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Taiwan: Asia's Beautiful Island

Little visited just a few years ago, the island of Taiwan is drawing new travelers with an alluring blend of rich culture and physical beauty.

  • Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, image
    Photo caption
    A gate leads to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
  • Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan, image
    Photo caption
    At 1,667 feet tall, the skyscraper known as Taipei 101 dwarfs other buildings in Taiwan’s capital.

The year is 1542. The place, 100 miles off China’s southeast coast. As a Portuguese ship passes a large, uncharted island, the sailors become the first Westerners to glimpse an Eden of golden beaches, fertile coastal plains, and a mountainous interior carpeted in mist-shrouded forest. Ilha Formosa, they call it. Beautiful Island.

Now called Taiwan, the island retains its startling physical beauty, alongside a rich cultural landscape where prayers echo through incense-perfumed temples, bullet trains zip between cities, and the world’s most fabulous trove of Chinese art dazzles museumgoers. Throw in one of Asia’s liveliest food scenes and it’s no wonder that the number of people coming to this Switzerland-size isle of 23 million residents is growing rapidly. Since 2001, the tally of annual visitors has more than doubled thanks to warming relations with mainland China and a promotional push in the United States.

At first blush, the city of Taipei seems a gleaming, orderly Tomorrowland. A pulsating dynamo of 2.6 million people, it has been the capital of the Republic of China since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China drove nationalist forces off the mainland. A spotless, easy-to-use subway system whisks you around town. Elevated highways and broad boulevards channel traffic past glass-and-steel skyscrapers and sleek shopping malls. Throngs of pedestrians wait patiently for signals to cross busy intersections where the sound of car horns is eerily absent.

Dive into the densely populated neighborhoods off the main thoroughfares, though, and you sense that Taipei’s soul runs deep. In the morning cool of a leafy park, serene tai chi practitioners slowly move through their silent choreography while 50 feet away a Jazzercise group bounces, prances, and sweats to a boom box blaring “Let’s Get Physical.” The city is full of such contrasts. You can soak in outdoor mineral hot pools at Qinshui Park in the Beitou District, then mingle with crowds at Shilin Night Market, a sprawling bazaar where vendors hawk everything from sparkly pink iPhone covers and Jeremy Lin jerseys for Chihuahuas to fluffy Taiwan-style shaved ice piled high and crowned with sweet beans and condensed milk.

Travelers marvel at the grand scale of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and visit Taipei 101, the world’s second-tallest building, to take the 37-second elevator ride to the observation deck on the 89th floor. From there street-level neon lights appear as mere blips of color as the sun sets over the darkening city. At first light, visitors to Longshan Temple, built in 1738, can catch a procession of brown-robed worshipers chanting before scarlet and gold pavilions.

The National Palace Museum can display only a fraction of its collection of nearly 700,000 works of Chinese art, most of them spirited out of Nanjing by the nationalists during the communist takeover. But what a fraction it is, from milky-green jade earrings, circa 6000 b.c., to a 19th-century basket of ivory carved so thin you’d swear it was lace.

The city’s restaurants serve treasures of their own: crispy-skinned roast duck, beef noodle soup, Japanese-Chinese fusion creations like tender peanut tofu with wasabi and passion fruit dressing, and stinky tofu—a typical dish with a flavor that’s cheesy good once you get past the fermented smell. At Taipei’s famous dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, guests watch workers in a glass-walled prep room meticulously hand-pleating thousands of pockets filled with shrimp, taro, crab, or pork.

Leaving Taipei on the bullet train that streaks along seamless tracks at 180 miles per hour, any visitor faces a dilemma. The tropical southern beaches beckon, as does Taroko Gorge, with its marble-walled canyons and rushing, blue-green river on the east coast, both among Taiwan’s top destinations.

And then there’s Sun Moon Lake. Though it may be hard to believe that an island so well known for manufacturing could still be 60 percent forested, the Sun Moon Lake region offers ample proof. The island’s largest body of freshwater and the centerpiece of a national scenic area, the lake sits at an altitude of 2,500 feet amid craggy peaks covered in trees and ferns, clambering vines, and towering bamboo thickets that rustle and sway in the wind. In the morning, mist hovers just above fishermen on the lake and cloaks the mountaintops in diaphanous clouds. It is a scene straight out of a classical Chinese painting.

The view is reason enough to visit, but there is much to do here. Boats crisscross the water; bicyclists cruise the shore. An aerial gondola makes a thrilling trip up and over a mountain. Nearby, at the Hugo Assam Tea Farm, co-owner Steve Chen conducts tastings and leads tours through lush hillside terraces where his plants grow prime tea. “I moved here 24 years ago when I fell in love with a tea grower’s daughter,” the Taipei native tells me. “And then I also fell in love with the countryside and the art of growing tea.” The island’s many seductive charms make it easy to see how.

Photography by Ulana Switucha/Alamy (Taipei 101 skyscraper); Jim Zuckerman/Corbis (Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall)

This article was first published in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.