The Taiwanese coastal town of Taitung is home to a fascinating culture, great food and laidback hospitality.
This article was published in HK Magazine on November 4th, 2010
Many like to compare Taitung with Maui. What with its pristine beaches, clear blue skies, year-round sunshine and great surfing, it will certainly make you feel more “Aloha” than “Ni Hao”. However, unlike Maui with its vast open plains and rugged terrain, Taitung is gentler (not to mention far more accessible) destination.
Backed by lush mountains and facing the Pacific Ocean, Taitung has emerged from modernization in Taiwan virtually unscathed due to its shortage of flat open space and “unfavourable” position facing the opposite direction to Mainland China, hence disadvantaged against immediate action towards the Communists during World War II. However, this disadvantage, as it turns out, has become somewhat of an advantage as Taiwan starts to develop alternative industries in cultural tourism and organic agriculture. Today, apart from its awe-inspiring beauty, Taitung is home to some of the best rice fields and dairy farms in Taiwan, and is one of the few remaining places where you can still experience authentic aboriginal culture.
Thus naturally, Taitung is a place where you can easily spend days, even weeks, just stargazing and wave-watching. However, for the busy Hong Konger eager to explore the area in a weekend, I suggest starting your journey in the city of Taitung. Arrive early in the morning at Zhengqi Road’s “Breakfast King” in time for some shaobing (baked flatcakes), fried dough, and fresh soya milk. Some claim this to be best of its kind in Taiwan, and its long queues at 6 in the morning will go to prove their point. Next, have your second helping of breakfast at “Take a Walk Sometimes”, a cute little cafe opened by three girlfriends based on the simple fact that “we all love breakfast”. The homemade baked apple is a must-try.
Finish off the morning by taking a stroll around Eslite Bookstore and pick up a book or CD on the local aboriginal culture. Next, pop by Tiehua Village and check out the performance schedule for the night. Opened just this summer 2010, Tiehua Village used to be an abandoned rail workers’ dormitory. Now, with the support of Lovely Taiwan Foundation, an entourage of aboriginal singers and a group of Taitung lovers, Tiehua Village has reopened in style and hosts regular music performances and weekend markets.
Stop for lunch at Cheela, another dreamy café opened by four men who love to bake. The décor is simple and rustic, with a leafy back terrace opening up to the old rail tracks, now a lively pedestrian path. The salty pork bun is a local favourite.
In the afternoon, head up Route 11 north towards Dulan Village, home to the Ami tribe. As you drive along the coast and as your start to feel the wind in your hair and the ocean glistening in the sun, you will begin to see the bewitching power of Taitung. On route, stop at Little Yeliu, Jialulan or Jiamuzi Rest Area for some postcard perfect scenery.
About fifteen minutes from Taitung city you arrive at a small nondescript village called Dulan. During the month of August, Dulan, along with a handful of other aboriginal tribes along the coast, is busy celebrating the Harvest Festival. Do not be fooled, but here in Taitung they celebrate not the harvest of crops, but the harvest of adulthood. Every year, a new generation of Ami youngsters climb mountains, swim oceans and dance their way into the night to the satisfaction of village elderly in order to pass the coming of age test - in full splendour of Ami’s traditional dress. If you come during this time, be sure to book early as guesthouses fill up quickly with spectators from the cities.
Speaking of guesthouses, my favourite is still “Come Feel the Breeze Again”, an eco-lodge consisting of a handful of individual villas constructed on the principles of modest simplicity and respect for the environment. What “Come Feel the Breeze” lacks in luxury and style with its bare concrete walls, stainless steel roof and raw wood interiors, it makes up for with dramatic ocean views, natural breeze (literally!) and the hospitality of its owner and limping dog, Little Black.
If Tiehua Village’s performance is not enough to entice you back to the city (which, by the way, could be finished off with some late night snack from Lin Ji Stinky Tofu) for the night, visit Sugar Factory. Converted from an old, well, sugar factory, this bar-cum-café is packed every weekend with performances from local celebrity Uncle Long, singing aboriginal folk music in his husky voice.
Come here again in the morning for breakfast, and the mood is completely different. Little House, a small shack just outside of the Sugar Factory with a long communal bench, ocean views and bossa nova music playing in the background, serves a full English breakfast on shell ginger leaf. After breakfast visit Good Buy, a character-filled shop selling a selection of local arts and crafts on the other side of the factory.
Finally, choose between a drive further up the coast to Hualian and venturing into the mountains to visit the dairy farms. Either way, be sure to expect more breathtaking views and exceptional quality food on the way.
Halfway between Taitung and Hualian, stop at Shitiping to marvel at the wondrous works of nature. Here, jetting out of the clear blue waters along the coast of Hualian, are natural rock formations in the appearance of thousands of undulating steps. Listen to the waves lapping against the rocks and let the world around you disappear for just a few minutes.
For lunch, walk a short distance across the road to “Urn, Lily, Spring”. Make sure you call up ahead since you will easily dismiss the entrance, mistaking this place for a derelict factory of some sort. Nothing here suggests that this is a restaurant, let alone a fantastic one, but let not the plastic chairs and the Ami chef’s muscular physique fool you. With aboriginal smoked bacon beautifully presented with a twig of flowered garlic, sea salt encrusted fish, baked jackfruit, and many more aboriginal-tinged surprises, appearances don't really matter that much anymore. We later learn that the name of this restaurant, “Urn, Lily, Spring” literally comes from the names of the chef’s two daughters, Atomo (meaning “Urn”) and Arifowang (“Lily”), and the chef himself, Canglah (“Spring”).
If going for the mountains, visit Na Jie Hai right before turning off to Luye Highlands Tea Plantation. Here, at Shi Hui’s cottage-cum-private kitchen, fusion cuisine the likes of Hainan Chicken Rice and tomato and aubergine pasta come hand in hand in a six course meal– all at the pittance of NT300 per person. When asked why she doesn’t charge more for her meals, Shi Hui says, “I’m here to live a life, not to make a killing. If I charge less, people will be grateful and come back. If I charge more, however, they will find something to complain about.”
Ah, what wisdom. Only in Taitung….