Mention Taiwan and most people’s minds skip to the buzzing city life of Taipei — its noisy night markets and savoury street foods, skyscrapers and shopping streets, and ever-growing coffee and cocktail scenes. The city is undeniably fascinating, but to really get a sense of the soul of Taiwan, you’ll want to head south of the capital to experience the aboriginal heartland of the island.
Keen travellers looking to thoroughly step off the beaten track come here to immerse themselves in nature: whether it’s inhaling the fresh mountain air, traversing through the historic forests, hiking the famed Taroko gorge, sweating out toxins at a hot spring in Yilan, soaking up the sun on the beach, or enjoying the freshest local cuisine.
While places like Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Kenting on the west side of the island have steadily developed and become popular tourist destinations, the east side remains relatively more quiet and unexplored. Proudly facing the Pacific Ocean, Hualien and Yilan are two areas of interest, each boasting spectacular scenery and a unique charm. Towards the south, Hualien beckons with its coastal highway and blue pebbled beaches, as well as soft sand beaches that provide exhilarating surf. Meanwhile in the north, Yilan is renowned for its spring water, mineral-rich soil and misty Lanyang valley — making it one of the best places to grow crops, particularly its famed sweet spring onion. To make the most of your trip, we’d recommend you plan to split your time between both.
Hualien is still in its early days of development. But in recent years, Taiwan’s city folk have been flocking ever further into the outskirts of urbanisation, in staunch support of the area’s localism, its respect for aboriginal culture and the lay of the land. The long stretch of highway making up Hualien gives it a sleepy seaside town vibe, and driving along Highway 11 — which runs from Taitung up to Hualien — feels like Taiwan’s answer to cruising along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Here, untouched beaches and open cliffs, tumultuous marble hills and lush green paddies roll for miles and miles.
The first thing you notice landing in Hualien is the mammoth mountains of Taroko National Park, with its swift coursing streams, marble gorges and swallow caves. There are plenty of day trips that can take you through the park but if you wanted to extend your stay and experience the unique aboriginal culture of the native Truku tribe, you can opt to stay a night at Leader Village. This peaceful and rustic mountainside ranch is owned and managed completely by the tribesmen, who are all very keen to show off their traditions.
The lower east coast of Taiwan is so picturesque, in fact, that it stole the heart of Martin Scorsese when he was filming his 2016 drama Silence, starring Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as 17th-century Portuguese missionaries. The filming location for one of the crucifixion scenes was Shimen Cave — an ancient stone arch surrounded by the raw beauty of the coastal rock formations. After you’re done exploring the cave, head to Jiqi beach, which offers 3km of soft sands and surf for leisurely swimming.
Within Hualien town, clamped between modest snack stores and clothing peddlers you’ll find a group of independent coffee shops, galleries and other hipster gems relishing in a slow culture movement. Hualien Daily sells quirky homeware and eco-friendly soaps and body products, while downstairs is the Good Underground Art Space which provides an outlet for burgeoning young talent. A few streets over you’ll find From Me — an arts and crafts store supporting local artisans, which also serves a dream-worthy lemon pie and iced tea lattes. To escape the stress of the city, Hualien offers a welcome change of pace — it’s no wonder the shop owners rarely ever look a day over 25.
Be sure to sample the local delicacy of flying fish — most commonly smoked and grilled either as a snack or main course — as well as eat plenty of fresh organic produce. Look further and you’ll discover the hidden cottage of Angra Kitchen, a modest shop serving up western dishes with a Taiwanese flair. Try the succulent chops paired with just-harvested seasonal vegetables, or the juicy USDA prime rib — the quality of the dishes surprisingly tasty for a provincial mom-and-pop shop.
Further north in Yilan, the scenery changes from mountain ridges to misty flats and seemingly endless paddy fields and scattered cottages. Jiaoxi township in Yilan is famed as a hot spring paradise, and there are countless hot spring hotels to choose from. It tends to rain a lot here, but when the weather works out, the openness of the valley and bay area make it ideal for paragliding.
Head to Wai’O Feixingsan Jidi (Wai’O Paragliding Club, No. 95, Shikong Road, Toucheng Township, Yilan County, 261, Taiwan, +886 935 181 191, Open 9am-4pm) where you can gracefully fly over the black sands of Wai’O Beach, soaking up views of Turtle (Guishan) Island in the distance. A 10-minute flight will set you back just NT$1,200 (HK$300) with an instructor working the parachute for you. For a full picture of Yilan’s geographical and anthropological history, a trip to the nearby Lanyang Museum is recommended — or you can simply plan an afternoon stroll around the surrounding museum park.
Yilan is slightly more cosmopolitan than Hualien, and has been establishing itself as somewhat of an arts and crafts haven, a gem for art lovers who look for the authenticity that you just can’t find in a faceless big city. People come here often to stay for a week and do nothing, finding a moment of peace and quiet from the city stresses.
Head to the Formosa Pearl, a zen art complex where you can while away an afternoon sipping exquisite gaoshan (high altitude) oolong tea and admiring the contemporary Taiwanese artwork on display. In the back you can visit the aviary, where vivid peacocks and white peafowls, pheasants and parakeets roam and sing. During the evening times, head downstairs where you can dine on a chef’s menu featuring the best of local produce, whether its sweet succulent bamboo shoots in early summer, or fresh seafood plucked from the coast that very morning.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, plan to spend a day on a farm. Spring onion is a particularly prized crop here, renowned for its sheer size and sweetness, thanks to the unique geography and pure spring water that trickles into the valley. Head to Sansing Spring Onion Farm (No. 7-5, Dongxing Road, Sansing Township, Yilan County, Taiwan, +886 03 989 1048) for a chance to harvest your own crops and learn how to make the local spring onion pancakes from scratch. You can arrange a car to pick you up from the city to the farm, which will cost around NT$200 (HK$50).
Last but not least, fans of a good dram might be interested to learn about the pride of Taiwan’s growing whisky scene at the King Car Kavalan Whisky Distillery. For a long time, Kavalan was the only Taiwanese whisky maker, and in 2015, its Solist Vinho Barrique was named the best in the world at the World Whiskies Awards. Named after the aboriginal Kavalan tribe, this distillery doesn’t believe in year denominations because the majorly contrasting climate in Taiwan (hot and wet, as opposed to cold and blustery in Scotland) allows the whisky to age and develop its body in as little as three years. The whisky is typically matured in toasted and re-charred American oak barrels that previously held red and white wines.
Where to Stay
Taiwanese people particularly prefer a comfortable — even considered slow — pace of life in contrast to the hurriedness of its East Asian neighbours, which is why the minsu culture here works particularly well. Translated to mean homestay or bed-and-breakfast, minsus come in all shapes and sizes, from the backpacker variety to the luxury minsus that are beginning to pop up in recent years: impeccably designed homes whereby you can expect five-star personalised attention from the host-owner.
The Taiwanese are often proud to support smaller homegrown businesses, and enjoy spending their days relaxing in a beautifully designed cafe, reading a book along with excellent tea, chatting with the hosts or absentmindedly stroking a pet cat. You’ll notice a dearth of major international hotel brands out here, and this is one of the reasons why. Instead of settling for one of the many three star hotels in town, you’ll want to choose from these spectacular properties, all easily booked through AirBnb:
Noosa Coast B&B
Named after the Australian beach, this minsu situated just outside Hualien city, 35.5km south on Highway 11, is easily one of the most striking properties along the coast. It boasts a distinct modern structure and style, as well as an uninterrupted view of the ocean. Owned by husband-and-wife duo Sam and Spring, there are only five rooms in this spacious hipster haven, each decorated with different themes, but all bearing a rustic elegance.
We adored the oceanfront loft apartment, with its double length windows allowing seamless ocean views on both floors; its bathroom equipped with Japanese bidet and Bliss Spa amenities; and its fireplace at the foot of the bed (electric, but a welcome luxury). Each morning you are fed an elaborate breakfast and fantastic coffee made by Sam and Spring themselves, who eagerly offer guests help with transportation and day trip recommendations.
Noosa Coast B&B, No.99, Jiqi, Fengbin Township, Hualien County 977, Taiwan, +886 0965 738655 / 038-711356, nightly rate from NT$7,800 (HK$2,052)
Deep in the forests of Yilan, a former publishing and circulation magnate in Taipei decided to build his own cultural paradise, a hidden gem that friends — what he calls all his guests — can stay, admire art, meditate and enjoy nature. Within the massive grounds are quirky, brutalist buildings of his own design. Scattered skylights cast varied light into each room depending on the time of day and the season, illuminating the owner’s vast collection of contemporary Taiwanese art, ranging from the clean lines of early career Ju Ming sculptures (now probably costing in the millions) to sleepy Bodhisattvas by Chen Shao Kuan, as well as antique furniture interplaying with modern beds and armchairs. In separate buildings are the owner’s dedicated art gallery, which plays host to support local artists and sells the work without commission, as well as the dining room where guests dine on menus designed by chefs at the Taipei Mandarin Oriental, with a real sturgeon aquarium animating the backdrop.
Yupeng Villa, No. 36-11, Erjie Road, Jiaoxi Township, Yilan County, 26291, Taiwan, +886 0392 20172, nightly rates from NT$5,800 (approx. HK$1,487)
As Yilan is relatively low-rise, if you wanted to see the entire city you’ll have to head upwards. Here at Stonbo Lodge, the city’s only infinity pool provides perhaps the best panoramic view over the entire bay. Rooms are fantastically spacious, with a few spreading over two floors, and feature a bathtub on the roof terrace. Opened by a retired Taipei university professor of entomology (the study of insects), biodiversity here is a massive talking point, with gorgeous blooms, birds and butterflies in the spring and summer. Here, the minsu is self-sustaining for the most part, growing all of its own produce and raising its own poultry and eggs for all the meals served. It may be a half-hour drive on a winding, one-way road up the mountain, but the owner, who calls himself Professor Stone (Shi), is happy to arrange pickups.
Stonbo Lodge, 65, 201 Alley, Wu Yingli Xian Road, Toucheng Township, Yilan County, +886 0975 830 870, nightly rates from NT$8,500 (approx. HK$2,179)
Getting around the east coast of Taiwan can be a challenge for non-Putonghua speakers, so you’ll want to show up having done your research. To start off easy, you could head to Taipei first. A simple matter, seeing as there are more than 37 flights to Taipei a day on average from Hong Kong alone, with Cathay Pacific and EVA Air being two of the most popular choices. From there, it’s a two-hour train ride to Hualien, or just one hour to Yilan. Minsu hosts also typically offer pickup at the train station for a small fee, or further away if you discuss with them beforehand.
There are also surprisingly comfortable, safe, and affordable buses that run between Taipei and Luodong, at the centre of Yilan, arriving in 50-80 minutes. Look for the Kamalan bus (about NT$129) — named after the Kavalan aboriginal tribe — at Taipei Bus Station or the Capital Star bus (about NT$120) at the Taipei City Hall Bus Station.
If you prefer flying direct, the only route at the moment is from Hong Kong to Hualien via a 75-minute HK Express flight, but their only return option makes for a harsh early morning start to catch the 8am flight — so we’d recommend you either start and end in Taipei, or begin your trip in Hualien and work your way up north.
People commonly rely on buses as public transport around here, but perhaps a more freeing and enjoyable way to travel the east coast of Taiwan is to rent a car, and some companies even allow you to drop off the car in Taipei. If driving isn’t an option for you, hiring a driver is your next best bet. Taxis are relatively easy to find in Yilan, but are harder to come by in Hualien, so you’ll want to ask your minsu host to pick you up or provide pointers, or even suggest a trusted taxi driver. Drivers typically offer full-day hires for as little as NT$2,000 (HK$500) for five hours. Many people remark that Taiwanese taxi drivers are some of the most cultured people in the world, willing to give plenty of local recommendations, and even offer their number in case you need a ride back to your accommodations late at night.