Winding back streets are home to urbane coffee shops and patisseries. Upscale boutiques sell everything from glorious silk kimonos to exquisite porcelain. Enticing aromas of star anise, cinnamon and basil drift from food stalls on every block.
I am in Taipei, and I have discovered urban trekking heaven. The city’s vibe is reminiscent of Hong Kong. Chic Michelin-star restaurants remind me of Manhattan. Bustling markets are much like ones I’ve explored throughout Europe.
Frankly, a lifetime of adventuring has taken me from Iceland to India, Uganda to Afghanistan — and to popular destinations with Canadians such as Hawaii, Mexico and France — but I never expected to set foot in Taiwan.
This small island, just 160 kilometres across the waters from mainland China, simply wasn’t on my radar.
Like most Canadians, I knew its name from all the products and trinkets of my youth stamped “Made in Taiwan.”
It took an intriguing invitation from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau to explore its modern cities and rural rice paddies, its mountainside villages and surfing hot spots, to finally open my eyes to the wonders of Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), the name given to it by Spanish sailors centuries ago.
If I previously felt ambivalent about coming here, Taiwan’s own status is, in fact, an ambiguous one.
Its official name is “Republic of China,” but most Taiwanese will point to their democratically elected government and recent legalization of same-sex marriage as evidence of their proud identity and sovereignty.
As a travel destination, Taiwan is dwarfed by its closest neighbours, mainland China and Japan. Yet that’s changing: in 2018, a record number of Canadians, more than 128,000, visited the small island.
Now that I’m here, I’m not surprised. Besides its glittering capital city, Taiwan has rugged mountains, scenic seascapes and endless cycling trails. Add to that its renown as one of the world’s top foodie destinations.
I watch surfers catch waves at Waiao Beach on the east coast, explore the colourful market in Juifen Village and even take a fishing lesson with an elder from the Indigenous Climatay tribe on the island’s southernmost coast.
In Taipei, I experience the exceedingly polite nature of the Taiwanese. Although I go a good 24 hours before spotting another westerner in this tidy city of two million souls, no one stares at me.
Instead, I am greeted with a charming and hearty “Good morning!” at every hour of the day and my only safety concern in this country (known for its low crime rate) is the constant whizzing by of commuters on scooters.
I experience the grace of “saving face” culture when, after losing my room key not long after checking in, the hotel clerk insists it is really his fault. The shop owner who has to point me in the direction of the 4XL dress rack (I am a solid size 10 in North America) has nary a glimmer of judgement in her eye.
In this astonishingly clean city, I sign on to the Taiwanese love affair with food. I sample beef noodle soup in neighbourhood hideaways, sticky rice dumplings at the night market and Taiwan’s signature favourites: pineapple cake and its now internationally famous bubble tea.
En route home to Canada, after 10 heavenly travel days, I come to realize that I’m besotted with a place I’d never before considered, and now will never forget.
Note from Publisher: Calgary-based travel writer and celebrated author Valerie Fortney was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. It did not review or edit this column before publication.
For our last story featuring international coverage of interest to Canadians, check out Meet Norway’s Bathing Angels — written by Montreal’s Margo Pfeiff who also acts as Toque & Canoe’s Editor-at-large.