When it comes to the class of Asia, Japan takes the cool kid tile. Between Lost in Translation and Harashuku Girls, the rest of the Far East seems like Japan’s not so cool DDR-obsessed Hello Kitty-loving cousins.
While Taiwan’s twenty to thirtysomethings have yet to earn the pop culture status of Tokyo hipsters, its capital city of Taipei is nonetheless a hub of fashion, art, gastronomy and dynamic cosmopolitan living — one deserving of many thousands of Instagram photos.
In need of a vacation, and wanting to breathe in the effervescent life of a foreign metropolis, while still remaining a clipper hop away from the tranquility found in a small costal town, Taiwan rose to the top of the list for possible holiday destinations. (This is despite having just recently re-watched Kill Bill.)
For me, the decision was clenched by the island of Penghu’s pristine beaches — a speckling of Eden in the Pacific Ocean; for my boyfriend, it was the spectrum of culinary synthesis that saw Taipei at the epicurean centre between China and Japan.
For travelers like us, bored of sun holidays, and searching for respite from a hectic work routine with the added value of cultural payout, fight the urge to board a plane simply for the sake of an escape, and save your vacation days for a journey East. Once there, our Taiwan travel guide will walk you down Taipei’s bustling streets, and then sail you over to the peaceful sands southwest of the Taiwan Strait in Penghu.
How to Get There: Eva Air
The hours spent to and from a vacation often fall into the category of vacation lows. Bad food, stale air, and chatty close-talking neighbours can easily throw a wrench into one’s plans to veg out to in-flight entertainment.
While a talkative seatmate isn’t something airlines can control, everything in an airline’s control is upgraded and served to you with white gloves on board Eva Air.
Flying to and from Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver), if West to East (or vice versa) is where you’re heading, Eva Air is your ticket.
Once you have stretched out in the airline’s Elite Class — as we did this past trip —distain for your cramped subway ride to work is inevitable.
From the moment you mix your first celebratory cocktail in the Evergreen Lounge, to the second you recline your spacious seat, the coziness of the flying experience almost makes you forget that you’re not in your living room.
With seats large enough to add the necessary space between you and the stranger who wants to show you all her family portraits, flying goes from tolerable to enjoyable.
For the supreme high roller, book a seat in the airline’s new Royal Laurel Class, available aboard Eva’s Boeing 777s, which fly out of Toronto direct to Taipei. Measuring at 26 inches wide, seats are as good as twin-sized beds once stretched out to reach a fully flat position.
To add a touch of the adorable to service and comfort, Eva Air imagines the Hello Kitty app on a grand scale, outfitting their inter-Asia bound Airbus 330-300s in nose to tail pearly kitten glory. Cute goes into overdrive for the EVA Hello Kitty Jet experience; from the Hello Kitty themed check-in kiosk to the in-flight meal serving Hello Kitty shaped-munchables, there’s nothing on this plane missing a pink bow and whiskers.
Where to Stay: Hotel Quote
We arrived in Taipei at 5:00 a.m. The sun was low, but we were wide-awake, and eager to explore the city. By the time we walked into the lobby of the hotel, it was 6 a.m., and we were hungry for dinner, while most in the hotel we’re still at least an hour from their first push of the snooze button.
The lobby is dimly lit, with soft shadowy light reflecting off mirrors and the polished tin tiles running up the walls and across the ceiling. Sleek and coolly modern, the space has the poise of an upscale nightclub. The lobby is in fact one half cocktail lounge, split between the front desk and Hotel Quote’s 33 Restaurant & Bar.
Communal tables here make meeting fellow hotel guests and locals alike a pleasant accompaniment to 33’s deliciously mixed martinis. The bulk of the food menu is made of Western-inspired gourmet sandwiches — a scrumptious snack to tied one over till a late dinner reservation at one of the many nearby restaurants in the neighbourhood.
Checked in, we head up to our room, passing the hotel’s HQ lounge on our way there. We peek in, and know instantly upon first scan: this hotel is going to be more than merely a place to sleep at night.
A treasure trove for all hotel guests to plunder, there’s no need to pine after the exorbitantly priced contents of your hotel mini bar at Hotel Quote. Aside from the bounty of food, drinks available courtesy of the HQ lounge 24 hours a day, the drinks you’ll find cooling in your in-room mini bar are also complimentary and replenished daily.
Inside the lounge, tall glass jars of candy and cookies lined the counter top of the island in the middle of the room. To one corner of the island, a steaming pot of congee and another pot of fragrant dashi sits in the middle of a dozen small plates offering traditional breakfast pairings including salted duck eggs, pickled cucumber and shredded pork. Our rumbling tummies are ecstatic to discover the stark contrast to the prototypical complimentary continental breakfast where Styrofoam muffins and shriveled croissants are the highlight of the buffet. The spread laid out in the kitchen of the HQ lounge is food worth eating, not just food to eat because it’s included in the room rate.
Sleek and novel though Hotel Quote might be, it understands that ultimate luxury is a derivative of comfort. This logic anchors the concept behind the rooms and lounge with its gang of Mac computers for guests without laptops and in need of internet (Wi-Fi is also available in rooms at no additional cost), along with its wide selection of international magazines and newspapers to read while enjoying a freshly brewed expresso. Absentminded travelers will especially appreciate the small courtesies found in the lounge’s many goodie jars including toothbrushes, hair elastics and shaving kits, as well as extra luxuries such as bath salts and additional coffee capsules for the Nespresso coffeemakers tucked into each room.
Bellies full, we head back to our room to nap. The minimalist design of the space is warmed by Earth-toned décor echoing moods of serine Zen living. Melding modern design with homey luxuries, rooms are outfitted with marble bathrooms complete with rain showers, Bose digital stereo systems, as well as Toto Washlet toilets — a modern variation on the bidet with automated aerated water wash options and warm air dryer. Admittedly unfamiliar and a little hesitate to acquaint myself with the process of ultimate cleanliness offered by the Washlet, I never gave the latter a go, but am assured that that Toto Washlets are the Mercedes Benz of personal cleaning toilets.
Guest planning a visit to Hotel Quote have a wide option of rooms to choose from spanning from the hotel’s Q design to its E, cleverly paired according to the letters of the hotel’s name. Starting with room Q, — measuring at 22 square metres — to room E — a 53 square metres space with living room area and massage bathtub, or, for multiple parties traveling together, there’s the Quote suite: conjoining rooms that share a private entrance, the diversity of rooms ensure each guests find their perfect temporary nest in Taipei.
The unique luxury of Hotel Quote is bolstered by its central location in the heart of the vibrant Songshan district next to boutiques, department stores and restaurants, while also being only a short 4-min walk from Nan-Jing E rd MRT station. (FYI: the entire city is accessible by subway, and effortless plus inexpensively so.) For the young, professional sect, Hotel Quote is simultaneously a well-appointed home-away-from-home, and a practical base for Taipei city adventure seeking.
The Once in a Lifetime Meal: Shi-Yang Culture restaurant
There are few restaurants in the world that can boast a scenery as beautiful as the 360 view Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant offers, and certainly none with a philosophy comparable to that of this gastronomic retreat.
Tucked deep into the mountains of Xizhi City, outside central Taipei, a visit to Shi-Yang not only takes one away from the roaring rush of the metropolis, but transports the diner into a state of consciousness where all the senses are at attention.
Every curve of the restaurant’s exterior is designed as an extension of its natural environment, and it is this, owner and chef Lin Pin-hui’s rare desire to strike harmony between the organic and imported elements of the property, that inspirits Shi-Yang’s unprecedented style of cuisine.
A cultural revelation that goes beyond the plate, dishes here are a contemplation of ingredients, demonstrating the Buddist belief that wisdom comes from simplicity. Though Chef Pin-hui is not professionally trained — as he is quick to share — his approach to food is visionary, borrowing flavour profiles from the different areas he’s visited with Japan topping the list.
Seasonal menus are prix fixe, and favour seafood.
Traditional Delights: Shin Yeh
Taiwan is a country that likes its food hearty; and Shin Yeh‘s kitchen has the soul it takes to make comfort foods truly delicious.
Don’t let the formal setting of the Shin Yeh chain of restaurants fool you (nor for that matter get stuck on the ideal of it as a chain), the menu here is authentic, and as follows is void of pretension. Dishes range from toothsome braised pork belly to crab steamed on a bed of glutinous rice.
If authentic Taiwanese cooking (this means mullet roe and preserved bean curd) is what your after, and a seat off the street is your preference, then a table at Shin Yeh is worth reserving.
Communal Fare: Binge Hotpot
Like Korean BBQ in Los Angeles, the communal experience of eating hot pot brings out the hipsters in hordes, particularly at their cafeteria of choice, Binge Hotpot.
Nothing like the basement hot pot places you find in China Town, Binge moves the hot pot into the living room. Frilly shabby chic lamp shades, exposed brick walls, and a pop of porcelain bunnies trim the space; with décor like this it’s no wonder the amount of patrons in oversized retro frames.
Pricier than other nearby hot pot joints, the quality of meat here (try the boneless short ribs), along with its specialty handmade balls (skip the shrimp and cheese and go for the house special Szechwan meat balls), and fresh made bite-sized dumplings (the homemade fried leek variety wins over the seafood) are worth the extra pocket change.
Diners beware, there’s the flat cost of sparking up the pot that you’ll have to save your NTs (Taiwanese dollars) for. That little tip would have saved us a trip back to our hotel to convert more money, so be warned!
The Steal: Shilin Market
An almost mythical tourist destination, and beloved local haunt for the young of Taipei, Shilin Market is a must visit.
Arrive hungry and eat your way through the many dozens of food carts. Look out for traditional favourites like steaming pan-fried vegetable and pork buns, and the current talk of the market: a deep friend chicken steak from Hot Star. Bigger than my face, this cutlet is made for two. For the brave and adventurous, try a sampling of fried stinky tofu while in the market, available at multiple stands. A local delicacy, this is the only food to have thwarted Bizzare Foods, Andrew Zimmerman.
After you’ve gotten your fill of fish ball skewers and oyster omelettes, use your left over NT to bargain for souvenirs to bring home to friends, and trendy Japanese designer impressions of American Apparel for your closet.
The Designer Cousin: Ming Yao
European designers are in high demand in Asia, and Taipei is no exception. Major department stores including the iconic Taipei 101 building, give imported labels the better chunk of their retail space. And while shops such as Zara carry pieces you would be hard pressed to find in store in North America, and quite likely to see in European fashion magazines, prices are scaled to supply and demand.
For shoppers on a moderate budget, locally-owned department store such as Ming Yao in the Da’an District offer local and not-too distant Japanese and Korean fashion imports on their bottom level. The low price-point of these labels, paired with on trend design is reason enough to buy, beyond the fact that no one back home will have a duplicate. And, should you want a touch of fast-fashion in your closet, Ming Yao is home to Uniqlo flagship Taipei store.
Situated in a tectonic collision zone, hot springs heated by white sulfur are a wondrous natural phenomenon found in various areas across Taiwan. A national treasure, these wells are prized by both the old and the young, who regard soaking in these thermal waters to be an essential part of their wellbeing.
In Beitou, just to the north of Taipei’s city centre, the therapeutic waters are in abundance, but sacred nonetheless, and the town itself serene with reverence, despite being highly dependent on its wealth of tourists.
Day trips to the district are a quick MRT ride away for travelers staying in Taipei. From Xin Beitou MRT station, the city’s attractions are all in comfortable walking distance.
Ourselves, we followed signs to Villa 32, the prized spa in this little hot spring town, and finally ended our trek by crossing over a bridge to the gate of the hotel.
Counted amongst the region’s one of only two Relais & Châteaux properties (the other being a restaurant), the hotel, spa and restaurant under the Villa 32 umbrella, carry the distinction with the grace of government secret service officials.
The minimalist design vision speaks to the hotel’s Japanese influence, especially apparent in the spa’s contemporary Zen layout. Quiet décor evokes a peaceful mood, immediately soothing cringing tensions trapped in one’s temples.
Inside the public hot springs, the real decompression begins. Choose from outdoor pools with varying temperature, or try one of the spa’s indoor pools to soak in the natural benefits of added sodium, iron, and calcium minerals. Depending on the element, the water differs in colour between azure, jade and crystal. For those with stubborn soreness or suffering from dry skin, a dunk in these springs with remedy your woes. Should your skin ailments go up to your face, the spa offers Dermalogica facials including the brand’s eminent customized skin care treatment.
A break from the waters in the women’s public hot springs is best enjoyed reclined in its tucked away outdoor seating area overlooking Beitou Hot Springs Waterside Park. Those with sensitive skin might want to bring bug spray as a precaution, flying critters here can get hungry for foreign blood as I leaned.
A day at Villa’s 32 spa is best followed with a dinner at the hotel restaurant. Serving a sophisticated rendition of traditional Italian cuisine, nonna’s favourite recipes are modernized, and executed with a delicacy that is attentive to showcasing the full flavour profile of its dishes’ seasonal ingredients.
Daytrippers wanting to make it back to Taipei for dinner, should plan to arrive early to use the hot springs, and end the getaway to Beitou with afternoon tea at Villa 32, served between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
If staying late or overnight, catch free live jazz acts in the square across from Xin Beitou station. Live like a local and grab some cold drinks from the Welcome Mart across the street, and continue your R&R to the sound of the areas talented street musicians.
When you ask any local in Taipei for a bar recommendation, nine time out of ten they will direct you to Brown Sugar, and assure you ex-pats are partial to the place. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation when it comes to this spot. Unless all Western visitors like bars that look like they might have been featured in Miami Vice, it seems like the locals (and Google) have conspired to send us all there.
The live music acts here are primarily cover bands, and drinks are on the higher side of the price scale. Ladies get a complimentary glass of champagne, but for bar-goers like us who prefer watering holes that only have two options on their wine list: white or red, a flute of bubbly isn’t enough to drown out the club vibe in this lounge, and your wallet might not be full enough to do the job either at close to $10 CND for a mixed drink.
If bottle service and chatting up fellow tourists is your thing, or traveling in a pickled pack that wants to dance to cheesy radio hits, this is the spot you want to hit.
The Local Gem: Beer in The Park
This may be considered a cop-out, but to us, grabbing a couple of tall boys from the 7 Eleven (less than $2 a can for Taiwan Gold brand), and heading to local squares proved to be the best unofficial night outs that we had while in Taipei.
Our favourite square was less of a square and more of a playground in the Da’an District, on the corner of Shida Road and Lane 86. With swarms of university students and ex-pats pouring out of the nearby Shida night market and bars including Vino Vino pub (just overtop), people watching here is especially entertaining. A stone’s throw from a 7 Eleven, grabbing another round to go isn’t an issue.
And, should bar hopping be in your future, you’re within walking distance to a plethora of spots including the city’s famed Roxy group of clubs: Roxy 99, Jr. Café, and Roxy Vibe. Note: while these bars claim to be rock and roll, it’s more of a White Snake sorta rock and roll vibe they’re emulating.