Taiwan: Why Taipei is a dazzling assault on the senses

There's plenty to see, do and eat in Taiwan, discovers Ed Cumming

The plane’s not for nine hours, we say to ourselves around midnight on our last night in Taipei. Plenty of time for a cocktail. We’ve already stuffed our faces with food, passing down the length of Raohe night market, browsing at the stalls like bumblebees at a garden centre. 

The neon lights dazzle in the photos but it’s the smell that gets you when you’re here – that’s when you really know you’re in Taipei. The yeasty, changing-room tang of stinky tofu, simmering fish hotspots and steam from chicken fried in red chilli sauce. Among other things, we’ve eaten juice-filled dumplings, piquant beef noodles, kiln-blackened pork buns, tapioca ‘frogspawn’ and deep-fried sweet potato balls – and now we want a drink. 

Through the magic of Instagram we’ve discovered that a friend is in Taipei and we’ve met up with him. He‘s the kind of man who has a list of bars for every world city. We start in Bar Mood. It is pitch black inside, except for a couple of bright studio lights. Even by the standards of fashionable cocktail bars, it is unusually noirish. 

We step gingerly across the threshold and are beckoned forward by a blonde American behind the bar. She introduces herself as Beckaly Franks, and she’s in town doing a guest residence from her usual bar, The Pontiac, in Hong Kong. 

“We’ve had a power cut,” she explains, as she mixes an impeccable Hobnail, “but we’re not letting that stop us.” Soon our plane is not for seven hours, then six. We stumble down the road to Wa-Shu, a bar where they infuse their own spirits, and suddenly the flight is not for five hours, four... (you get the idea). 

Taiwan is not the first place most Brits think of for a holiday in Asia. If you’re flying that far, the best part of 20 hours all-in, why would you not go to Phuket, or Ubud, or any of a dozen places better established in the tourist mind? Seen from this distance, Taiwan’s complicated politics can obscure some of its other qualities. Its history has been written by a series of invaders: the Dutch, Chinese mainlanders and, for 60 years until the end of the Second World War, the Japanese. Since political nationalist party KMT fled here and took over after being defeated by Chairman Mao, it has been a political football between China and the US. 

Yet look beyond that and this is a dark-green jewel of a destination, a distillation of many of the mainland’s qualities without some of its downsides. Taiwan is beautiful, clean and rich in culture, with a warm yet lush climate. It has abundant wildlife, incredible food and almost everyone speaks English. Plus, Brits don’t require a visa for visits of up to 90 days. 

Think of it as a kind of boutique China, and you’re not too far off the mark. Taipei itself is a thoroughly modern city nestled at the foot of emerald hills, more like Hong Kong or Rio than Beijing. It is intense without being exhausting. 

Double-decker motorways snake between the bright green peaks, ferrying thousands of cars in a surprisingly orderly fashion. We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, a large, gorgeous hotel (see box, left). It is deemed by many as the best in the country, with a fabulous bar, a superlative spa and a pool to which you could happily hand over a week of your life. Yet you shouldn’t. 

There is plenty to explore, not least the Dihua Street area down towards the river, the oldest part of the city, where the streets are narrower, and coffee shops and bars rub shoulders with more traditional premises. 

For once the national museum is worthy of the name. When the KMT fled Beijing, they removed many valuable treasures from the Forbidden City to Taipei. The two most precious items are a piece of jade carved to resemble a cabbage, and a stone that looks like a pork belly. 

If that suggests a people that thinks with its stomach, you’d be right. The history of invasion has given Taiwan a unique mix of cuisines. Noodles, chicken, beef, fish; all these are important, but nothing like the crucial xiao long bao, the dumplings that are a national obsession. Usually they are filled with meat and stock, and the method of consumption is almost a work of art. The lid must be bitten off, the soup slurped out, and the rest of the dumpling gobbled down. Everyone you talk to has a favourite, but the undisputed king is din tai fung, a small chain that began in Taiwan and has now spread throughout Asia. The owner tells us the secret is the precision of the measurements. For customers, the secret is to order as much of the menu as you can. 

In the hills outside the city, we visit the Beitou Hot Springs. Villa 32 is an exquisite, Japanese-influenced resort, made mostly of Chinese cypress and part of the nearly infallible Relais & Chateaux group. There are a few rooms, but the main attraction is a plush public spa, comprising a series of pools in a tranquil garden. Clothes are verboten, but once one overcomes one’s British reserve, the hot sulphurous waters begin to work their magic. 

These highlights only skim the surface of what Taiwan has to offer. The west coast has enviable beaches, popular with surfers. On the east coast, cliffs plummet in to the ocean. There are pretty, colourful towns, waterfalls, gardens and temples. 

As all birders know, a large offshore island is perfect for rare and varied species. The nine national parks on the island, like Taroko and Yangmingshan and Yushan, offer hikes where you can see blue magpies, yuhinas, whistling thrushes, barbets and dozens of other species. 

Perhaps, on that boozy final night, as we stumbled through the tree‐lined boulevards, we wanted to miss the plane. There was so much more left to do. 

BOOK IT: Regent Holidays offers an eight- night trip to Taiwan including four nights at the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei, two nights at Silks Place, Taroko, and two nights at The Lalu on Sun Moon Lake, plus a seven-day tour with a private guide and car including entrance fees and activities. The trip leads in at £2,695, excluding flights. regent-holidays.co.uk