Taiwan is located at the convergence of four tectonic plates, resulting in high mountain ranges down the length of the island. On the east coast, these drop steeply into the Pacific Ocean while the flat west coast is home to all of the country’s major cities. There are 272 peaks of at least 3,000m and the 3,952m Yushan (Jade Mountain) is the tallest mountain in north-east Asia.
The country’s landscape and climate have created perfect conditions for tea cultivation, with crops processed into green, oolong and black (red tea in Chinese) teas – unoxidised, semi-oxidised and fully oxidised respectively. Famous teas include Wenshan Pouchong, Emei Oriental Beauty, Yuchi Assam, Alishan High Mountain and Ruisui Honey Black.
In both cities and mountains you will find tea houses where you can enjoy a wide variety of teas presented in the traditional manner of a tea ceremony. It is also possible to visit plantations and pick tea.
Taiwan has more than 100 hot spring areas, many of which have special therapeutic qualities and a number of these are easily accessible from Taipei.
Wulai, to the south of Taipei City has springs rich in sodium bicarbonate, known as a superb natural skin lubricant, whereas those at Yangmingshan and Beitou to the north are sulphur infused. Jinshan, on the north east coast, has pure water springs, which are gentle on the skin. Hot spring resorts will usually have adjoining restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Taiwanese dining.
Taipei itself sits in a bowl, surrounded by mountains on three sides, with the Tamsui (Danshui) river leading to the eponymous port to the north-west. Directly north is Yangmingshan National Park on the dormant volcano YangMing mountain. There are many walking trails on the 1100m mountain and semi-wild Taiwanese water buffalo and Japanese Tajima cattle can be found wandering in some areas of the park. Seismic activity means there are ample hot springs in the area, particularly at Beitou, on the Tamsui-Xinyi (red) MRT line.
Beitou and Tamsui are easily accessed by MRT on the Tamsui-Xinyi (red) line – travel north on any red line train and you can’t go wrong. By this point the metro runs overground, often elevated, continuing alongside the river to Tamsui, where it terminates. The historic port is a popular seaside destination with markets, restaurants and shopping streets. Another attraction is Fort San Domingo, built by the Spanish in 1629 to overlook the mouth of the river during their brief colonisation of Taiwan.
The coast road runs from Tamsui, around the northern tip of the island to the container port of Keelung, 55km away. This route is popular with cyclists and makes a good day ride, with the option to take the train back to Taipei or ride the last 25km through the hills.
Towards the end of the coastal journey, the road passes the fantastical Yehliu rock formations, which are well worth a visit. Buses run hourly on weekdays and every half hour at the weekend. Alternatively, you could hire a car or take a taxi on the 55km scenic journey. The direct route back to Taipei via the Sun Yat-Sen Freeway is a mere 20km.
The east coast highway and Taroko Gorge
For anyone with a little more time to spare, taking the east coast highway south of Keelung is a must. The SuHua section, which runs from Suao in Yilan County to Hualian, is dominated by the steeply sloped mountains, which drop directly into the Pacific Ocean. Tunnels are hewn out of rocky outcrops with spectacular vistas across the bays between them. The QingShui cliffs provide a particularly dramatic view. The route is also accessible by train, although with more tunnels, this is less picturesque than the road.
At the end of this section, Hualian lies at the foot of the spectacular Taroko Gorge, a rift in central Taiwan that leads to the 3400m HeHuanShan (HeHuan mountain). The 19km-long canyon and eponymous national park is the world’s deepest marble canyon, making it is a major tourist attraction.
With a few days free, a couple of nights at Sun Moon Lake in the mountainous centre of the island is well worthwhile. The lake is renowned for its natural beauty and there are many high-end hotels at the destination, mostly clustered in the towns of Shuishe and Yuchi. The Sun Moon Lake bike path has been listed by international travel network CNNGo as one of the 10 most beautiful cycling tracks in the world.