Why I can’t wait to return to Taiwan

Fengjia Night Market, Taichung, Taiwan (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Fengjia Night Market, Taichung, Taiwan (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A few years ago, I found myself eating stool-shaped ice cream from the U-turn in a miniature toilet. A trip to the Modern Toilet restaurant, one of five such culinary delights in the bathroom in Taiwan, was the surreal highlight of a trip that covered all the East Asian bases.

I ate feather-light dumplings at atmospheric night markets; I peered around gilded Buddhist temples thick with the scent of sandalwood incense; I enjoyed oolong ceremonies in 16th-century teahouses where I could almost hear the hustle and bustle of Ming Dynasty merchants; and I wandered through eye-wateringly sublime Taiwanese interiors. Here, marble canyons plunge into blue-green rivers, and fissures in the earth’s crust bubble with the water that supplies Taiwan’s 130 hot springs (ideal for soothing trekkers’ muscles, once you get the hang of the hot spring label).

Taiwan was the rising star for travel in Asia when the pandemic hit, with inbound passengers doubling to 46 million

On the first trip, I saw Taiwan as a more accessible alternative to China, with all the Han cultural treasures (literally, as the Chinese palace jewels have been housed in Taipei since the then government’s retreat from Mao’s revolutionary forces in 1949), and lower levels of air and water pollution than the dominant neighbour. Taiwan also has an impressive track record in terms of safety and crime, making it one of the world’s safest destinations for solo female travelers.

For these reasons, and thanks to a rapid increase in air connectivity in the late 2000s, Taiwan was the rising star of Asian travel when the pandemic hit, with incoming passengers doubling to 46 million in the decade to 2018. Cruise lines also had this island nation in the South China Sea in sight, with the launch in 2019 of a new mega-category cruise port in Kaohsiung, in the southeast of the island. Cruise lines Princess, Celebrity, Azamara and Royal Caribbean all added Taiwan stops on popular itineraries from Tokyo to Hong Kong.

During these pandemic years, however, Taiwan has been one of the more cautious nations in easing border regulations. At the time of writing, Taiwan remains closed to foreigners except for emergency or humanitarian reasons, with those arrivals required to complete a 14-day quarantine and limited to 4,000 people per week.

A beach on Taiwan's Penghu Islands (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A beach on Taiwan’s Penghu Islands (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While I understand the fear, selfishly, I have longed for a return visit to an island nicknamed “Ilha Formosa” (the beautiful island) by centuries of Western merchants who happened upon its volcanic, teardrop-shaped landmass while flying spice routes from China and Indonesia.

For example, I long to explore the Penghu Archipelago, a cluster of islands off the west coast of Taiwan beloved by big-wave-chasing windsurfers but whose windswept coastlines are little visited. They are full of charming sea temples, coral stone villages and humble huts serving distinctive Penghu cuisine: a combination of umami rich flavors and seafood, with hit dishes such as boiling fish head pots, fried sea mushrooms, squid ink sausages and prawn rolls.

Since my last visit, I’ve heard that cycling fever has gripped Taiwan’s youth, and I’d like to join them on the popular east coast cycling route between Taitung and Hualien, which cuts past golden sandy beaches, fishing harbors and “art villages”. where tourists can pick up the wares of local artisans for a song. Then there must be a trip to a pristine “beitou” (hot spring) for a blissful soak. The quieter baths are in the Taiwanese valleys, such as Lelegu Hot Spring in Yushan National Park, a peaceful place where you can put your foot on a rock and plunge into delicious mineralized water.

The other thing about Taiwan – and here it owes something to its eastern neighbor Japan – is its pop culture eccentricity. In the capital city of Taipei, you’ll find this photogenic spot in spades, from anime and cosplay cafes to medieval and space-themed “love hotels” and cartoonish “love signs” set up in scenic spots for tourists to post hilarious Instagrams pictures. Of course, toilet-themed dining is only one aspect of this East Asian tradition.

Biking is a popular pastime in lush places like Sun Moon Lake (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Biking is a popular pastime in lush places like Sun Moon Lake (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It is hoped that Taiwan’s border restrictions will loosen in autumn (the ideal time to visit, with the summer monsoons gone, plenty of sunshine and daytime temperatures in the mid-20C) – and holiday companies are busy selling 2023 Taiwan packages.

They include Responsible Travels’ small group ethical tour to Taiwan, which includes a visit to a mountain tea farm and a women-led social enterprise in Taipei, plus a walk along the scenic Ci’en Pagoda Trail to the mystical Sun Moon Lake. There’s also Bamboo Travel’s 15-day family adventure in Taiwan, which takes you along the island’s rugged coastline by kayak and deep into the night market stalls of foodie Taipei. Sailing from 2024, Cunard’s much-hyped 19-night Far East cruise on Queen Elizabeth will travel along the coast of Japan and the Senkaku Islands before arriving in Keelung (Taipei) on Day 16.

Meanwhile, I learn that Modern Toilet used the fallow conditions of the pandemic to come up with fresh catalog confections, including chicken curry served in a replica squat loo. Recent reviews of the Shilin branch are glowing (“Crappy in the best way!”; “I usually eat outside toilets but it doesn’t taste as good as this!”). With due apologies to the intrepid diners of Taipei, it’s not one that’s at the top of your list.

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