Taiwan may not be one of the biggest places found on your world map, but knowledgeable long-term foreign residents enthuse about the tremendous variation of its natural and people-created environments.
If you’re on the island and looking to get out of the city and explore a little, taking advantage of that free day or two, just about every tourist spot in the land is quickly accessible to you. Your answer is the Taiwan Tour Bus service (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw), run by bus-tour outfits vetted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. The firms handle everything, including insurance. Here’s a selected English-language tour sampler for you, with Taipei your launch point and pickup/drop-off at major hotels and public facilities such as Taipei Railway Station.
North – Wulai
A prime attraction for many foreign visitors is the cultures of Taiwan’s many indigenous peoples. Wulai, 30 minutes south of central Taipei, is the northernmost settlement of the Atayal, Taiwan’s northernmost tribe. Situated in a deep gorge, it is also a hot-spring resort. On this half-day tour, offered each afternoon by two firms, you take a ride on an old logging-industry mini-railway, see soaring Wulai Waterfall, and take in indigenous-culture displays and a song-and-dance performance.
Northeast – Jiufen and Jinguashi
There are both half-day and full-day tours to these two picturesque former mining towns clinging to high slopes off the coast, not far southeast of Keelung City. Jiufen’s heyday was the 1890s~1930s, and today its quaint, often steep streets are populated with tourist-oriented food-sellers, eateries, and teahouses. Jinguashi’s Gold Ecological Park is a history buff’s delight, where you can visit old Japanese-built heritage buildings and enjoy a mine-tunnel experience. This was also site of the infamous WW II Kinkaseki POW camp, where Allied soldiers were forced to work the mines.
Central – Sun Moon Lake
Taiwan’s vetted bus-tour enterprises offer so many options that not all are listed on the Taiwan Tour Bus website. What you do is go to their individual websites. For example, the main website lists a one-day outing to famed Sun Moon Lake in the central mountains, with Taichung City pickup, but go to the Edison Travel Service website (www.edison.com.tw) and you’ll see that all tours are in English, and it has a two-day Taipei-launch Sun Moon Lake excursion. You stay overnight at a lakeside hotel, visit such iconic attractions as imposing Wenwu Temple and Ci’en Pagoda, and ride the long, thrilling cable-car “ropeway” to nearby Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village.
East – Taroko Gorge
The Taiwan Tour Bus website lists a number of single-day excursions to fabulous Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s premier natural wonder. All the usual travel-writing superlatives – “magnificent,” “awe-inspiring,” “incredible” – are fully justified in describing this marvel, where 250-million-year-old marble-rich walls at times soar up a thousand feet along the main (lower) gorge, which stretches 19km. For the Taipei-launch tours you are flown to Hualien City, take a bus to/from the gorge, and come back via a picturesque coast-and-valley train ride, with bus drop-off. In the gorge, you visit such dramatic sites as the Eternal Spring Shrine, Swallow Grotto, and Tunnel of Nine Turns.
South – Kenting and Kaohsiung
Sunny Kenting National Park, sometimes characterized as Taiwan’s California/Big Sur, takes in much of the island’s south-tip peninsula. Kaohsiung, a history-rich harbour metropolis, is Taiwan’s second largest city. The Taiwan Tour Bus website offers a number of single-day Kenting tours starting on the peninsula (no English guide); on Edison’s site you’ll find a two-day Taipei-launch tour, during which you ride the island’s impressive High Speed Rail. Trip highlights include Kenting’s world-class biodiversity and the first-rate National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium.
A final note of advice: If possible, avoid weekend/holiday travel, when all tourist sites are markedly busier.