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Lucire: Volante
republic of china


Taipei A view of Taipei city, with Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, proudly pointing upwards.

Fantasy island

Known as Asia’s ‘beautiful island’, Taiwan offers travellers green vistas, astonishing architecture, progressive-thinking luxury hotels and multi-faceted perspective on Chinese culture. Elyse Glickman visits
photographed by the author

 

HONG KONG HAS Repulse Bay, the legendary Peninsula Hotel afternoon tea and a bevy of upmarket malls. Tokyo has the Ginza. Singapore has Raffles Hotel and Orchard Road. Seoul’s sprawling downtown is an explosion of status label boutiques and ornate salons dedicated to weddings. Many high rollers and and frequent fliers up on what’s happening in Asia are probably aware that Taipei 101 (briefly the world’s tallest building a few years back) goes beyond being a crash course in modern retail.

Those who have yet to discover 21st-century Taiwan should prepare to have their notion about ‘Made in Taiwan’ shaken to its foundation. A writer for an upscale airline magazine likened his experience of Taiwan to what China might have been like had it developed as a democracy. Though that description is apt and poetic, it only tells part of the story. Taiwan’s old image (i.e. a nation of factories, inexpensive products and historic turmoil) has been upgraded to a shining new one blending global “Asian tiger” commercial success and state-of-the-art architecture with historic Chinese legacies that thrive because the island escaped the grasp of Mainland China’s Cultural Revolution and picked up Japanese influences during its post-World War II occupation.

In the new century, Taipei is fast catching up to its sister Asian capitals as a worthwhile destination that holds the best of many worlds, including Japan and South Korea’s urban technical wizardry and their penchant for global luxury. The rest of the country, from small towns to rural expanses, blend mainland China’s culinary influences and the laid-back vibe of Malaysia and Thailand’s beach and mountain areas.

When I asked my friend Don Shapiro (publisher of Topics magazine for the American Chamber of Commerce) about places he would take friends and family visiting Taiwan, he looked at my itinerary, and noted many of the hotels, restaurants and cultural sites also happen to be his personal favourites. These spots include the many temples dotting the city (including Longshan Temple and the Taipei Confucius Temple) and the National Palace Museum, with its vibrant and exquisite collection of dynastic treasures from Taiwan and mainland China. Its museum store is excellent, stocking an assortment of gift-worthy items that lean more tasteful than kitschy. The Silks Palace Restaurant, just next door, prepares an extraordinary and ingenious family-style, multi-course Cantonese banquet thematically based on the National Palace Museum’s masterworks.

Though Taipei’s Museum of Fine Art is focused primarily on visiting art exhibitions, the surrounding neighbourhood and people-watching opportunities make the visit worth the trip. Its museum shops sell fun, locally made home accessories and coffee table books.

The modern art scene, meanwhile, can be enjoyed along the narrow paths crisscrossing Bo-Pi-Liao Historic Street. Japan’s culinary and æsthetic influences on Taiwan are on full display at the elegant Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant, about a half-hour drive from downtown. Against a spare, romantic backdrop, you’ll be served painstakingly rendered small-plate dishes, artisanal teas and locally grown fruits gorgeous enough for display in the National Palace Museum’s galleries.

Even with all of the visual stimulation, most locals will tell you the heart of Taiwan’s culture lies in its food, from the street markets upwards. The riot of colour and aromas at the various night markets (including Taipei’s Raohe, Jing Mei, Luodong and Shilin and Kaohsiung’s Liuhe) are indeed fulfilling on many levels, mixing savoury street foods and budget fashion finds, while random stands serve up all kinds of wonderful surprises in edible form.

If a more sophisticated nightlife is what you’re after, head to top Taiwan cocktail bars Marquée and Indulge to sip some of Taipei’s most inspired cocktails, blending purees of locally-grown fruit with top-shelf spirits from the west.

Taipei City’s upscale hotels and higher-end restaurants (e.g. the Sheraton Taipei, the Sherwood Taipei, the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei, Grand Hyatt Taipei and its Pearl Liang Chinese Seafood Restaurant, the Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant just outside the city and the very trendy spots Yuan Pot Restaurant, AoBa and the Chili House) are fantastic showcases for the way Taiwan is leading the charge in Asian gastronomy and hospitality. W Hotel Taipei, opening this month, will provide a great excuse for a return visit, as it epitomizes Taipei’s status as city of the 21st century.

Techno-geeks and gadget fanatics looking to feed their head, meanwhile, will not want to miss Guang Hwa Computer Street, Nova Computer Mall and Kwang Hua Market’s spread of high-tech goodness at great prices.

While a fashionista cannot go wrong at Sogo and Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department stories, mixing international and local designer shops-within-shops, tiny local boutique jewels abound, such as Hui Liu Teahouse (9, Lane 31, YungKang Street, Taipei City), with its darling assortment of artisanal teas, kitchen accessories and handmade computer bags rendered by local artists.

Cat lovers, meanwhile, should keep an eye peeled for boutiques stocking high-end leather goods and fabric totes emblazoned with Dayan, the lead character of Taiwan’s beloved Wachifield children’s books, which could be described as a creative mingling of Beatrix Potter and Hello Kitty.

If your pockets run deep, head towards boutiques housing fabulous frocks and flattering knitwear by such designers as Shiatzy Chen, Angela Chen, Stephanie Dou and Isabelle Wen. The Ximending neighbourhood, on the western edge of the city, features a funky collection of high-street stores and offbeat accessory stands, including one selling glasses frames constructed of bamboo. Ximending is anchored by the Red House, constructed in 1908 by noted architect Kondo Juro. The octagonal building, managed by the Taiwan Cultural Foundation, is home to a theatre and an afternoon market showcasing up-and-coming fashion and accessory designers as well as beautifully packaged teas and tea accessories.

Southern cities Kaohsiung and Tainan, meanwhile, provide all of the big-city amenities, street market, dining and shopping opportunities of Taiwan, but at a slightly slower pace. However, those venturing beyond Taipei should not miss the splendour and sublime hiking opportunities within Taroko Gorge, with its soaring cliffs and rope bridges.

In the middle of this national park, you will find the Silks Place luxury resort, which is certifiably one of the most romantic resorts in Asia. The icing on this proverbial cake is the resort’s Mei Yuan Restaurant, prepared by India-born chef Ashish Deva, which is emblematic of how modern Taiwan cuisine continues to be shaped by Asian and global influences outside of China. Though Deva’s dishes are recognizably Chinese, there is a defined intermingling between regional influences, as well as a much lighter and delicate use of sauce and spice.

Though there is great hiking, biking and temples to explore a stone’s throw from the Silks Place’s front door, the resort is so gorgeously laid out, you will probably want to plant yourself on the top level’s pool deck or lounge and just watch Taroko Gorge’s towering peaks unroll before your eyes. The same goes for Hotel Royal Chihpen, located in Taitung County in southern Taiwan. Hot springs and day spa fanatics will be spoiled, between the hotel’s sprawling expanse of spring water-filled pools with different Jacuzzi-jet treatments, clothing-optional natural hot springs and spring water that can be piped right into individual guest rooms through the Japanese-style shower and bathtubs.

If great things come in small packages, Taiwan is a gift when it comes to destination luxury travel, with so many ways to appreciate Chinese and other Asian cultures in a country that boasts great inter-urban high-speed rail and ultra-efficient and inexpensive subways and taxi services. Though higher-end restaurants and shopping abound, you will stumble across a variety of bargains and finds that will make for memories that are absolutely priceless. •

 

For travel information, visit www.go2taiwan.net, and www.evaair.com.tw for flight information. •

 


Regent Taipei executive lounge.


Grand Regent room.


W guest room.


The Royal Chihpen Hotel, with hot pools.


The Red House, Ximending.

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

 


Longshan Temple, Taipei.


Confucius Temple, Taipei.


Raohe Street night market, Taipei.



The Xenyi night market.


Taroko Gorge Temple.


Angus in action at the Marquée.


Chou’s shrimp roll.

 

 

Where to stay

 

 

 

Taipei city dining

 

Tea and desserts

 

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