Taiwan is dubbed the Heart of Asia, yet it has more in common with Pacific Islands than you might expect. This starts with the fact that it is, in fact, a Pacific island. Anchored between Japan and the Philippines and dissected by the Tropic of Cancer, it’s subtropical, volcanic, warm watered, palm tree-lined and fringed with reefs and beaches.
It’s so lush in November it looks like nature has taken control. Wild flowers bloom by the roadside, grass shoots through cracks in the footpath, betel nut palms dance wildly in the wind. I expected crowded cities grimly churning out plastic toys, running shoes and smog. Not this.
I spoon out the last of my sticky brain food and focus on the unfamiliar sea. The tide is dropping and the swell appears to be building. I rouse my driver and we set off on the coastal road north. Highway 11 hugs the seafront, affording endless panoramas and easy surf checks. We wind through small fishing towns, past perpendicular sea cliffs and stop to assess conditions and talk to locals who are all friendly and obliging. Two Taiwanese surfers make me feel instantly at home when they introduce themselves with their anglicised names, Shane and Brett. They tell me about the recent typhoon that up-ended the ocean floor, flattened sections of coast and dished up their ideal waves.
We drive into the early afternoon and the search for swell morphs into a quest for food. It’s my third day on the island and already a glorious pattern is forming: surf, food, coffee, surf and more food. Meals are always varied, delicious and emphatically Asian. What many might lump together as Chinese food is divided into regional variants: Fujian seafood cooked in red wine and spices, sweet and sour flavours from Canton and spicy marinades from Sichuan. Then there’s Japanese, Korean and Indonesian, plus a plethora of other world food on offer.
Eating out is popular in Taiwan, and the variety and quality of options is astonishing. Fist-sized pork mince wontons have become a post-surf favourite, but today my guide has something special in mind. We book a table at a highly regarded aboriginal restaurant near the tiny village of Fengbin. Gnarled driftwood and local art decorate the building. There is no menu and little service – only supreme confidence in the food. The chef dishes up what has been caught or harvested that day. And out it comes – 11 courses in total – all of it fresh, delicately flavoured and presented like crisp origami. It’s the sort of two-hour degustation you might expect in a major city, but not among the fishing boats, guesthouses and surf breaks of Taiwan’s sparsely populated east coast.
The island’s indigenous people are not just accomplished foodies but also descendants of Austronesian peoples with genetic ties to Oceania, Indonesia and faraway Madagascar. Celebrating indigenous culture – via restaurants, galleries, markets and music performances – has become a subtle way for the Taiwanese to underscore their national identity and highlight the ways the island differs from China.
Taiwan’s relationship with the world’s biggest populace is complex, but you get a bit of an insight when you scope a map of Taiwan and notice that all of China is included on the page. In fact, Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, which is not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China. It’s an intricate and ongoing historical chapter, best discussed over an 11-course seafood feast.
The short explanation is that after the communists defeated the KMT (China’s National People’s Party) in 1949, two million of its followers fled to Taiwan and attempted to rule from there. Members of the KMT allegedly grabbed as much valuable art as they could when they fled the mainland. Taiwan is now home to one of the greatest repositories of classical Chinese art, with antiques that date back more than 8000 years housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. In fact, following China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, which saw the destruction of art and literature, aspects of Taiwan appear as a living museum of traditional Chinese art, culture and religion.
The days slide by blissfully, full of more waves, scenery, food and astonishing discoveries. I nibble on a deep-fried duck’s head from a street stall. I drink hot water and cold tea. I watch a band play the blues on homemade driftwood guitars. I visit a quirky roadside attraction where water seems to run uphill and another that marks the Tropic of Cancer with what appears to be a giant clothes peg. I consider, but eventually decline, the virtues of cupping – a popular alternative therapy involving hot cups, round welts and considerable discomfort. My three phrases of Mandarin get a daily workout and a generous reception. The Taiwanese reputation for geniality is confirmed over and over again and I wonder why I haven’t visited earlier.
On a rain-pattered day we travel into the East Rift Valley, a fertile rice-growing region sandwiched between coastal mountains and the taller central peaks, passing pelotons of Lycra-clad cyclists along the way. Pedal power is becoming popular in Taiwan and touring is, I’m assured, a brilliant way to see and experience the country. Dedicated cycle paths are springing up and I hear of plans to link the whole country via a 5000-kilometre bike route. Already, Taipei City has a public bike-hiring network, YouBike, for tourists and locals alike. It’s part of a broader push towards healthy sustainable tourism.
For the less active, hot air ballooning and paragliding are big in the summer months, from June to August. Inland, the scenery is even more vertiginous and lush than by the sea. The Taiwanese themselves have only recently grasped the full extent of the country’s natural bounty. A hugely influential nature documentary featuring stunning aerial photography, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, released in 2013, was the first time most locals had seen their own country from such a breathtaking angle. It opened their eyes to the full majesty of Taiwan’s wild places and encouraged an interest in protecting them.
It begins to dawn on me that I’ve only seen a fraction of what Taiwan has to offer. For a country half the half the size of Tasmania, it squeezes in an incredible number of mountains. More than 200 of them measure more than 3000-metres high, including Mount Jade, the tallest peak in Northeast Asia. Then there are the islands, the cities and the stunning southern coast.
On another sightseeing afternoon I meet a family of Formosan rock monkeys at a roadside lookout. Knowing their reputation for theft and low-grade assault I approach with caution. But even the local primates are unfailingly polite. Photos are taken and significant eye contact engaged without incident. Inspired, we make plans to drive further north the following day to explore more of the East Rift Valley, but then something intervenes.
Something ominous and, dare I say, wonderful. A typhoon. It is a small storm, spiralling far out to sea, but it produces a welcome uptick in the surf. After a hurried breakfast we hoon up the coast full of coffee and good cheer, seeing waves everywhere, although never sure if there will be an even better one around the next bend. An international competition, the Taiwan Open of Surfing, is in full swing near Taitung but I’m in no mood for spectating. We push on and find a dreamy break that runs the length of a palm-lined point. Incredibly, there is only one surfer out. I join him then two French girls join us.
The sun peers out from a cloud bank and Taiwan steams and glows. We trade waves and stories, and I paddle slowly, savouring the view and the moment. Afterwards, a friendly local shows me some footage of the same break on an A-grade day. “Number one wave in Taiwan,” he tells me proudly. I surf elsewhere in the afternoon, the only westerner among 20 grinning locals, as the swell peaks and the wind eases. That night, we dine in a swish Japanese restaurant, clinking glasses of tasty craft beer and I lose count of my lucky stars.
I’m in no position to make this claim, but I suspect now is a good time to visit Taiwan. For surfers, the waves are still mostly uncrowded, yet there’s enough infrastructure to find them. You can engage a surf guide or stay in a surf resort or guesthouse that hires out boards. The waves may not often be world-class but they are super fun and well-suited to beginners and intermediates.
Likewise, for non-surfers, Taiwan is at a happy historical junction where traditional culture is still vibrant but proper coffee is easy to find. In fact, my guide tells me that a dream among members of her generation is to run a cafe. She takes me to one in Taitung that would make a Melbourne coffee snob flush with excitement.
My final day is spent immersed in a communal hot spring, sipping ginger tea in a misty valley near Zhiben. The effects of the minerals and volcanic heat produce a feeling of immense relaxation. The head clears, stress melts off the shoulders and the mind is receptive to uncluttered contemplation. It would be the perfect treatment for a devoted office worker who has just put in another 60-hour week. And for a fella who has spent the past seven days surfing, sightseeing and digesting, it is heaven itself.
AirAsia flies from Australian cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Taipei via Kuala Lumpur. From Taipei the quickest way to reach Taitung is via a flight with Mandarin Airlines.
Taiwan’s east coast is relatively unpopulated but its two small cities, Taitung and Hualien, both make good bases, especially if you want to dine out. Luxury hotels will set you back about AU$250 a night, while a dorm in a family-run guesthouse will cost AU$20 per night.
When it comes to surf, numerous guesthouses rent out boards or you can stay in a dedicated surf resort and utilise the experience of a local guide.