Taipei and the North
- 1 Week
Start with four days in Taipei being awestruck by the National Palace Museum collection and sensorially overloaded at Longshan and Bao'an Temples, as well as shopping and snacking at night markets and local shops.
Activities around Taipei abound. If you like tea, take the gondola to mountainous Maokong and experience a traditional teahouse. For hot springs, historic Beitou is just an MRT ride away. Or spend an afternoon on a stinky tofu tour along the restored old street of Shenkeng. Then rent a bike and ride along the river paths in Taipei or hike the trails in Yangmingshan National Park or Wulai, a mountainous district with natural swimming pools.
On day five, bus further afield to the old mining towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi. The next day head to nearby Ruifang and catch the Pingxi Branch Rail Line down an 18km wooded gorge to photograph the old frontier villages and hike paths cut into steep crags.
On day seven round off the trip: head back up the coast, stopping at the bizarre rocks of Yeliu and renowned sculptures at Juming Museum. From Tamsui, a seaside town with beautiful colonial houses, the MRT takes you back to Taipei.
- 3 Weeks
Start with a few days in Taipei to see the sights and catch the groove of this dynamic Asian capital. It has the best Chinese art collection in the world, a thriving street-food and coffee scene, a living folk-art heritage, and some world-class cycling and hiking in Wulai and other on-the-doorstep locations.
Then hop on a train to Hualien and spend two days wandering the bedazzling marble-walled Taroko Gorge. More scenic delights await down Hwy 9, which runs through the lush Rift Valley. Take a train to Yuli and hike the nearby Walami Trail, an old patrol route running deep into subtropical rainforest, then recuperate at Antong Hot Springs. Next, head to Taitung and catch a flight or ferry to Lanyu, an enchanting tropical island with pristine coral reefs and a unique indigenous culture.
Back on the mainland, another train ride – across Taiwan's fertile southern tip – takes you to Kaohsiung, Taiwan's buzzing second-largest city, where the best of urban Taiwan mingles with southern hospitality. Check out the museums, spend half a day at the uplifting Pier-2 Art District, enjoy modern Taiwanese cooking at Do Right or Ban Jiushi, then follow up with a night of jazz at Marsalis Jazz Bar or the funky one-of-a-kind Beng Mi Pang.
Then for beaches or scootering along beautiful coastline, head down to Kenting National Park.
Continue by train up the coast to the old capital of Tainan for a couple of days of temple touring and snacking on local delicacies. If you like literature, don't miss the laudable Museum of Taiwanese Literature. Rent a vehicle for the drive up the winding Dongshan Coffee Road then spend the evening in rare mud hot springs in Guanziling. The following day continue up into the wild expanse of mountain ranges in the Alishan National Scenic Area. Hike around Tatajia in the shadow of Yushan, Taiwan's highest mountain.
The drive from Yushan to Sun Moon Lake the following morning passes some sublime high-mountain scenery and should be taken slowly. At the lake, stop to sample oolong tea and maybe catch a boat tour. Heading north, fans of traditional arts and crafts will enjoy the following day's stops in Lukang, home to master lantern, fan and tin craftspeople; Sanyi, Taiwan's woodcarving capital; and Yingge, a town devoted to ceramics.
A Cross-Island Tour
- 2 Weeks
Start your tour in Taichung, checking out the nation's top Museum of Fine Arts, then taking a walk in the beautiful and historic Taichung Park and the atmospheric Zhongxin Market nearby. After Taichung, your next stop is Chung Tai Chan Temple in Puli, an awe-inspiring centre of Buddhist art and research. After Puli the highway rises into the Central Mountains, where one gorgeous landscape after another begs to be photographed. For a side trip head to Aowanda National Forest Recreation Area, a top birdwatching venue, and spend a night in a little cabin among cherry and plum trees.
Returning to Hwy 14, continue to the end to find the Nenggao Cross-Island Trail. You can walk the whole thing or just hike in and spend a night in a cabin before heading north up Hwy 14甲. Prepare for an endless windy road and numerous washouts – and a stunning landscape of receding blue-tinged mountain ranges.
After Wuling Pass (3275m), the highest bit of road in Northeast Asia, stop in Hehuanshan Forest Recreation Area to photograph (and maybe stroll over) the treeless hills of Yushan cane. Then head up Hwy 8 to Hwy 7甲 and follow this north to Wuling Forest Recreation Area, an area of thick forests, high waterfalls and cool mountain streams, some of which are home to the endangered Formosan landlocked salmon. If you have a few days to spare, climb Snow Mountain, Taiwan's second-highest mountain.
Past Wuling the road winds down the mountains past indigenous villages, with their trademark churches and steeples, to the Lanyang River plains and one very large cabbage patch. From here it's a seamless connection with the North Cross-Island Hwy. First stop: Mingchih Forest Recreation Area and its nearby forest of ancient trees. More ancient trees can be found a couple of hours later at Lalashan, or you can continue on to enjoy stunning views of high forested mountains and rugged canyons. Stop for lunch at Fusing and then explore Chiang Kai-shek's legacy at nearby Cihu. At Daxi head north towards Sansia and stop to look at the masterful Tzushr Temple before connecting with National Fwy 3 to Taipei.
The East Coast Loop
- 2 Weeks
From Hualien, a low-key coastal town with good eating and seaside parks, it's a quick hop to Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's premier natural attraction. After a couple of days hiking, biking and marvelling at the marble walls, head up Hwy 11 to the Qingshui Cliffs, among the world's highest.
Return to Hualien and take Hwy 11 to Taitung. It's three days on a bike alongside some of Taiwan's best coastal scenery; otherwise, rent a car or scooter. Plan to stop often, but in particular at Shihtiping for seafood and jaw-dropping views, and Dulan, Taiwan's funkiest town, for an art scene centred on a reclaimed sugar factory, or for surfing when the waves are up. From Taitung, catch a ferry or flight to Green Island and/or Lanyu for a few days of snorkelling, hot springs and exploring the island culture of the indigenous Tao.
To head back north, take Hwy 11乙 west and connect with 東45 and later County Rd 197 for a scenic drive up the Beinan River valley, with the crumbling Liji Badlands on one side and the jagged cliffs of Little Huangshan on the other.
The 197 drops you off on Hwy 9, near Luye, a bucolic pineapple- and tea-growing region with a stunning plateau. Just north, connect with the South Cross-Island Hwy for some yodel-inducing high-mountain scenery, and the chance to hike to Lisong, a wild hot spring that cascades down a multicoloured cliff face.
For more scenic eye candy, stop at the organic rice fields of Loshan and the flower fields of Sixty Stone Mountain. Spend the night at Antong Hot Springs so you are fully rested for a cycle the next day out to historic Walami Trail, a Japanese-era patrol route.
Opportunities to indulge in local foods are numerous along this route – don't miss the indigenous Matai'an, a wetland area with some unique dishes. You'll be well fed for the final stretch back to Hualien, which you should do along quiet County Rd 193. For one last adventure, veer off before Hualien and ride up the wild Mugua River Gorge for a dip in a marble-walled natural swimming hole.