Magic (Tai)wand
Ching M. Alano (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – I’ve always wanted to go to Taiwan mainly because most of my family and friends have gone there again and again and again, never running out of something new to share from each visit. I ask, “Don’t you ever get tired of Taiwan?” And invariably, I get this reply, “No way, Juan!” So, I tell myself that someday, I, too, will discover its magic, with a flash of a (Tai)wand!

That someday came a few weeks ago, on a familiarization trip sponsored by Taiwan Tourism Bureau through Edison Tours, a leading tour operator in Taiwan, and Destinations Unlimited, Edison Tours’ sales representative in the Philippines.  And here’s a quick peek at some of the one thousand and one reasons why Taiwan’s the one for me — and maybe for you, too.

The flight is right. It takes only two hours (enough time to finish a movie you’ve always wanted see but never had time for) to fly from Manila to Taipei. We take a 10:35 a.m. Wednesday flight via China Airlines and I enjoy a much-needed catnap and a light lunch of sweet and sour fish (which I finish to the last morsel), which is but a sneak preview of the busy eat-inerary ahead of us.

We land in Taipei at half past 12, and eat lunch again. Hey, when in Taiwan, you don’t need an excuse to eat. From the night market to fine dining food offerings, you can say, “Eat’s incredible!” in Taiwan. They say that travel broadens your horizons. In Taiwan, you can just as easily broaden your waistline, so you’d better watch out!

No-fuss, fastest elevator ride. Where in the world can you ride an elevator that takes you for a spin from the ground floor to the 89th floor in a matter of seconds? Or 1.01 km. per  minute, says Jun Tsao, founding chairman/president of the Association of Taiwan Bridge Travel Services. (Amazing, isn’t it? Sadly, some elevators in Manila don’t even work!) Of course, I’m talking about Taipei Tower 101, Taipei’s international financial center, that’s now the second tallest building in the world at 509 m. high (1,670 ft.), dislodged from its former top spot by the Burj Dubai Khalifa Tower that’s 829 m. high (2,722 ft.). Talk about tall tales! The observation deck on the 89th floor gives you a sweeping, breathtaking view of Taipei’s concrete jungle. Today, being our lucky day, so says our solicitous guide Tony Kao, we’re part of the select few allowed to go as far up as the 101st floor of Tower 101, where we get a different kind of high.

Tower 101 is the world’s tallest green building and named by CNN as one of the top 10 destinations to welcome New Year.

Tea and cake, anyone? After checking out of your hotel in Taipei, you may want to get out of Taipei and enjoy a different kind of air. There’s Taichung (literally Central Taiwan) where you can spend sometime at the National Taichung Theater or have fine tea and pineapple cake at Miyahara where assorted goodies in lovely book cases creatively line book shelves. It boasts some fine red bean cakes, handmade cookies, walnut red date paste cakes, and Valrhona with orange nougats, too. And as you walk out of this quaint store, you leave with this food for thought: Live mindfully, laugh often, seek balance, choose happiness, today matters.

Oh, yes, don’t forget to check out the Chimei Museum (one of many museums in Taiwan), that’s now located at the Tainan Metropolitan Park. There you’ll find a variety of collections such as musical instruments (guests are treated to an exhilarating video orchestra concert), arms and armour, natural science specimens, among others.

Live and love in Kaohsiung. Located in southern-western Taiwan is its biggest city Kaohsiung. It’s a port city famous for its phantasmagoric mountain view and sunset that draws lovers from near and far. “The gondola ride around the coast is very romantic, especially at night,” says our guide Tony with a twinkle in his eyes. Tony, a retired air force major who was sent to the US, confesses he loves tour guiding Filipinos and is a frequent visitor to Cebu (where he left his heart, so we tease him).

When in Kaohsiung, have your fill of authentic Hakka food such as pork knuckle, stewed winter melon, and stewed cabbage.

Looking for a place to stay in Kaohsiung? Try the cozy Mingli Hotel at Tse-Chiang 3rd Road, Kaohsiung.

Dream gems. Something that promises to put a sparkle in women’s eyes is a visit to the Chii Lih Coral Museum and its shops, such as the one located at the luxurious Chii Lih Resort on Chung-Hua Road, Taitung. Here you’ll find the world’s tallest gemstone coral (measuring 131 cm. wide and 141 cm. high) hauled from 200 m. below the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Taiwan.  As gemstone corals take 10 years to grow one centimeter, this coral tree is surely one of Taiwan’s most prized treasures.

Wow, Hualien! As soon as we get to Hualien on Taiwan’s mountainous eastern coast, we find ourselves screaming for ice cream on a visit to the Kuang-Fu sugar refinery. We each shell out some loose change for a precious cup of some truly yummy Taiwan ice cream that’s light and not-too-sweet. After that refreshing break, we proceed to Taroko, which, says the Magistrate of Hualien City Fu Kun-Chi, is “a wonder of a place.” We totally agree! “Invite your family and friends to this friendly city with beautiful mountains and sea,” he welcomes guests, with his lovely wife joining him later.

Haulien has some of the best natural attractions in Taiwan. Asked about the secret to her youthful, flawless skin, the magistrate’s 48-year-old wife Chen-Wei Hsu, who’s a legislator, reveals it’s the clean air and sweet water of Hualien. Surely, fresh air and fresh fruits (watermelons are aplenty in summer) add to the many wows of Hualien.

Some of the best things in life are free in Hualien, like free education and free buses for the elderly. Hualien also plays host to marathon, biking, rafting competitions as well as the biggest aboriginal festival in Taiwan.

So, what natural attractions can you see in Hualien? If you visit the Taroko National Park, you’ll see the Eternal Spring Shrine and the Swallow Grotto — and be eternally in awe!

Don’t leave Hualien without trying the native cuisine at Leader Village Taroko.

Morning express to Taipei. We catch the 7:33 a.m. Puyuma Express back for Taipei from Hualien (that’s only a little over a hour; it’s four to five hours via dizzying zigzag roads by bus, which can be an adventure for the stouthearted). From the railway station, we plunge headlong into a city tour of Taipei, which includes the Northern Gate, Red Castle, and Di-Hua Old Street. We catch people getting a massage on the street, with the masseur using what looks like a butcher’s knife to work on the back of the client.  At a place of worship, we catch people making offerings. But before you enter, you have to drink the “blessed tea,” made of dried red dates, dried Chinese wolfberries, and sugar — all of which have been offered to the matchmaker.  The tea is said to be good for your health. But it’s especially good for females looking for a husband as it “will make you more attractive.” So, drink up, single ladies!

Everything old is new again. “Urban regeneration station is an ongoing program of the city government for close to 10 years now,” Jun Tsao tells us. “The government has started offering incentives for people who have left their old homes because business has gone bad and have moved to new locations. The government is restoring these buildings and putting them in a condition that’s safe and operable so their owners can do business again.”

Jun tells us the old town of Taipei is divided into different segments. “One is the clothing segment. Then there’s the dried fruit/herbs/teas segment. People come here to buy their New Year supply of rice, condiments, etc. It can also be a location for wedding pictorials because of its charming ambience.”

Make time for Taiwan. “An ideal tour of Taiwan would take eight days and seven nights,” says Paul Hsieh, deputy general manager, Edison Travel Service Co., Ltd. “Day 1 is just the arrival day and there should be nothing much to do. Day 2 is the city tour where you see the major sights of Taipei. Day 3, you can go from Taipei to central Taiwan to Sun Moon Lake and stay overnight. Day 4, from Sun Moon Lake, go to Kaohsiung and stay overnight. Day 5, travel from Kaohsiung to Taitung. Day 6, from Taitung, go to Hualien, travel on the east coast with its very beautiful coastline. Day 7, travel from Hualien by express train back to Taipei in the afternoon. Day 8 is departure.”

The girls ask in unison, “Where’s the day for shopping?” Paul quickly replies, “You can do that in between the tours.”

I love the night (market) life. There are just so many night markets to explore in Taiwan. “There’s one everywhere, Taipei alone has five,” our guide Tony declares. “Families go to the night market, especially during vacations, not only to eat but also to play and have fun.”

Assorted food (ever heard of stinky tofu or papaya milk tea?), goods and goodies abound at the night market. Some of our girls just couldn’t leave without getting one (or two or more) of those eye tapes that are supposed to add depth to your peepers (especially if you’re chinky-eyed) so you can better apply eye shadow.

•  Take a bow, xiao long bao! The last items on our hectic four-day itinerary include: lunch of xiao long bao (soup dumpling that takes some skill to make and eat) at Dien Shui Lo Restaurant (actually, I can’t remember how many xiaos I’ve eaten in how many restaurants because for as long as you’re in Taiwan, you can have all the xiao long baos you want); a visit to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (where we find truly creative products like a staple wire-less stapler, papercraft and woodcraft); and a visit to Xin-Yi shopping district where some of the girls in our group couldn’t resist grabbing one of those wonder magnetic bracelets that are supposedly good for the health.

Have a Grand stay. Of course, our home in Taipei is the grandiose Grand Hotel that faces the Keelung River. Done in Chinese Palace style, it is one of the historical/architectural landmarks of Taipei that has hosted royalty, presidents and heads of state on official visits.

Bye-bye, Taipei! But of course, our farewell dinner is the grandest at the Grand Hotel. I’m seated next to Miki Pong, vice president of The Grand Hotel, who graciously serves me some of the dishes on the 10-course meal, which includes (hold your breath and appetite now): Cantonese roasted duck (not Peking, take note), sauteed prawn fritter with salty egg sauce, braised seafood with pumpkin soup, double-stewed pork chunk, braised sea cucumber with mushroom, steamed fish with black bean sauce, stewed black chicken with Macau, steamed glutinous rice with Cantonese sausage, sweet soup, desserts, and seasonal fruits.

Such a fitting, filling meal to wrap up a five-day culinary journey into the heart — or should I say belly — of Taiwan.

Till next time, Taiwan!

 

 

* * *

Destinations Unlimited (tel. no. 896-4811, fax 896-4732, email reservations1@destinationsunli.com, website www.destinationsunli.com) is the sales representative of Edison Tours, the leading tour operator in Taiwan.

For bookings, call International Travel & Tours, Hans Bldg., Alabang-Zapote, Las Piñas, tel. nos. 874-4826, 553-4360, 782-3684; Sharp Travel Service, 132 Amorsolo St., Legaspi Village, Makati, tel. nos. 817-0071 to 74 local 303, mobile 09189181017, fax 819-0859, email ststours@cfsharp.com; International Journeys Inc., 1663 Jorge Bocobo St., Malate, Manila, tel. nos. 525-8618, 523-4850, 400-0550, fax 525-2668, mobile 09175372038; King of Travel, Inc., 124 Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati City, tel. nos. 816-4411, 506-1036, 994-6658, fax 819-5925, mobile 09178997491, email caparas.ct@kingtvl.com.ph; Pakisuyo Travel, 323 FUBC Building, Escolta St., Binondo, Manila, tel. nos. 247-1747, 664-6918, mobile nos. 09178053266 and 09212373597, email mcrofule@pakisuyo.com; Lizmar Travel and Tours, Antipolo Triangle Mall, San Lorenzo Sumulong Memorial Circle, Brgy. San Jose, Antipolo City, tel. no. 656-7216, mobile nos. 09178299181 and 09228397582, email lizmartours@yahoo.com; Land and Sky Travel Service, The Rivergate Complex, Gen. Maxilom Ave., Cebu City, tel nos. (6332-253-9022, 253-5439, 318-2041, 254-0101, 412-3416, mobile 09173262699, email landsky@landskytravel.com; Royal Prince Travel International, 207 Don Mariano Cui corner Don Jose Avila Sts., Capitol Site, Cebu City, tel. nos. 6332-2536922, 253-1402, fax 253-7319, email royalprincecebu@hotmail.com.

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