Thursday, October 04, 2018

One week in Taiwan in autumn: Where to go

A friend who lives in Singapore recently wrote me, asking about places to visit in Taiwan to see fall foliage and good beaches.

The question about foliage was interesting. I lived in Taiwan for 6 years and don't recall autumn scenes, other than some yellowing leaves on a few types of trees in the parks and hillsides near Taipei. Most of the island remains green throughout the winter, at least at the lower altitudes.

I did a little Internet research and found that there are a few places on Taiwan to see autumn foliage. Can it compare with what I'm used to, here in New England? Probably not. But where Taiwan excels in natural scenery is in the mountains, which cover 50% of the island.

Over the summer, I took my son to Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) in eastern Taiwan and the first 25 kilometers of the South Cross Island highway in the southeast, which follows another massive gorge deep into Taiwan's interior. They are quite amazing -- possibly two of the most spectacular roads outside of the Himalayas or southwest China. Here's a brief clip from our drive through Taroko:

Another area which is spectacular and has lots of hiking areas is Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County. I used to like to go up to Hehuanshan (合歡山), too, for hiking and scenery, which includes the "sea of clouds" phenomenon. The advantage of going to these areas in the fall is there are fewer tourists, the air is drier, and there are probably opportunities to see some foliage, especially at the higher altitudes.

As for beaches, unfortunately the once-sleepy beach town of Kenting in the southwest has been totally overrun by commercial development in the past 20 years, including hotels somehow cordoning off sections of the beach for private use, even though it's within the grounds of a national seashore. However, this summer when I drove down to the southeast there were many beaches between the industrial city of Hualian (you can rent a car right outside the train station) and Taitung in the southeast, about a three hour drive along route 11. The ones close to Taitung are rocky, but the small towns and cities on the coast further north from Taitung are sandy and look deserted for the most part ... which is good if you like deserted beaches but not so good in terms of a lack of lodging and infrastructure for tourists (there might be some B&Bs, though).

There are alternatives to beaches which I think would make a fun fall vacation in Taiwan. B&Bs in the countryside around Ilan County are easy to get to from Taipei and are quite striking. I stayed in one about ten years ago right in the middle of the rice fields, and you can do things like rent bikes, go to local town markets, etc. There are also similar B&Bs in the rift valley north of Taitung. The scenery there is really beautiful with many Taiwanese and Aboriginal farming communities and mountains on either side. It's possible to rent bikes and travel these roads and lanes, and I think in the fall it would be really nice as the temps are moderate and the air is dry. Here's a clip of the tea harvest in early August in the rift valley:

Bottom line: If you only have a week in Taiwan in the fall, I would recommend going to Hualien, renting a car, driving to Taroko Gorge where there are some hiking opps of varying difficulty and you can stay in Tianhsiang (or Tianxiang) about 25km up the gorge. After a few days, drive back down the gorge and head south on Route 11 in the direction of Taitung, finding some B&B to stay at near the beach, and exploring around by car or bike. You can also do the return trip to Hualian via the rift valley mentioned earlier. Taroko is one of the natural and man-made wonders of the world -- there's nothing quite like it that I am aware of outside of remote parts of China or India or Nepal, and it's something adventurous travelers should try to see once in their lives.

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