locality – may seem rather backward to the experienced traveler. The situation is only very slowly improving. But let the uncharted territory feeling of the place inspire you. It may be best to have no concrete itinerary at all, but just to expect the unexpected, taking advantage of surprise opportunities along the way. Besides, the friendly Taiwanese always seem to come to the aid of the party!
— With additional reporting by David Johnson, and special thanks to Christina Tang at the Taitung County Government Culture & Tourism Department for her assistance.
0800 011765: Tourism Bureau’s 24-hour toll-free travel hotline started in Chinese, English, Japanese 6 years ago.