Taiwan’s abundant natural attractions have tended to fly under the radar, but it more than lives up to its older name of Ilha Formosa, or ‘beautiful island’. Its lofty mountains, marblewalled hot springs, lunar badlands and butterflythronged forests all appear to have come straight from a Chinese scroll painting. And then there’s the human drama, from the fashionable denizens of pulsating Taipei to the aboriginal tribes who keep ancient traditions alive and those performing poignant rituals at exquisite folk shrines up and down the land.
Hike up Snow Mountain
Even if you’re here only because you couldn’t get permits for Mount Jade, there’s absolutely no reason to feel you’re settling for second best. Hiking up Snow Mountain is far too good an experience to be considered a consolation prize; in terms of scenic and ecological variety – not to mention pleasurable exertion – it’s every bit as good as its taller compatriot. By Taiwan’s standards it does snow fairly often here but that’s not how the mountain got its name. The Atayal named it Sekoan, meaning ‘broken cliffs’; it’s a toponym you’ll understand if you get close to the summit. The first Han people to know about the mountain adapted the indigenous name, then shortened it.
If you get an early start, climbing to and returning from the peak can be done in two days, but spending three days on the mountain is usual and advisable.
© Rich Matheson
Soak up the atmosphere of the Ten Drum Art Percussion Group
Lauded at home for the way in which it has lifted zhentou culture to a new level, the Grammy-nominated Ten Drum Art Percussion Group has won a reputation overseas for electrifying performances which feature flutes, gongs and martial-arts moves as well as sensational drumming. The parent organisation is now based at this former sugar refinery where troupe full-timers give at least four performances every weekend (10.30 & 15.00 Sat–Sun). Drum groups from around Asia are invited to play here every summer. Also on site there’s a workshop where an artisan makes buffalo-hide drums the traditional way.
© Rich Matheson
Deservedly one of Taiwan’s leading tourist destinations, Taroko Gorge is a true, not-to-be-missed geological spectacular. Of the many eye-popping sights, the most dramatic is the stretch where the gorge narrows from a classic V-shaped valley to a defile that turns the sky into little more than a sliver of blue, hundreds of metres above visitors’ heads.
© Taiwan Tourism
Explore the exquisite Baoan Temple
In artistic terms, this 200-year-old temple is undoubetdly one of Taiwan’s finest places of worship. The quality of its 1995–2002 restoration received international recognition in the form of an honourable mention in the 2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Conservation. Come at dusk if you can, and spend time appreciating the door gods, the fabulously ornate carved screens and the large murals on the outside of the central shrine painted by Pan Li-shui.
© Rich Matheson
Little Liuqiu is a jewel surrounded by clean seas. The ‘little’ is to distinguish it from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands (now called Okinawa), the name of which was written using the same Chinese characters. The island is largely uplifted coral reef and thus unsuitable for farming. You won't see a single rice field and very few vegetable gardens. Nonetheless, food and other necessities are no more expensive on the island than in Donggang or Kaohsiung, so there’s no need to haul lots of provisions with you.
The absence of industry and the tiny number of cars mean that the sounds of nature can be heard everywhere: waves, wind and birdsong. The vibe is unusually and genuinely relaxing. It's no wonder, then, that some expats head here rather than Kenting when they want a get-away-from-it-all weekend. Twenty kinds of coral and 300 fish species make Liuqiu a good place for snorkelling.
© Elwynn, Shuttershock