Taipei, Taiwan, is slightly reminiscent of Hong Kong, but to really discover this island country, I suggest you travel along the east coast.
To start your tour of Taiwan's natural beauty, take a three-hour train ride from Taipei to Jiaoxi. This humble town is known mainly for its mineral-rich hot springs (free to the public), but museums, orchid gardens, vast parks, hiking trails, farms, fresh bakeries and abundant seafood add up to an incredible experience.
Internet resources on what to do in this area are minimal, but we were fortunate enough to befriend our hotel owner, who volunteered to be our tour guide. In return, he hoped to determine what might attract more tourists to the region. I highly recommend a stay at his 12-room hotel, Over the Mountain Hotspring Club House. Our rate was just $65 a night. We felt hospitality from not just the hotel staff, but kind locals throughout town – despite our lack of Taiwanese or Mandarin.
Highlights of our trip included the Mary Leu Fine Art Carving Gallery, which houses amazing life-like sculptures made of wood, glass and gold. The Lion's Kingdom Museum hosts ancient sculptures of this Chinese icon and offers perfect views of the sea. But the ultimate way to get to know the region’s history is to stroll through the new Lanyang Museum, which reminds me of a spaceship that crashed where the ocean meets the green mountains.
If the gorgeous drive (or bike ride) to such places does not satisfy nature lovers, there are hiking trails in Taipingshan National Forest and Yanminshan. A walk through Mr. Brown Coffee's Orchid Greenhouse, then to the Lotus Garden, can be capped off by eating lotus tea cakes with refreshing lotus tea in their cozy tea lounge. Fushan Botanical Gardens is another must-see, but remember to make reservations ahead of time. Toucheng is a popular surfing area and although all the surf shops are closed during the winter season, Jiaoxi's humid summers definitely attract.
You can end each day with a hearty seafood meal in either independent or hotel restaurants. Another filling alternative is to visit small eateries that provide a quick meal. The food is laid out buffet-style; fill up your tray with whatever you decide on. This usually cost us up to $3 a person. For more exotic treats and inexpensive shopping, the Luodong Nightmarket is a 20-minute train ride away from Jiaoxi.
When trying to unwind from your day of discovering the area’s simple treasures, sit amongst the locals to soak your legs in the public Jiaoxi hot springs while listening to live jazz or guitar music.