By Rick Charette
In Taipei on business or other travel, got an extra day or more to explore, want out of the city to see what else Taiwan has to offer, too busy to handle everything yourself, and looking for an attractive and interesting place to get to and back from quick? Travel in Taiwan has the answer: Visit Yilan County!
Here’s what I would do if we were you. First, go to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website (www.taiwan.net.tw) to get the basics on Yilan. You’ll learn it is not far southeast of Taipei, and is roughly triangular in shape, with mountain massifs framing the Yilan/Lanyang Plain on two sides and the Pacific pushing against the third. The county is small, 63km wide and 74km long. It was long relatively isolated from Taipei, reached in modern times by a roundabout rail journey or by a two-hour-plus motor-vehicle drive over rugged mountain or along rugged, zigzagging coast. Today the drive is just 40 minutes, thanks to National Highway No. 5, which shoots right through the mountains. Its 2006 opening has brought a tourist boom. The county remains quite bucolic, relying heavily on farming, fishing, and tourism, has few conurbations, and little heavy industry.
Let’s assume you want somebody else to handle everything for you: planning, driving, insurance, even providing a guide. Click on “Travel Suggestions” on the Tourism Bureau’s main website page (English version) and then on “Tour Bus.” This will lead you to the “Taiwan Tour Bus” site (www.taiwantourbus.com). The Tourism Bureau works with local travel firms to develop package tours to all Taiwan hotspots, including single-day and multi-day outings to Yilan; you get picked up in Taipei and dropped off after. Note that the firms are also willing to tailor packages when possible.
Perhaps you’d like a little more independence of movement? Can do. We suggest the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi as your base, for a number of reasons: It’s in a lovely sylvan setting, it’s in the famed Jiaoxi hot-springs area and is a first-class hot-spring resort, it’s in north Yilan near numerous tourist sites I’d like to recommend, the hotel offers guided tours to (or transport to/from) these and other sites, and you’ll get picked up at Jiaoxi’s railway station or inter-city bus station (or stations in Yilan City, your choice). To find out how to take a train or inter-city bus, click “Getting Around” on the Tourism Bureau main page.
Recently Travel in Taiwan conducted a two-day Jiaoxi/Hotel Royal dry-run visit with your needs in mind. What follows are highlight spots we think you’d most like.
We set off from the hotel lobby at 7am for a guided walk to nearby Wufengqi Falls, higher up in the quickly narrowing valley. The trip takes about 2 hours. There are actually three cascading waterfalls, the tallest and uppermost 42m high (closed for safety reasons at time of writing). A walkway with some English signage follows the waterway, dotted with picturesque Chinese-style pavilions. There’s lots of bird life, and this day we spotted numerous brilliant Formosan blue magpies.
Just down-valley from the hotel is the dead-end access road to Paoma (Running Horse) Historic Trail, a branch of a Qing Dynasty Yilan-Wulai-Taipei-Tamsui pioneer trail. The “Running Horse” refers to Japanese-era mounted-officer patrols. The 1.5km paved road moves up the massif face above Jiaoxi and Yilan Plain; locals take daily walks here, enjoying the great views. They’re even better along the easy-grade trail, which first moves into the massif along a steep valley and then makes its way to the massif’s top and riveting panoramas. Give yourself 3 hours, including the access road.
Though we didn’t do it on our latest trip, a boat tour to iconic Guishan (Turtle) Island from Wushi Harbor is a unique experience. The harbor is by majestic Lanyang Museum, which we’ll visit later on. The eco-preserve island is Taiwan’s only active volcano, and there are military and fishing-village ruins. If you are lucky you can also enjoy whale/dolphin-watching during the trip to or from the island. You must apply one week ahead; your travel firm or hotel can help (for the Chinese form, visit https://kueishan.necoast-nsa.gov.tw).
The young Lanyang Museum (www.lym.gov.tw) is one of my favorite museums in Taiwan, housed in one of my favorite works of architecture on the island. The structure seems to shoot out of the ground just like the area’s great natural sculptures of stratified rock. Inside, the open-concept floors are staggered, cascading like the tiered-rock formations of the coast. The museum explores the heart of Yilan’s people, telling the story of its indigenous peoples, pioneers, and modern-day inhabitants, the local geology, farming and fishing traditions, and the biology of local land and sea.
The museum structure seems to shoot out of the ground just like the area’s great natural sculptures of stratified rock
Twenty-some minutes south of Jiaoxi, at the base of the mountains that overlook the town, is the King Car Whisky Distillery (www.kavalanwhisky.com), where the KAVALAN series is crafted. The grounds here are green, expansive, and immaculate. English guided tours are available, with a 50/50 chance they’ll be led by the lovely, knowledgeable Joanie Tseng, from the distillery’s global P.R. team, who studied in England. You start with informative English signboards, view the giant vats, see the whiskies aging in thousands of Jack Daniel’s bourbon casks and oloroso sherry casks, and finish at the elegant King Car Whisky Castle sampling the line.
Most of Yilan’s high-end, luxurious dining spots are in its hotels, but Formosa Pearl (www.formosapearl.com) is changing things. The dream-made-true of Lin Wen-juan and her husband, the two-story wood-theme restaurant is set in the middle of the plain amidst rice paddies. The trappings are museum-quality exquisite, almost everything antique, including many of your utensils. The specialty is seasonal-catch seafood, the menu changing every few months. My favorite selection is the sashimi platter, featuring all-local marine delicacies, some unavailable in Taipei.
The Zen Garden Fusion Cuisine restaurant at Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi, with its broad mountain view and sunken Japanese garden, is run by chef Joe Huang, who grew up just a short walk away and loves being back in Yilan. He’s taking the restaurant toward fully organic, everything Yilan-sourced, working with local farmers and buying himself at local ports. His fusion creations are imaginative – and delicious – and the sushi bar is source of a wonderful sensory tour.
Taiwan folk love driving to the coast and eating at seaside port-town seafood restaurants. These are often very simply decorated; the key is ingredient freshness, your soon-to-be food swimming in tanks at the entrance. You choose. There are good places at busy, colorful Wushi Harbor, beside the Lanyang Museum, but on this trip we tried the Temple Mouth Seafood Restaurant, on the coastal highway about 10 minutes north of the harbor, after three separate word-of-mouth recommendations. These people were right; the food is hearty and tasty, the floor-to-ceiling back-wall glass giving pastel-blue views of breakers below and Guishan Island beyond. My favorite dish? The meaty crab in miso soup with beancurd.
The food is hearty and tasty, the floor-to-ceiling back-wall glass giving pastel-blue views of breakers below and Guishan Island beyond
Though I’ve just placed many an information morsel on your Yilan-travel plate, I’ve left far, far more in the kitchen – forest recreation areas, recreational farms, cultural parks, historical sites, eco-preserves, religious sites and celebrations…. Browse through the Tourism Bureau website to learn more.
English & Chinese
Guishan Island 龜山島
Paoma Historic Trail 跑馬古道
Wufengqi Falls 五峰旗瀑布
Wushi Harbor 烏石港
Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly March April Issue, 2012