Sitting pretty as one of Asia’s best-kept travel secrets, the spicy, scenic island of Taiwan makes a habit of smashing visitor preconceptions. Outsiders tend to see it as somewhere notable only for its technological prowess, an image consistently reinforced by the global prominence of ‘Made in Taiwan’ stickers. The fuller picture, however, is a destination that serves up awe-inspiring panoramas, a rainbow of different cultures and a startlingly rich history.
Alongside night markets, cycle trails and hot springs, there are gleaming skyscrapers, hulking mountains and sparkling lakes. When you factor in the manageable size of the island, which tops out at less than half the size of Scotland, the appeal becomes even more significant.
Taiwan is one of the few places on earth where ancient religious and cultural practices still thrive in an overwhelmingly modernist landscape. This juxtaposition is expressed most clearly in Taipei, where futuristic marvels like Taipei 101 – still the second-largest building in the world – share the city with thronged, incense-fogged temples. The sharp contrast between old and new is apparent elsewhere too, with the corridor of factories and cities on the west coast offset by the indigenous communities that still form an integral part of day-to-day life.
The mix of different influences that makes up modern Taiwan is also neatly showcased by the island’s cuisine – a lip-smacking blend of Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal fare. Like many aspects of life here though, its full context only becomes really apparent when you look at the island’s history. Japan ruled for five decades, following which – in 1949 – supporters and soldiers of the Chinese Nationalist Party fled here after being defeated by the forces of Chairman Mao in the Chinese Civil War. To this day, Taiwan remains a product of this period – a maverick state still viewed with uneasiness by Beijing.
But history buff or no history buff, there’s much to enjoy here for the casual traveller. In general terms it’s a safe, hospitable destination, free of much of the overwhelming scale that can make China itself daunting for some tourists. That’s not to say Taiwan lacks the potential for independent adventure, of course – far from it – but in many ways it’s a more straightforward travel prospect than the mainland.
In former times, Taiwan was known as Formosa, a word derived from the Portuguese for “beautiful island”, and it’s a sobriquet that still seems apt. Away from the sleek towers and pulsing neon of the cities, it’s the valleys, lakes and gorges of the countryside that tend to leave the greatest impression. The fact that comparatively few leisure tourists make it to Taiwan in the first place is more to do with a lack of awareness than a lack of things to do – hikers, cyclists, divers, surfers, pilgrims, gourmands and luxury-lovers will all find a little slice of heaven here. True, a location bang on the Tropic of Cancer means the weather can be changeable, but even when the brollies are up, this is an absorbing place to visit.