清水断崖 or Clear Waters Deathly Cliffs, one of the attractions in Hualien Province. On a cloudless day, it is said that you can see a tritone Pacific Ocean.
Although this itinerary is based on an 17-day tour, you can cut out whatever you don’t like to do or see and shorten it. (Actually, we only went for 14 days.) For instance, if you don’t want to see Eastern Taiwan (which is less developed), then you can take a domestic flight from Hualien to, say, Tainan.
The truth is if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all; if you’ve seen a mountain, you’ve seen it all. What is interesting about Taiwan isn’t the scenery or the customs or even the food, it’s the people. Among the countries I’ve been, Taiwan is the only place that makes me feel like I’m home, it’s the only country I would contemplate to migrate, because of the people. Most are kind, open, generous, loving, passionate, civic minded, politically conscious, and we made many friends along the way. They offered to house us, drive us from city to city, and feed us. The truth is if you want to experience Taiwan, you have to live in Taiwan for years. 16 days is not enough.
Map Modified from Word Travels
Our itinerary includes Taipei=> Hualien=> Taroko Gorge=> Dulan=> Taitung=> Kenting=> Kaohsiung=> Tainan=> Alishan=> Sun Moon Lake=> Lukang=> Taichung=> Taipei (including day trips to Danshui and Keelung).
In total, including air tickets via Scoot (slightly more than S$700, cut-throat, almost twice the off-peak price), food, shopping and accommodations, we spent about S$2500-3000 each but we were very comfortable and spent freely. It can probably go down to S$2000.
Getting Around Taiwan: Internal Flights, Buses, Trains, Bicycles, Driving and Vehicle Hire
Imagine looking at a dragon from the top, that’s Taiwan’s terrain. Taiwan is a mountainous area with the alpines running through the country, dividing it into West and East Coasts. Many parts of Taiwan are still rural so the infrastructure isn’t fantastic. For instance, there are only three highways that cross West-East Coasts: Northern, Central and Southern Cross Highways (Highway #7, #8, #20 respectively) and these highways often close due to landslides and typhoons. In other words, if you want to travel between the West and East Coasts, you’ll either have to take an internal flight or go one big round around the island, or pray that the highways are open.
Decide on your transportation depending on your time and resources. For instance, it is much easier to hire a car but much more expensive. Buses are cheaper but trains are faster.
In addition to inadequate infrastructure, time and money, many of these websites are in Mandarin. Good luck.
Driving: Apply for an International Driving Permit at Automobile Association of Singapore, valid for a year. Car hire at NT$800-1500 for half day and NT$1500-2600 for full at Car Plus and Central Auto.
Trains: Taiwan Railway Administration offers various classes of trains along the West and East Coasts. The faster Taiwan High Speed Rail is more expensive and stops at only 8 stations along the West Coast.
TIP: Learn how to ride a scooter or at least a bicycle before touring Taiwan. Within the big cities (except for Taipei), there are no public transport and the easier way is to ride a bike. Many hotels provide free bicycles to tour the scenic vicinity.
Taroko Gorge in Hualien Province is both sublime and terrifying in its stillness.
Review of Scoot Airlines
Scoot flys at 1am from Singapore and reaches Taipei at around 6am. Great timing. You can tell the pilot is skillful, no bumps on the flight, smooth take-off and landing. We felt very safe. We thought they should provide pillow and blanket for this red-eye flight since we paid $700 each for a return ticket, not budget at all. At first, we thought the flight was packed and that’s why the price was exorbitant. But when we boarded, there were many empty seats. Why hike the price so much? Not cool, Scoot, not cool.
Suggested Itinerary Day 1: Taipei 台北 to Hualien 花莲
Hualien is good for scenery and hiking. When you arrive at Taipei Taoyuan airport, take a bus to Taipei main train station (about 45 minutes) and take a train from Taipei to Hualien, a journey of 3 hours. If you take Scoot and reach Taipei at 6am, you would reach Hualien station at around 9am. To the right of the station is the Visitor’s Centre. Go get maps and information. Don’t go to the hotel or min-su (homestay) yet; hire a taxi to go into town for breakfast first. (Remember to get the phone number of the taxi driver; there are no cabs roaming the streets.) You may keep your luggage at the station or bring it with you.
According to the locals and new friends we asked, they unanimously stated that there are three must-eats in Hualien: 公正包子 Gong Zheng Buns, 鹅肉先生 Mr Goose, and 扁食 wantons.
So for breakfast, go to the 24-hour 公正包子 Gong Zheng Buns (at the intersection of 中山路 Zhong Shan Road and 公正街 Gong Zheng Street). Just tell the driver the shop name: the town is very small. Order three things: 蒸饺 steamed dumplings, 小笼包 xiao long bao (or known as soup dumplings), and 红茶豆浆 red tea mixed with soya bean milk, which is very fragrant, refreshing and quenching, not at all queer.
While the skin is thick, the steamed dumplings, that come in a basket of 10 for only $30NT, are orgasmic and indubitably the best thing we ate in Taiwan, as if the meat within is foie gras, very buttery and flavorful.
Not the dainty 18-fold thin-skin xiao long bao, it is really a bun, at $5NT a piece, slightly smaller than a char siew bun. Like the steamed dumplings, the skin is slightly too thick but the fillings divine. We saw a local young woman ordering 10 at a go for herself. This shop is a definitely a must-go.
If you’re still hungry, resist the urge to eat from the neighboring shops. We tried a nondescript shop facing Gong Zheng Buns with its yuan zhu min (aboriginal) owner. We regretted.
Noodles & soup from the nondescript shop
Instead, you can call a cab (or walk 20-30minutes) along 中山路 Zhong Shan Road to 王记茶铺 Wang Ji Teahouse (花莲市中山路565号, or No. 565 Zhong Shan Road, T: +886-3-833-9388) for its beautiful, post-apocalyptic architecture which clashes with its Chinese interior. According to our new Hualien friend, whose name is Winnie the Pooh, this teahouse is known only to locals. The drinks cost about $90NT and the specialities are 末香奶茶 Jasmine milk tea and 金香奶茶 (osmanthus milk tea, I think). Besides these, we also tried blueberry milk tea, which is real blueberries blended freshly into tea. Not too bad.
王记茶铺 Wang Ji Teahouse
Now you can telephone your hotel to come pick you up and the check-in timing is about right. Book a homestay or hotel along the coast of 七星潭 Qi Xing Tan because there is nothing much in the city. Remember to pick your luggage along the way back to the hotel if you leave it at the train station.
We stayed at the mistranslated Hotel Bayview 七星潭度假饭店 (better translated as Where Seven Stars Align at the Bay Hotel), a 10-minute drive from the train station. Decorated in a (cheesy?) Mediterranean style throughout the hotel, the VIP Double Suite with Balcony room at $4800NT a night is cutthroat and tiny: a bedroom, a tiny corner that doubles up as a wardrobe and vanity room, a tiny sofa at the door, and an open-concept large bathroom with a jacuzzi. The sad thing about having a no-door bathroom is we (Wise Guy and Mr NGFL) are friends and this is a couple room. It was difficult when we wanted to shower.
Another reason for the cost, besides the large bathroom, is the splendid view from our balcony:
After you take a quick shower and energize with a short nap, take the late afternoon to cycle (free bicycles from the hotels) along the coast of 七星潭 Qi Xing Tan. You’ll need the exercise for the binging. At night, take a cab back to the city centre and try the second local recommendation, 鹅肉先生 Mr Goose at the intersection of 中山路 Zhong Shan Road and Ji Yue Street.
We tried several dishes, including the goose (of course), Shan Shu Cai (a Taiwanese vegetable) that is curls at the stalk, tung hoon, and soup. To be honest, the old kopitiam feel is charming but the food, while having a home-cooked feel, is nothing fantastic.
One of the must-eats in Taiwan is its fruits. Just beside 鹅肉先生 Mr Goose is a shop called 西瓜大王 King Watermelon. The watermelon milk shake gave me a feeling of bliss.
If you still want desserts, and want to try a hakka dish, salty dumplings–hakkas being the second largest demographics in Taiwan–go to 蔡家汤圆 Cai Family Dumplings (光复街37号, T: +886-3-832-5110) at the intersection of 中华路 Zhong Hua Road and 光复街 Guang Fu Street, a 15-minute walk from Mr Goose.
For sweet desserts, try 宗信五霸焦糖包心粉圆冰 Wu Ba (花莲市博爱街165号, T: +886-3-832-2929) at the intersection of 博爱街 Bo Ai Street and 中华路 Zhong Hua Road, next to the street of Cai Family dumplings. It is similar to ice kacang, a blanket of ice drench in caramel, condensed milk and cinnamon, covering a bed of adzuki beans, mung beans, soya bean curd, grass jelly and rather tough tapioca balls. At $45NT, large enough to share among four, we can’t say we like it.
Wu Ba Ice Kacang
If you want to buy local snacks back, 10seconds from Wu Ba, along 中华路 Zhong Hua Road is a row of shops. Recommendations: 花莲尚麻吉 (花莲市广东街96号, T:+886-3-834-0456, with chains around the city. Check the website) and 百年传奇 (花莲市中华路95号, T: +886-3-833-1088).
Alternatively, if you don’t want Mr Goose for dinner and you drive and want something local, try 爱知味无烟自助烧烤 Ai Zhi Wei Smokeless BBQ Buffet (花莲县吉安乡南滨路一段102号, No. 102, Nan Bin Road Section 1, Ji An Town, M-F: 4pm-1am, S & S: 12pm-1am, T: +886-3-852-8855, $300NT, additional $99NT for free flow beer). Our new Hualien friend, Winnie the Pooh, brought us here. They use charcoal and have delicious, fatty black pork belly. Very local but nothing special.
Day 2: Hualien 花莲 to Taroko Gorge 太鲁阁 to Hualien 花莲
The next morning, after a local breakfast of Taiwanese porridge at your hotel, take a day trip to Taroko Gorge, the #1 tourist attraction in Taiwan, but avoid weekends as it tends to be crowded. The Taroko Tribe, known for their hunting, weaving, facial tattoos, and headhunting (collecting the heads of enemies), inhabited the park 3,000 years ago. In 1896, there was a war between the Japanese and Taroko aborigines. In 1950s, Kuo Min Tang (KMT) made this the first cross-island highway and many road workers settled down here, marrying Taroko women, becoming farmers. But these days, Taroko Gorge is known for its hiking and cycling trails. For the sporty, buses run hourly from Hualien to park entrance hourly from 5.30am (NT$82). At the park, pick up the guide, The Trails of Taroko Gorge and Su-Hua Areas (NT$220), giving you useful trail maps that range from 2km to 10km to 75km.
Mr NGFL and I used to trek at MacRitchie (13km) and Bukit Timah Hill often but we stopped after Mr NGFL has a chronic back injury. So not the hiking sort, no problem. If your hotel has travel packages to Taroko, go for it. If not, check out Taiwan Tour Bus (NT$600 half day/NT$988 full). Note that the bus only stops at two locations and it won’t be fun with all the tourists around. When Hookerlily went to Taiwan, she took the Bus Tour and thought Taroko Gorge was over-rated. But Mr. NGFL and I enjoyed ourselves immensely here because we took a taxi so we could enjoy the Gorge properly, stop wherever we wanted and we needed someone to guide us to the places we should stop. Check with your hotel for taxi packages or check at the train station. Hotel Bayview has several packages and we took the one-day taxi package ($3500NT).
This is Mr. Lin, our A-mei tribe aboriginal handsome taxi driver who looks like Jacob from Twilight:
Taroko Gorge is all about walking: wear proper shoes. Ask your driver where some of the good spots are and make a decision where to go. It is impossible to finish everything in a day. We stopped at 清水断崖 Qing Shui Duan Ya (very first photo in this entry), Taroko Visitor Centre, 禅光寺 Chan Guang Temple, 布洛湾燕子口步道 Bu Luo Wan-Swallow Grotto, 天祥 Tian Xiang, and our last stop 白杨步道 Bai Yang Trail. For the last stop, you’ve a choice of Bai Yang Trail or 莲花池步道 Lotus Pond Trail but the hotspring at the end of the Lotus Trail has dried up. So we chose the more scenic Bai Yang.
At the end of Bai Yang Trail (2km, 40 minutes), there is 水帘洞, a cave leaking with water (pictured above). There are used disposable raincoats at the mouth of the cave so don’t worry about getting wet. You’ve to take off your shoes, so remember to bring towel or tissues to wipe your feet.
TIP: Like in all tourist destinations, the food at Taroko Gorge is ghastly and expensive. Pack a lunchbox or sandwiches for lunch.
After you’re finished with Taroko Gorge, ask your driver to drop you off to eat the third local recommendation, 扁食 wantons, for dinner. We wanted to go to highly recommended 液香扁食 Ye Xiang, at the intersection of 仁爱街 Ren Ai Street and 中华路 Zhong Hua Road. But according to Winnie the Pooh, the wantons are similar and bought us to 花莲香扁食 Hualien Xiang Pian Shi (花莲市中山路355号, No. 355 Zhong Shan Road, T: +886-3-833-6166).
While the skin is very smooth and the filling bouncy, these are merely very good wantons. Even though Mr Goose isn’t astounding, we can see why locals recommend it (because of the restaurant represents their everyday life) but we can’t see why this is a must-eat in Hualien. You can get wantons like these in Singapore.
But, of course, the wantons are just starters. After wantons, go to 自强夜市 Zi Qiang Night Market (from 5pm till late night) at the intersection of 自强路 Zi Qiang Road and 和平路 He Ping Road.
第一家烤肉串 is a must-eat at Zi Qiang Night Market. You select your food, they give you a number, and you can walk around the market first before collecting it. Winnie the Pooh said that on crowded nights, you have to wait for more than an hour. The skewered food is cooked in boiling broth and then dipped entirely in a sweet and slightly sauce, so that the food is savory and sweet. YUMMY.
Although the stalls are named “牛排” steak in general, they also see chicken chop and pork chop, similar to Singapore’s version of Western food stall. Winnie the Pooh stopped us at his favorite stall called 唐人街. Free flow of chowder and melon tea, although the chowder has too much condensed milk, too sweet for our liking. The steak comes with an egg, a custard bun (YUMMY!), and “pasta” in the form of Chinese egg noodles with a rather tough but pleasant texture. You can choose from 3 sauces to drizzle over your well marinated steak: we picked black pepper and mushroom. The deliciousness of the food outweighs the cost of about $100NT.
A third item we had was the very delicious 春卷 chun juan or known to Singaporeans as popiah. The differences lie in the skin (Taiwanese version is thick) and the fillings. Singapore’s version has a base of turnip while Taiwanese has no base and throw many ingredients, including braised tofu, vegetables, thinly sliced meat. There is a variety of sauces to choose from: seaweed, wasabi, etc. This stall’s chun juan had a queue and was very delicious. I liked it so much I finished an entire big fat roll on my own, leaving very little to Mr NGFL.
Winnie the Pooh also recommended the 法式棺材板 Guan Cai Ban (T: +886-3-835-5045) at Zi Qiang Market but I was quite stubborn. Since Guan Cai Ban (coffin board) originated from Tainan, I want to eat from Tainan.
Other places to Eat:
At the intersection of 林森路 Lin Sen Road and 新港街 Xin Gang Street, Truck Road (花莲市林森路359号, No. 359 Lin Sen Road, T:+886-3-833-0282, 1130am-10pm, close on Tue) is a 1950s American-styled diner, very quaint and pretty.
正老牌炸蛋葱油饼 Zheng Lao Pai Fried Egg Onion Pancake
102, Fu Xing Street
Other Place to Shop and for Entertainment:
花莲文化创意产业园区 Hualien Cultural and Creative Park (中华路144号，No. 144 Zhong Hua Road, T: +886-3-831-3777) takes over a 100 year-old building of an old beer brewery and has a magical aura of calmness. You can buy affordable local art and watch performances (many for free) here.
Continue the journey:
Suggested Itinerary Part 1(b): East Coast: Dulan and Taitung
Part 2: Southern Taiwan: Kenting, Kaohsiung & Tainan
Part 3: West Coast and Central Taiwan: Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Lukang & Taichung
Part 4: Northern Taiwan: In and Around Taipei
PS: A big thank you to our new Hualien friend, Winnie the Pooh, for bringing us around! xoxo.