Your first impressions of Taiwan may be of overcrowded urban areas and a bewildering lack of English once you leave the airport, but, with a little nudging, the door to the treasure house opens. Here are some of the things not to miss once you head away from the bustle of the capital and strike out into the stunning natural landscapes of Taiwan.
Highway 11: The coast road
The coastline between the cities of Hualien and Taitung has more than enough rocky shores, steep green hills and indigenous villages to fill a couple of days.
The road itself is well-maintained and there’s nothing to stop the adventurous among you hopping on the saddle and joining the cyclists that regularly coast along this road.
Straight, empty roads link sandy beaches, crumbling coral houses and superb windsurfing spots on this archipelago of small islands.
Head to Guoye to watch the sun rise over the ocean and bike the 7km-long trail that goes southwards to the spot where the Japanese Army first landed in Penghu in 1895, or visit Jibei Island to marvel at the dazzling Jibei Spit, before touring some of the less-crowded beaches and taking to the waves for some watersports.
Little Liuqiu Island
Don’t let the apparent urban chaos of Baisha put you off as you dock at Little Liuqiu Island. Head away from the crowds and you’ll soon discover this little island is a tranquil natural paradise and a haven for wildlife.
As you walk around the perimeter before dipping your toe into the water, you might even get lucky and catch a glimpse of the green turtles bobbing a few metres offshore from a plateau near Meiren Cave. The coral reefs that surround the island host over 300 species of fish and are also well worth you donning a snorkel to explore.
Most seasoned mountaineers head to Taiwan to bag Mount Jade, the island’s tallest offering, but we suggest hiking up the less-sought-after Snow Mountain in Shei-Pa National Park instead.
Although it’s 66m shorter than Mount Jade, it certainly isn’t second-best. As the park boasts a whopping 51 peaks that top the 3,000m mark, the alpine views on the scenic three-day trek up Snow Mountain are some of the best Taiwan has to offer. Plus, if you’re feeling really fit, you could also try summiting some of Shei-Pa’s other offerings as well.
This feat of geological engineering is deservedly the highlight of any visit to eastern Taiwan. If you can, try to devote at least three days to exploring this spectacular canyon. We suggest parking up and heading down several of the trails that wind through the gorge itself, such as the Shakadang Trail that closely follows the eponymous river, or the short pathway that takes you through Swallow Grotto, one of the narrowest, deepest and most striking sections of the gorge.
But if you’re going to stop and stretch your legs at just one point, do it at the Tunnel of Nine Turns. The 2km-long walking trail here is in fact a vestigial stretch of highway, superseded in 1996 when a long tunnel was built to straighten and broaden one of Highway 8’s more dangerous sections.
Yushan National Park
Taiwan’s largest national park covers 1,055km², 3% of the country’s land area, and is named after the island’s highest peak. Large tracts of the park are totally unspoiled. Roads don’t penetrate beyond the northwest and southwest corners; and it’s only in the past few years that ordinary hikers (as opposed to fully equipped expeditions) have been able to cross the park from west to east.
Those who get into the core of the reserve, which takes three or four days of walking, have an excellent chance of seeing some of the park’s 28 mammal species. Black bears aren’t easy to spot, but Formosan serows and Formosan sambars gather near water sources, and Reeves’s muntjacs can be heard yapping after dark.