Asia’s Triple Play: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao
(Note from Editors: This is Part One of a three-part series. Enjoy!)
Taiwan’s Melting Pot will Melt Your Heart, Wow Your Senses
By Kathy Chin Leong
Looking for an overseas vacation with exotic flair? Have ten days or more to spare in 2018? Only about an hour from the other, the regions of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao represent a thrilling three-in-one journey that will fulfill a Bucket List of dreams. Start in Taiwan where you’ll dive right into Asian cosmopolitan living and experience countryside life. In the metropolis of Hong Kong, restaurants, shops, and lux hotels from a global perspective beckon. And in Macao, old world Portuguese architecture juxtaposed next to Las Vegas-like casinos will leave your head spinning.
From the Bay Area, fly Cathay Pacific or any number of airlines to get to Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, an island country next to China. A roundtrip international flight, when you get a good deal, costs around $1,000. On the second leg, take a hopper plane to Hong Kong, and return to the US from there. The one-way 45-minute flight to HK runs about $150 or less on Dragon Airlines. On the last part of your trip, go to Macao on a $25 ferry ride from Hong Kong.
TAIPEI CITY LIFE
For convenience’ sake, start your journey in Taiwan. If you decide to make Taiwan your main vacation, then plan on spending at least 7 days. Go to Taipei where you can get around in English. After that, book a tour to the southern parts to view nature and major national parks. Why a tour? Outside of Taipei, fewer tourist areas have English speakers, so your least stressful move will be to hire a guide. You won’t have to rent a car and learn the rules of driving on the left side of the road. Having a bi-lingual local lead you will get you where you want to go in the least amount of time.
A Taipei stay is cushy and convenient at the 853-room Grand Hyatt (www.hyatt.com), connected via a walkway to Taipei 101. This is a chief tourist attraction and the tallest building in the city at 1,667 feet, taller than the Empire State Building, with a panoramic view at the top. At the Grand Hyatt, the services are top notch with a Club Level Lounge that offers food and beverages day and night for a fee. Nine restaurants and lounges from Chinese cuisine at the elegant Yun Jin to the international fare served at Café buffet are popular among guests. The Grand Hyatt Oasis spa offers a slate of massages, facials, and scrubs to help you refresh from the 16-hour plane ride and acclimate back to earth.
The concierge desk will give you tips on where to go and how to manuveur around town. While cabs are plentiful, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system is one of the best. The clean and modern metro cars arrive constantly. You can buy a pass and reload your card, or pay by the ride. Subway stops are peppered all over the city. This said, wandering around Taipei is inexpensive and uncomplicated as the signage is displayed in Chinese and English.
A highlight in this country is the night market scene which has a captivating carnival atmosphere with smells, sights, and crowds, crowds, crowds. Come sundown, streets are slowly and then suddenly populated with foodies and bargain hunters. Get initiated at the Shilin Night Market, the largest in the country featuring about 500 stalls, mostly of food, where you will be introduced to Taiwanese specialties including stinky tofu which is fermented tofu, oyster and egg omelette, beef noodle soup, Taiwanese fried chicken, and gigantic steamed meat or vegetable-filled bread buns pan-fried on one side. Hawkers also sell souvenirs, backpacks, toys, and clothing.
Another is the Raohe Night Market, one of the oldest in the region, with a similar vibe-2,000-feet of food stalls and booths selling multi-colored water bottles, puzzles, and cheap t-shirts. Legend has it that at least ten such markets operate in Taipei, but these two are among the largest. Figure about two hours at least to roam through each one.
You cannot leave Taipei without lingering for a day at the National Palace Museum. That would be a travesty. It is one of the grandest museums in the world loaded with ancient treasures from China. Of note are the two celebrity novelties: the Meat-Shaped stone, a jasper stone that resembles a chunk of pork belly, and the jadeite cabbage with a jadeite grasshopper on top. Both are intricately carved and set in a separate glass case so visitors can line up to see their glory.
For art lovers, Taiwan features a couple of unique “cultural creative parks.” Those who appreciate ingenuity and design will be awed by the innovation found at the Shongshan Cultural Creative Park, which occupies the space of a former tobacco factory. A series of blocky, gray cement buildings are still in tact with a large circular fountain and gardens outside.
Inside the warehouses are stalls stewarded by Taiwan’s talented artisans selling clothes, baked goods, leather purses, ceramic mugs, jewelry and more. Pop up art exhibitions are common here, and visitors can even create their own pieces of jewelry or handcrafts at certain booths. Next door, the high-end Eslite Spectrum Shopping Mall follows a similar model where small boutiques and Taiwan labels occupy every floor, so local entrepreneurs get a chance for exposure.
On the other side of town, the premises of the Huashan Cultural Creative Park was once home to a winery. While smaller than Songshan, you’ll find fascinating little stores with bold interiors, selling a boatload of eclectic, but tasteful items: pens and stationery goods, music boxes, dishtowels, journals, satchels. A mix of cafes and restaurants are intermingled among the boutiques.
TIME FOR NATURE
After the taste of Taipei’s food, art, and culture, a visit to the country is in order. We discovered the company, My Taiwan Tour (www.mytaiwantour.com), a guiding enterprise that specializes in English-speaking guides. This business offers a total of 50 different day and multi-day trips and covers a variety of destinations, activities, and themes such as tea tasting, city jaunts, hiking, and so on. Guides are often young and energetic, and in fact, our guide named Yong was all of 27 years old. He drove and accompanied my husband Frank and I throughout our five-day excursion, directing us to our hotel rooms, pointing out local snacks, and catering to our every wish. With My Taiwan Tour, guests are picked up at their hotels, and guides take care of driving, interpretation, and caring for specific needs. At times you may have a guide and a driver, or you may have a driver who is also the guide. In our case, our guide doubled as our chauffeur which made things simple.
While city tours are available, we chose to be near natural hot spots that were well outside of Taipei borders. Three scenic beauties of Taiwan feature the Taroko Gorge, Sun Moon Lake, and the Alishan Scenic Area, each several hours driving time away from the capital. Taroko Gorge is a national park featuring a deep gorge with walls of marble and aqua-marine waters and mountains dotted with shrines and a monastery. You can tackle several hikes here that are relatively easy such as the Swallow’s Grotto, the Lushui trail,and the Shakadong Trail.
Sun Moon Lake represents another national slice of pride. It is located in the center of Taiwan, and this peaceful lake features a tiny island in the center that is slowly disappearing. This island was where the Ita Thao aborigines used to live. A visit here with My Taiwan Tour includes a bike ride dubbed as one of the most scenic rides in the world. A separate bike path takes you next to the lake, and you end up at the Sun Moon Lake visitor’s center where you can grab a snack and see a map of the region.
And rounding up the scenic wonders hit list is the Alishan Scenic Area, a lush tree-lined region where the Japanese had set up a railroad and built a community. A variety of hiking trails take you through mammoth trees several thousand years old, and you can take a train to the top of the mountain to begin a hike to see them. Unique at Alishan is an easy night trail that is completely paved and lit with low lights. On a dark night, this path will take you deep into the woods to see the stars.
If you can afford it, hire a personal guide from an agency such as My Taiwan Tours. Multi-day trips range from $650 to over $1,000. You get door-to-door service, behind the scenes info, and flexibility in your schedule in case you want to stop the car to take a photo or two. During our trip together, Yong did not mind when I wanted to explore the Butterfly Ecological Park even though it was not on our itinerary. He adjusted our time schedule, and we were able to veer off to discover a butterfly grove created by the cement plant workers across the street near the Taroko National Park.
Another time when we passed a series of giant chicken statues along the road, Yong told us in that county, chickens roasted in special clay kilns were its specialty. And when I hinted that I would like to try it, he made it possible the next day.
Taiwan may be just a dot on the world map, but upon closer inspection you’ll discover it’s a giant melting pot of Taiwanese city dwellers and 16 government-recognized aboriginal tribes that are still active today. From the urban heights of the Taipei 101 tower to the streams of Taroko Gorge, it stands as an unforgettable island adventure for the curious soul.
When You Go:
My Taiwan Tour: www.mytaiwantour.com
Grand Hyatt Taipei: www.hyatt.com
Taiwan Visitor Bureau: www.eng.taiwan.net.tw