Perhaps Aldous Huxley had Taiwan in mind when he wrote, "To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." The awakening that I was "everyone" came during a trip to mainland China (or PRC, the People's Republic of China) in the 1980s, and a too-brief stopover in "Chinese Taipei," aka the ROC (Republic of China), considered by the former to be a misbehaving renegade province.
I made a beeline to Taipei's National Palace Museum and what is incontestably the finest collection of imperial Chinese art on the planet. But I left knowing little else about the country save for an impression of great friendliness and world-renowned food, and zero about the mountainous hinterland beyond.
Its reputation of "Made in Taiwan" had done little to encourage me to linger and explore it, but today's tourism powers are out to shatter that image.
Today just 65,000 North American tourists annually visit the former Formosa (aptly named by the 16th century Portuguese, using the word for beautiful). With the travel ban relaxed in 2008, mainland Chinese tourists began to arrive by direct flights in great numbers: some 1.8 million in 2011, curious to explore the similarities (cuisine, culture, language) and bewildering differences (democracy) that have long bound and separated the two Chinas. Japanese, too, love to visit: Japan's 50-year occupation of Taiwan ended in 1945, but many of Taiwan's old-timers still speak Japanese, and the country's many onsen hot springs are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. Such a preponderance of Asian tourists is only a good thing for U.S. tourists looking for a fascinating, exotic and safe adventure that is not overrun, nor barely acknowledged, by fellow American travelers. Asia's best-kept secret hiding in plain sight? Sounded good to me.
I returned this past summer to find that Taiwan had evolved into a flourishing democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lasting point of contention with the PRC. Today's prosperous, modern low-rise Taipei is its political and financial heart with an educated population of 2.7 million and an easygoing sophistication stemming from a high standard of living (the unemployment rate is 4.5%). Streets are lined with noodle shops and traditional teahouses cheek by jowl with Starbucks, 7-Elevens, shiny shopping malls, big-name hotels (the Regent may be the swankest address, while the Shangri-la Far Eastern Plaza is loved for its modern Asian charm) and the world's second-highest building, the elegant Taipei 101, its name taken from the number of its floors (it had been No. 1 until Dubai's Burj Khalifa was completed in 2009). In 37 smooth seconds, the world's fastest elevator rockets you from ground level to the 89th floor and a cluster of good restaurants.
But if it's really good food you're after (and don't mind swapping the views for great people-watching) you needn't look far: Taiwan has long enjoyed a reputation as having the finest food in Northeast Asia. Most say it is more delicious and varied than its mainland counterpart Beijing, as an hour spent in any of the crowded and brightly lit night markets will confirm.
The diversity of xiao chi or "small eats" follows the philosophy of eat often and eat good, from spicy-sweet grilled sausage and lurou (braised pork over rice) to the Taiwanese hamburger (steamed white buns filled with tender pork, crushed peanuts and pickled cabbage), scallion pancakes, oyster omelets and the acquired-taste dish called stinky tofu. Myriad are the options of ambitious upscale restaurants and their reinterpreted presentations of Taiwanese cuisine, but one could argue that they are minus some of the fun factor. Sample them all and cast your vote: You might choose no-frills regional eateries or Shanghai-style dumpling houses such as Dintaifung as your favorites.
A return visit to the National Palace Museum found it freshly renovated, rivaling the newest museums in the West and proudly deserving of its moniker "the Louvre of Asia." It was packed to the rafters with school groups and Chinese tourists who come in droves to view the treasures they contend were wrongly taken from Beijing's Forbidden City (where a cache of lesser items remain) and which they believe should be returned immediately. Everyone knows the film-worthy story: Approximately 700,000 artifacts, for centuries the bulk of the emperors' private collection, were famously carted off by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government to safeguard them from the advancing Japanese Imperial Army and the Communist army of Mao Zedong. Some 3,000 crates ultimately would up in Taiwan where Chiang, his 2-million-strong army and followers retreated in 1949 when China's civil war was lost to the Communists.
It may only be a very small fraction that is on display, but you'll still need to recharge with lunch at the Silks Place, a new Asian-chic restaurant on the museum grounds, before heading to Chiang's massive, imperial-style Memorial Hall. The structure was inaugurated in 1980, the fifth anniversary of his death, and is the site of an elaborate hourly changing of the guards.
There are over 15,000 temples in Taiwan, and Longshan Temple is one of the best to soak up Taiwan's vibrant and often multidenominational religious traditions, or elegant Baoan Temple, possibly Taipei's most beautiful. Visit in the early evening when they are the busiest with worshippers young and old and admire how the fantastically gilded and lacquered pillars seem to glow.
Escaping Taipei's urban sprawl is easy and highly recommended. It's a scenic three-hour drive through the breathtaking beauty of the island's east coast to the serpenting and steeply chiseled Taroko Gorge. The 12-mile-long road that cuts through the national park (one of eight on the island) is an engineering marvel, involving 38 tunnels and a procession of bridges through dramatic, marble-walled landscape. A network of easy hiking trails allows you to enjoy it up close and personal. Taiwan's most famous natural wonder takes its name from the aboriginal Taroko people who still live there, one of 14 tribes of Austronesian origin officially recognized by the government (and whose densest concentration is here on the east coast), and comprising about 500,000, or 2% of the island's population. You can learn more about them if you stay at the modest but attractive Leader Village, one of only three hotels found within the park; it is run by Taroko tribe members, whose simple, mountain-influenced cuisine (roasted or barbecued meat and trout taken from mountain streams) shows up on the menu. There is surprising luxury in the wilderness at the eco-stylish Silks Place Taroko; with a spa, rooftop pool and elaborate breakfast spread, it still manages to feel modest and harmonious to the Taroko experience.
But there are other seriously underrated natural wonders to explore: head inland to Sun Moon Lake, the country's largest freshwater lake, favored retreat of Chiang Kai-shek and all-around "honeymoon heaven." A postcard-perfect corner of the country with rolling green hills and nature walks, it's famous for its clear, jade-colored waters that are perfect for boating and kayaking. A beautiful, 20-mile bike path hugs the lake's contours, and bikes are available to guests at lakeside hotels such as the Lalu, a stylish minimalist retreat with an infinity pool at the lake's edge, or the less rarified Del Lago, which also enjoys gorgeous water views. Change gears at the offbeat, nine-room Full House, which wins over guests with its unusual, chalet-like architecture and romantic patio restaurant overseen by the owner's wife. The island's wealth of succulent fruits is a recurring presence in her innovative (and delicious) presentations such as savory pumpkin with honeydew melon or salmon baked with passion fruit.
With 258 peaks over 9,000 feet, Taiwan is one of the most mountainous places on earth. Northeast Asia's highest peak is the 12,966-foot Yushan or Mount Jade; it is an extremely popular climb and the centerpiece of Taiwan's largest national park. The sunrise spectacle known as the "sea of clouds" can be witnessed at Alishan National Scenic Area, loved by city dwellers who come for the high-mountain tea plantations (where Taiwan's semi-fermented oolong, considered among the world's finest, is grown) and pristine hiking trails through misty old-growth forests to aboriginal Tsou villages.
And then there are the other urban destinations that fill out the island's appeal, namely those of the south led by Tainan, the former capital and oldest city in the country, worth visiting for its Dutch-built forts, temples, dynamic food scene and famous for its night-market snacks. A week barely gave us time to skim the island's highlights, and they were mighty impressive. I learned a lot about the incredibly friendly people and life in the shadow of their giant neighbor just 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. As Taiwan pursues its separate identity, it is resigned to being unrecognized by the major powers of the world. Yet it carries on with hometown pride, and I, for one, was won over.
Patricia Schultz is author of the best-seller "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."