Chinese pop music blared through a sound system that would be the envy of many music festivals. Around us were one-of-a-kind lantern displays reminiscent of Rose Parade floats. The sky turned cotton-candy pink, as though it was picking up on the ambience.
When the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, in partnership with Sita World Tours, arranged a fam trip surrounding the annual lantern festival, this wasn't what I was expecting. (I had imagined we'd be releasing traditional Chinese Kongming lanterns into the sky.)
Over the course of a week, we made a loop around the island, starting and ending in the capital city of Taipei. Each day we drove for hours with multiple stops along the way, which broke up the monotony and provided cultural enrichment from different parts of Taiwan.
We stayed at six hotels as we made our way to the lantern festival, which is held in a different city each year.
Our first night was spent in Taipei, where the fam group had what was unanimously agreed was the best meal of the trip, at La Luna. Dishes set on a rotating tray included pork belly, whole white fish and Szechuan chicken.
Driving counterclockwise around Taiwan brought us to our next stop, Sun Moon Lake. There we stayed at the Fleur de Chine. Renovated in March 2017, the minimally appointed, 221-room property has rates starting at about $550 per night.
Features included a pillow cart with 28 types to choose from; mineral soaking tubs in each room; the Qi Shishedo Salon and Spa; four fine dining options, including Jade Luminous, which serves Taiwanese, Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine; views of the lake; and one of my favorite amenities: traditional Taiwanese attire guests can wear around the property.
Spectacle and spirituality
The following evening, we arrived in Chiayi to experience the lantern festival. The annual celebration of the Lunar New Year included a colorful display of lanterns that felt like equal parts video game, It's a Small World and Candy Land. There were food vendors; various cultural performances, including Japanese, Taiwanese and Indonesian dance groups; and remarks by Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen before the main attraction, a light ceremony that could no doubt be seen from space.
After a cheerful celebration, we hit the road again before arriving at Fo Guang Shan Monastery. Here, the Great Buddha Land is not to be missed. It is an awe-inspiring display of a 130-foot standing Buddha surrounded by 480 gold Buddha statues.
The next day, we drove along the East Coast National Scenic Area to Taroko. Nestled on a mountainside in a national park is the Silks Place Taroko in Hualien. Room rates start at approximately $300 per night and about $500 during peak season. With 160 rooms, the five-star boutique property features a rooftop swimming pool surrounded by streaming waters.
From here we took in breathtaking views of waterfalls as we drove along the coast back to our starting point.
We looped back to Taipei and into what could have been a Taiwanese set of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but was actually our final overnight, at the Palais de Chine. At the entrance of the darkly lit, five-star hotel is a life-size wooden sculpture of a horse complemented by plum-colored velvet curtains and an extravagant crystal chandelier.
The hotel, designed to evoke Parisian romanticism and an opera house, seamlessly incorporates French antiques and Chinese architectural details with modern design. Inside the suites of the 286-room property (superior rooms start at approximately $500 per night) are crisp, white bedding and headboards, automated shades and voice-control features enabling guests to adjust temperature, lights and music. The property's restaurants offer wonderful Western fare.
The high life in Taipei
The hotel is situated across the street from the Taipei Main Station, where yellow cabs line up out front. I had a free day before leaving for the airport, so I opted for an Uber and headed to Taipei 101, once the world's tallest building.
Aside from being home to a stock exchange and an over-the-top luxury-shopping destination, the tower houses observatory decks on the 89th and 91st floors and numerous restaurants with breathtaking views. At Compound Restaurant on the 35th floor, I enjoyed a salmon and egg BLT with an indulgent brown sugar latte.
From Taipei 101, I ventured to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. Known as the creative hub of Taipei, the multipurpose cooperative offers finely crafted, high-end goods, hipster coffee shops and an art gallery.
My whirlwind trip had come to an end. Though we had a nonstop itinerary, a week wasn't long enough. On our drive to the airport on the Flower Man Bus (as it read on its side), I was already dreaming of a return tour.
For more information, see Sita's website at www.sitatours.com and the Taiwan Tourism Bureau's website at https://eng.taiwan.net.tw.