Beautiful things come in small packages and Taiwan is a vibrant, colourful jewel in the Pacific Ocean.
When you say Taiwan, many people’s first thoughts are of cheap toys “Made in Taiwan” and maybe the island’s tumultuous relationship with its booming neighbour. But this tiny tear-shaped drop in the ocean, coined “La Ilha Formosa” (The Beautiful Island) by the Portuguese offers beautiful beaches, breathtaking gorges, picturesque peaks, serene lakes, tropical forests, aboriginal peoples, stunningly ornate temples, neon-clad cities and decaying Qing dynasty courtyard houses, all contained in an island only 250 miles long and less than 100 miles wide.
Taiwan was first settled by Austronesians who had traveled across the Pacific (and still exist in remote mountainous and island communities). Later, waves of emigrants from southeastern China came to the island to escape famine and persecution. In the last half millennia Taiwan has served as a colony for the Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese, and a retreat for the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) when they were forced out of China by Mao Zedong’s communists. Free from the purges of the Cultural Revolution across the water on the mainland, “the other China” has managed to keep its cultural legacy far more intact and accessible than its big brotherly neighbour – you’ll still see offering tables laid out and ghost money being burnt on the street on auspicious days of the month, noisy processions and keenly celebrated festivals.
Currency: New Taiwan Dollar
Highest Point: 3,952 m
Capital City: Taipei
Time Zone: GMT +8
Main International Airports:
Population: Approx. 23.5 million
Land Area: 36,190 sq km
Religion: Buddhism & Taoism
Language: Guoyu & Minnan Hua
Best Times to Visit:
March to May
October to December
Weather & Climate
Coolest time: November to February, Hottest time: July to September
Wettest time: July to September, Driest time: November to March
Our favourite times: October to December & March to May
The belt of mountains which runs along the centre of Taiwan lends a diverse climate to such a small island. Throughout the summer (April to October) the entire country experiences high temperatures and humidity, although cool escapes are offered by mountains, the ocean, regular rainstorms and the occasional typhoon. Typhoons (known elsewhere as tropical cyclones or hurricanes) regularly hit Taiwan between June and October and can occasionally arrive as late as November. Although they can be tracked, their exact course cannot be forecast and during such times itineraries may need to be adjusted. Likewise, after a typhoon roads may be closed and we may have to alter our route accordingly.
Winters can be cool and wet in the north, but south of the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan rarely sees temperatures lower than 15°C/60°F, and in the height of winter, Kenting can still enjoy sunny days peaking in the high 20s °C (mid 80s °F). Taiwan experiences a rainy season which tends to arrive in May or June and finish in August. Whilst the north continues to get some rain throughout the winter, this is the south’s driest time, with clear, sunny warm days.
Overall, Spring (March-May) and Autumn (October-December) are the best times to visit Taiwan, when temperatures and humidity are more comfortable and there is little rainfall (especially in Autumn). This said, hot spring pools are best appreciated in the middle of winter, and if you can take the heat and are prepared for the slight risk of typhoon disruption, Taiwan’s wilderness is at its bountiful best in summer, trees laden down with tropical fruits, and a dip in the ocean or a stream is always at hand to cool down. Taiwan is a year-round destination.
Highlights for Visitors
National Palace Museum & Shungye Museum
The newly re-fitted National Palace Museum houses the world’s greatest collection of Chinese art. Transported around China to protect it from the enemy during the Sino-Japanese War, the story of the museum’s treasures only adds to its appeal. Highlights include the jade collection, a boat carved from an olive stone, and the ceramics. As you’d imagine it gets very busy – come when it opens, before the tour buses arrive, or towards the end of the day. Whilst you’re in the area, the Shungye Museum over the road offers an excellent introduction to Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, many of whom live in the remote eastern and southern parts of the country on our bike routes.
Nearly two thirds of Taiwan is forested and the island has a well-developed network of National Parks and forest recreation areas which offer easy access to breathtaking natural scenery. The most famous include Jade Mountain (Yushan), the misty peaks of Alishan, the turquoise waters of Sun Moon Lake, and the world’s deepest gorge in Taroko National Park, but there are countless smaller (and less visited) reserves – the endless bamboo groves of Xitou are worth seeking out.
Taiwan itself isn’t a huge island, but to really get that laid back island feel, taking a boat or flight to one of the outlying islands presents yet another face to Formosa. In the Taiwan Strait, Kinmen and Matsu offer equal doses of military history, intact colonial architecture and pristine wilderness, whilst the Penghu Archipelago has beautiful beaches, spectacular geology, and is famed as a wind and kite surfing destination. Set out in the Pacific, east of Taiwan, beautiful Green Island is a former political prison turned tropical island holiday resort! Whilst it bustles on summer weekends, much of the rest of the year there are few visitors and a day or two cycling its 17km perimeter road, stopping to snorkel, makes for an idyllic break from Taiwan (or “the mainland” as locals call it). Even further from the mainland, remote Orchid Island is home to the Tao people, the most traditional of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, and has a ruggedly beautiful sweeping coastline surrounded by some of Taiwan’s best coral reefs.
Taiwan’s tectonic past gives rise to over 150 hot springs, many of which are located in the rugged eastern portion of the island. Whilst Taiwan’s indigenous people have long known about these springs and their therapeutic powers, it wasn’t until the arrival of the Japanese that hot spring bathing was popularized, and the first resorts were developed. These days many of the island’s springs have been tapped to feed hotels and resorts, some of which have an incredible array of different scented pools, plus aqua-therapy jets, steam pools and even cooking pools, but there are also wild springs left for the interpid to seek out.
Tastes of Taiwan
Food is on everyone’s minds all day and night in Taiwan, and the island’s historic and geographic diversity means that everything from street stall squid to top quality sashimi are on offer. As well as uniquely Taiwanese cuisine, in the big cities all of the main Chinese regional cuisines are represented, along with Western, Korean and Japanese options. Along the remote east coast options are more limited, but delicious nonetheless, with super-fresh seafood, whilst inland aboriginal specialties such as wild boar, bird’s nest fern and betel nut flower are on offer.
One of Taiwan’s biggest attractions is the range and depth of its boisterous festivals, which spans from one of the world’s largest pilgrimages, to boat-burning ceremonies, cacophonous fireworks festivals, to tribal harvest feasts, all of which are celebrated with passion. Whilst Chinese traditional and religious ceremonies are well publicised, some aboriginal festivals remain closely guarded secrets, but for those in the know, individual travellers and small groups are generally welcomed with open arms, often being invited to drink local spirits with the tribesmen.
The people of Taiwan are as diverse as the island’s history and includes ethnic Chinese, Hakka and aboriginal communities, but they share a passion for life and a warmth to outsiders, always willing to offer help, whether that means just directions, or a cup of tea on a chilly day’s riding. Cycling around the island visitors will be greeted with cries of “jia you” or “add gas” to encourage them on the hills, and often the most enduring memories of a visit to Taiwan will be of chance meetings with a local cyclist, monk, or fruit vendor.
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