Our packed train is chugging slowly up the Alishan Forest Railway, straining under throngs of standing Chinese tourists, in order to catch the sunrise behind the 13,000-foot Yushan (Jade) Mountain opposite, the tallest peak in east Asia. It’s 5:20 AM and I rose two hours earlier – which must be a record for anything work related, at least outside an airport – along with most of the guests at the remote Alishan House. Catching the sunrise is one of the 139-room hotel’s key draws and there can’t be many properties that tick to such a nocturnal beat. Walking bleary eyed into the busy lobby, I thought someone had pressed the fire alarm.
The sunrise took all of 20 minutes and once it was up, we all ambled back to the station, but it was worth every fatigue-battling minute, watching such an unadulterated landscape bathed in soft pink, purple and blue light, misty clouds stretched out beneath disappearing mountains.
Alishan House general manager Victor Chang said it only had 51 percent occupancy last year, which is surprising given the alluring setting. But its average room rate is $180, rising to $250 and $400 in the new, more contemporary 104-room wing which opened three years ago. He says it’s planning to introduce classes to “relax your mind and body together” although most guests shouldn’t have too many problems on either front.
Sixteen hours after the sunrise, as our bus pulled into Kaohsiung in the southwest, the sun finally called it a day and the half moon also followed us from Alishan. The journey to and from Alishan was breathtakingly green (banana, tea and coffee plantations provide some variety to the forestry).
However it’s not quite as dramatic as the hairpin drive along Taroko Gorge, which I would put in the same class with the Grand Canyon as one of the world’s most natural sights. How the Taiwanese tunneled through the mountains is a feat every bit as impressive as the works of nature.
We pulled into Silks Place Taroko, a property which the PR material says can be ‘conveniently’ reached by car, rail and air but it’s really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by more green peaks. A shuttle service to Hualien Airport is provided by the hotel (for an additional fee) and altogether takes about an hour.
The hotel’s subtle design is offset by beguiling interiors that comfortably accommodate a large indoor pool and multi-faceted children’s area, and the Retreat Lounge offers up gentle music and stunning gorge views. It seems wrong to even think of work in such an idyllic setting but if you must, you can access the Zhongshan ballroom (two rooms which, when combined, come to around 5,400 square feet) and five meeting rooms.
I tried to recollect a more striking outdoor space than the Fire Place terrace. Seven room categories are available and affluent travelers may decide to spring for the luxury five-figure Gorge View and Generalissimo suites.
These rural excursions were undoubted stand-out highlights from our week-long trip although I must confess within 24 hours of entering Taiwan, most of my senses were already in freefall.
The opening night buffet at the Regent Taipei was a culinary showcase serving every imaginable Asian cuisine (ditto the breakfast) and my chunky room key was a refreshing throwback to pre-digital times. My 14th floor room had a view of the landmark Taipei 101 with its apex illuminated light green at night.
Not that it’s really worth dwelling on the outside – the joy is traveling up and down inside in an ear-popping 48 seconds and gazing out from the 1,670-foot-high building. Time your ascent at sunset for the best terrace views but be prepared for queues, particularly coming down.
We drove a short distance out of the city to Yangmingshan National Park (one of nine countrywide) where I lost count of the butterflies and dragonflies, unquestionably the largest and most colorful I’ve ever seen, and heard insects trying to out-sing each other. Later that evening, we ate dinner in the wonderful Marshal Zen Garden – where the influential military leader Marshal Zhang Xueliang was confined to house arrest for 26 years following the Chinese Civil War.
In between, we visited the Spring City Resort, which has pools to cure every ailment. The relaxation pool is lined by papaya and mango trees, while the uppermost part of the tree opposite is laden with lemons, and at the far end more fulsome papayas defy gravity.
Relaxing with us at Spring City Resort, I spotted two British men and a boy – one of the few times in the week when I saw guests who weren’t from Asia. At Alishan, my eyes were torn between the mesmerizing scenery and innumerable busloads of Chinese tourists.
Taiwan’s proximity to its superpower neighbor underlines the strength and challenges of its tourism potential, and if all the forecasts on China’s growing tourism come to fruition one wonders how this relatively small island nation will cope. Eric Lin, director of Tourism Taiwan’s international affairs division, said its top five tourism markets are China (3.85 million), Japan (1.63 million), Hong Kong (1.37 million), the US (550,000) and Korea (520,000).
The 320-room Taipei Marriott received its first guests in August 2015 and visiting business travelers shouldn’t have too many problems finding it as it’s near the Ferris Wheel.
Guest floors are located on the sixth to 18th floors and the hotel is positioning itself as the largest MICE hotel in the city with its 32,000-square-foot convention center, capable of hosting up to 1,500 people. Attendees can communicate during meetings through Red Coat Direct, which includes live chat.
The 36th floor meeting area provides panoramic city views. Five F&B venues are available including a Teppanyaki venue on the second floor, American-style bar and grill on the 20th facing Taipei 101 and a specialty whisky bar.
The hotel marks Marriott International’s first property in Taiwan with six more hotels earmarked to open in the next two years. The Courtyard by Marriott Taipei was opened in December near the Nangang Exhibition Centre.
During our two nights in the city we stayed at the Regent Taipei and Palais de Chine (member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts), both of which are comfortable for executives. The latter has a better location, next to the City Mall and train station, although the former, with its grand entrance and upscale boutiques, is on a larger scale and opposite reception the ‘celebrity wall’ which marks its 25th anniversary is testament to its pulling power.
Our guide recommended Quote Hotel, Taipei Suites, W Taipei and corporate-friendly options Le Méridien and Grand Hyatt near 101 tower. For a rural retreat, she highlighted Mudanwan Villa, where detached villas sit on Toumu Lake’s shores (mudanwanvilla.com.tw).
We caught the high-speed rail to Chiayi before driving onto Alishan, and from Kaohsiung back to Taipei, and in both instances the journey was so smooth I barely knew I was traveling.
With generous reclines, more than your standard economy seat, it’s about as comfortable as rail travel can be, and the trolley coffee was fresh and cheap. Electronic signs are in Chinese and English, and when we were told the train would arrive at the next station at 19 minutes past, it did. The litter-free stations were immaculate.
The only surprise omissions were the lack of any plugs or USB sockets – probably because the journeys are so quick – although I did make use of one of the free charging units at the stations.
They would be welcome, not least because mobile digital devices are ubiquitous; from the hordes unwinding on the rocky Hualien beach, to the passengers on the trains, to the scooter drivers near Taipei 101, some of whom use the down time at the traffic lights to click and scroll. On our last night two women behind us in a bar sat silently staring into their phones for half an hour, presumably communicating to someone, if not each other.
Artistic Flair & Fab Flavors
We were only in Kaohsiung a day but it seemed a charming mismatch, the industrial outskirts giving way to wide tree-lined streets and Love River in the city center, which ran past our base at the Ambassador Hotel. We made a pit stop at the Pier-2 Art Centre, where abandoned dockside warehouses have been converted into vibrant art spaces. Here, old containers have been imaginatively repurposed, giving them a new lease on life.9
One of the joys of visiting Taiwan is the sheer variety of the food in settings, from humble street stalls to swanky five-star restaurants. Fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood are abundant and local delicacies include stinky tofu, oyster omelets, stewed beef noodle soup and xiao long bao (steamed soup dumpling).
My favorite lunch was at Alishan, high up in dense cloud-covered forests, where our banquet included crunchy vegetables picked from the plantation. Back in the city, you’ll never go hungry; there appears to be a 7-Eleven on every corner and our last meal, in the shadow of 101, was delicious dumpling-stacked takeout from Din Tai Fung, rated fourth-best restaurant in the city on TripAdvisor.