by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Most travelers just pass through Taiwan, but with an opportunity to stay and explore the country, one of the LGBT-friendliest in Asia, I say do it! Taipei is a wonderful place to start your journey, but with 8 million people living in and around the capital city, a quick venture into a more remote area of the country is definitely worth planning.
On my recent visit to Taiwan, I was introduced to the lush resort area of Sun Moon Lake. Located in the Yuchi Township, Nantou County, this reclusive vacation spot is a glorious and peaceful respite from the metropolitan bustle. The majority of tourists are Asian, as Sun Moon Lake is still a hidden gem to international travelers, so it's unlikely you'll come across many Americans or other Westerners there. Cradled by majestic green mountains, the lake is 27 feet deep with a 19-mile perimeter, and although the bright blue water seems perfect for swimming, no one is permitted to enter the water except during the Swimming Carnival, which happens annually in September. Throughout the year, an array of festivals, live concerts and firework displays are staged alongside Sun Moon Lake, designated as one of thirteen National Scenic Areas in the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Here is more information about this magnificent destination, and for additional trip planning check out go2taiwan.net.
GETTING TO SUN MOON LAKE
From Taipei, the trek to Sun Moon Lake isn't far, but it does require transportation aboard a train and bus. Taiwan HSR (High Speed Rail) is an efficient and affordable way to travel within the country, allowing visitors to reach other major cities in a short matter of time. Sun Moon Lake is accessible by a one-hour train ride from Taipei to Taichung, followed by a 90-minute bus trip that departs conveniently from the Taichung Station (Nantou-bound). If you prefer catching the train closer to the airport than the city, take a 30-minute bus from the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport to the Taoyuan HSR Station headed to Taichung. Passengers can choose between Standard Car and Business Car seating; the only real difference is larger seats in a 2x2 configuration in Business vs smaller seats in a 3x2 configuration in Standard. Train cars are very clean, comfortable and quiet, and train attendants will come through periodically selling coffee and snacks via trolley. Overall cost will run an estimated $75 to $100 USD one-way. For more information on train service, go to thsrc.com.
Visitors can choose from several dozen charming hotels and inns bordering the lake, but you probably won't find more marvelous accommodations - and with more generous amenities - than the Fleur de Chine, a five-star resort (fleurdechinehotel.com). Not only is this 11-floor property situated on a hill overlooking the water, it also rests above natural hot springs that guests can experience either in a public bath area or inside built-in sunken marble tubs in their very own rooms. I stayed in a Lake Side Family Room on the 9th floor, which for starters provided me with impeccable and unobstructed views of the lake and its surroundings from a private balcony with table and chairs. Contemporary amenities, from flatscreen TV and DVD player to work desk and complimentary WiFi, were much appreciated for a night in, plus in-room goodies including comfy slippers and robes, hot water kettle with premier teas and coffee, organic bath essentials and complimentary mini-bar stocked with soft drinks, orange juice, imported beer and chilled water made my visit all the more wonderful. Mountain View rooms and suites are also available.
While spoiled by my own private balcony to soak up the sun and enjoy the scenery, I was delighted to find floor-to-ceiling seating areas on each level of the hotel with cushioned chairs and padded benches to look out from; even the tiny fitness room offered perfect views for guests during their workouts. In the lower level of the hotel, you'll find Water World, a series of natural spring baths and swimming pools open to everyone; but there are also private small soaking baths for men and women. Ping-pong and foosball tables, workout machines and a children's play zone are also located on this level, and all of these activities are free of charge.
Fleur de Chine has six on-site restaurants, including Crimson, where guests have an abundant variety of delicious foods and beverages from around the world in a buffet-style setting for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On the night of my stay, the dinner theme was Italian, so in addition to Asian dishes, from sushi to stir-fries, and American favorites, from prime rib to scalloped potatoes, there were pizza and pasta dishes offered as well. The Lobby Lounge on the main floor is more of a cafe with coffee, juices and sweets with stunning vistas, but the best views of the lake are from the Sky Lounge, the hotel's rooftop bar that provides table seating and neatly furnished booths.
So, you can't get in the water, but you can float on it by booking a charter boat tour that will encircle Sun Moon Lake. Your hotel front desk should have information regarding tours available for you upon check in. Biking and hiking are popular activities for all ages, considering the tropical temperatures (in the high 70s when I visited in late October). In addition to bike rental shops, your hotel can assist with loaning you some wheels.
A great excursion is a visit to the Tse-En Pagoda, a landmark attraction overlooking Sun Moon Lake with its tip reaching 1,000 meters above sea level. The nine-floor pagoda, standing at forty-six meters in height was completed in 1971, on the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Lady Wang, mother of Chiang Kai-shek, the beloved leader of Taiwan between 1928 and 1975. It's a beautiful site with incredible views from the top, however, parts of it were closed for maintenance during my visit. Still, the vistas from the ground level of the pagoda are astounding. You'll need a good pair of athletic sneakers and bottled water to climb the winding, steep staircase up to the top.
The Sun Moon Lake Wen Wu Temple is also a historical site worth stopping by, if just to snap a picture or listen to members of the aboriginal Thao tribe perform across the street. Wen Wu temples are unique in that they venerate the patron gods of both civil and martial affairs in the same temple complex. The Chinese palace-style structure has been rebuilt twice, most recently in 1969.
One of the most interesting, yet satisfying, places I've ever eaten at is the restaurant at Sun Moon Lake Full House Resort (fhsml.idv.tw). Unnamed, though part of the lovely inn, the outdoor casual restaurant uses some form of fresh fruit in all of its dishes, whether it be steamed fish or a sumptuous spicy pork entree infused with golden pineapple that I devoured in minutes. Definitely save room for soft serve ice cream, sold at various stalls in the market footsteps away from the Sun Moon Lake Full House Resort.
There are places in this world that I'm content to only see once, but Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan was so mesmerizing that I already have dreams of going back, dreams that will hopefully become a reality someday soon.
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