Here are my notes from our recent trip to Taiwan with our two children (6 and 4 years old).
We arrived midday at the airport, rented a car from Avis and headed to Miaoli county. It was a very easy ride (thanks to google map on the ipad): less than 2 hours to Taian hot springs. As soon as you leave the highway you plunge into lush nature, following winding roads through wild hills, gorgeous landscapes especially with a clear sky!
Taian is a great base for trekking and hot springs. Nothing else, you get a real feeling of being in the middle of no-where.
We stayed at Cedarwood villa (recommendation from Lonely Planet, p166, English edition 2014). This hotel probably had glorious days but now it is completely left behind so it was a bit of a disappointment, soon turned into big laughs… a pity since the location remains fabulous! That was just a one-night stop and should not be more.
There is another hotel close by: Onsen Papawaqa. Brand new with good facilities. But the location is far from being as nice as Cedarwood villa’s, unfortunately.
For fancy hot-springs hotels, I suggest trying those around Taipei such as villa 32 or Volando.
The next day we drove back to Taipei through countryside roads stopping in Nanzhuang and Luchang villages. Don't expect anything spectacular in Nanzhuang, the village isn’t attractive, at least not at first sight. However we had a lovely time strolling along the old street, main-street and temple, went for a very short trek up on the hill and had a noodle feast in a tiny joint close to the temple… The drive to Luchang was quite scenic, at the bottom of a deep gorge; the village is completely lost at the top of a hill, offering fantastic views. But again don’t expect anything spectacular… What we enjoyed most was the layback attitude and feeling of travelling back in time!
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt, which was just perfect with the kids – the swimming pool being our strongest means of negotiation. We had early dinner every evening at the hotel… this quiet evening routine allowed everyone to rest before another day out visiting.
My main recommendation is to explore areas around Taipei and the National Palace Museumon weekdays to avoid the crowds. The rest of the city is so nice to stroll around during the weekend.
We made a stop in Pingxi (Lonely Planet p129), definitely not a must, and drove up toJiufen (p140). You would certainly not say it is a charming town but it has a strong character and walking along the old street is worth the experience (avoid weekends, it was already quite packed on a Friday)… We stopped by every food stall, tried many delicacies… people were extremely friendly with the children so it was a super treat for them. There is a lovely teahouse along the way: http://www.jioufen-teahouse.com.tw
Our plan was to drive to Juming Museum ( LP p136), which was highly recommended by some friends. Unfortunately that was too ambitious with the kids and we did not make it there.
One morning we took the metro up toTamsui, which is listed as a must by the LP and was highly recommended by the hotel’s concierge. It was a major disappointment. First of all, it took us almost an hour from the Grand Hyatt (and not half an hour as told)… the river banks are really not that attractive, the market street was crowded and not pedestrian so mopeds driving up and down creating a hectic and unpleasant atmosphere. The old colonial quarter has its charm but is definitely not a must.
Tamsui is really a popular weekend hangout for Taipei crowds so in that sense it can be interesting to see. Maybe we would have appreciated it more if we had rented bicycles.
I would list as MUST see places: Bao’an and Longshan temples, and Dihua street.
We followed the city walk recommended by the LP (p74) up to the red house and that was a lovely tour. Longshan temple offers a vibrant scene with lots of ceremonies, worshippers, offerings, incense and interesting architecture. We stopped by several market streets that were super lively and not crowded. We walked by old-fashioned neighborhoods all living at a slow pace, what a contrast with Hong-Kong!
Dihua Street was probably our highlight. We loved everything about it: the architecture, the mix of wholesalers’ shops with designers’ boutiques, old teahouses and trendy coffee shops. We were there on a Saturday afternoon and it was pretty quiet. It might be a nice Sunday brunch hangout (but if the wholesalers are closed it will lose much of its specificity). Among others, some of our stops:
- number 156: old teahouse, refined old wooden house in the back. Tea ceremony and calligraphy.
- number 197: Bakery café & Peacok Bistro. Yummy warm cinnamon bun along with flavored tea and coffee.
- number 195: Twine. Fair trade goods, nice selection from around the world. / next door: MOGU, cotton bags and clothes.
We completely missed the restaurant scene, not ideal with the kids but there is a lot to be explored! We enjoyed all the street food and local joints: tasty noodles, dumplings and lots of new tries (hard to describe).