Ellen left Taiwan for Vietnam in 1972. She was 7 years old. While she had been back a few times, I have never been. Seems odd that was the case after nearly a dozen years living in Asia but it just wasn’t on our radar. Bit of a shame, it is well worth a visit (or two).
Why? It is an odd culture in a bit of a time warp. It is Chinese of course but it was occupied by the Japanese for 50 years BEFORE the war. So then it is a mix, a hybrid of cultures that involves not just the food, the architecture, the language but the very soul of the place. It is unique.
The opportunity arose to join Ellen’s brother Billy and wife Amy, who was teaching Pilates in Taipei for a few days. The family was all geared up for a reunion and we booked into the funky boutique hotel (Eclat hotel) located in Taipei’s fashionable Da-An district. There was a sculpture exhibit in the lobby that was …. interesting?
After doing the Double Decker Bus open top bus tour of the city, dinner was a short walk from our hotel with cousins Catia, Ashley and Bamboo (all nicknames) in TUA. A restaurant where traditional Taiwanese dishes undergo a modern makeover. The idea behind Tua — which means having a dinner date with friends in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) — is to elevate Taiwanese cuisine to something more stylish and upscale. Lovely to see the cousins and we followed up with wine in our little hotel bar with Billy and Amy.
Our first full on day started at The National Museum. The Nationalist Chinese took 700,000 artefacts from the Mainland when they left in 1949. A mere fraction are on display but they are gorgeous; intricate, creative and some really ancient stuff like The Jade Cabbage. A lucsious cabbage in Jade carved out of a single piece of jade with even a little bug carved on one of the leaves. We did a stop at the Grand Palace Hotel just because we saw it from the road and had to go. A giant, multi story pagoda all in red and gold. Then, on to the Chiang Kai Chek Memorial and Museum. The leader of Taiwan for over 50 years his Memorial is huge consisting of several giant buildings and acres and acres of sculpted grounds. The Museum chronicles his life from the 20’s, through his marriage to one of the famous Soong sisters of Shanghai (one married CKC, one married Sun Yat Sen and the other married the wealthiest man in China), through the war with Japan and then the communists and on to lead Taiwan.
We met up with Billy and Amy at an amazing place for afternoon nosh. The strangely named ‘Addiction Aquatic Development'. I guess it’s a restaurant but also a fish market, retail shop, wine bar, sushi bar, etc. all rolled into one giant place. Amazing food followed by a couple of bottles of ‘Badia de Coltibuno’, a wine we know well from our Italian villa stays.
When in Taipei a must is a night market tour. Close by our hotel is the Raohe Street Night Market. Not the biggest but big enough. I escaped having ‘stinky tofu' and Billy and I got to shoot air guns. Fun. The night was capped off at ‘Fourplay', a mixologist bar with no drinks menu. You tell them what you might feel like and they create something for you. Fire and sparks, dry ice smoke. Crazy place.
Tuesday, Billy went off to try and get a Taiwanese passport and Ellen, Amy and I checked out the ‘W’ Hotel and surrounding shops. Then, we went to the quite amazing Eslite Bookstore across the street. 5 stories, everything from English books, music, the biggest collection of vinyl records I’ve ever seen and dozens of turntables you could buy.
After checking out the Hankyu-Uni Department store we went to the Mother Ship; the original Din Tai Fung on Xinyi Street. We have all eaten at dozens of DTF’s in Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and now in Penang. Great, consistent food at every one. To settle our selves before the big family dinner we found a great craft beer brewery called Zhang Men Brewing off Yong Kang street. Great beers, 18 to choose from. I found a gorgeous store called Panapina at the end of the street where Amy and Ellen bought beautiful Qi Pao style tops and jackets. But enough, we were already going to be late for the family fete.
The Chen family dinner was at Dragon, a well known spot for roast duck. About 20 in attendance, none of the men folk who aren’t invited to these things for some reason. I can’t remember which cousin it was but she had on an ACDC sweatshirt and tried to drink me under the table. Once again to ‘Fourplay’ but this time we dragged the younger cousins along and they loved it. In between fire and sparks there was a ‘Drug Set’ cocktail with fake cocaine and plastic syringes that you drew blue alcohol out of a big bowl. I doctored it with the Taiwan firewater (kao liang) we had given to us (undrinkable 100 proof sorghum) and then fed it to unsuspecting Billy. Ha !
On Wednesday it was down to just Ellen and I as Billy and Amy went into the mountains to Hua Lian. We walked for miles back to Da’An finding the Dongmen Wet Market where they cornered the market on every organ you though was inedible. A bowl of excellent beef noodle soup and back to check out. We were heading for the hot springs.
The Beitou area is about 45 minutes drive out of Taipei proper. Now, the countryside gets green and mountainous. Hidden in the pretty valleys are natural hot springs with little resort communities surrounding. Ours was ‘Villa 32', a charming, luxe Relais & Chateau with just 5 rooms. In our room was a giant, stone tub that was fed by the hot spring but the water filtered and cooled a bit. Good thing, the hot springs are a constant 90° C. Dinner at the Villa 32's Italian restaurant was simply excellent. Beautifully prepared and served. One of the best western meals we’ve had in Asia. It should be, it cost as much as our 5-star room. In the morning we walked around the park like setting and took the trail to the thermal pools. On a damp, cool morning you could see the mist rising in the distance. The pool used to be open for public use and locals used to boil eggs in it believing the mineral content was restorative. But, too many people got scalded given it is 90° C and a few suicides were enough to close it off to just an observation walk.
Then, we were done and off to the airport for the 5 hour flight to Singapore. Taiwan was great fun and there is SO much more to see than our brief run around. We will be back.
Hotel Eclat - a funky 5-star SLH boutique hotel located in Taipei’s fashionable Da-An district.
Villa 32 - a charming, luxe Relais & Chateau hotel with just 5 rooms located in Beitou, a 45 minute drive out of Taipei proper.
Tua - stylish, upscale Taiwanese fare in Da-An district.
Addicted Aquatic Development - a modern fish market with 10 different concepts housed in the old Taipei fish market. A must visit!
Din Tai Fung - specialises in xiaolongbao and noodles. This is the original location.
Fourplay - tailor-made cocktails by creative mixologist.
Zhang Men Brewing - great craft beer brewery.
Double Deck Bus Tour - hop on hop off bus is an easy way to get a lay of the city.