Story by ANH DO
Photos by HUNG NGUYEN
The start of a new year comes with it new lists.
And on the list for top 2012 destinations, Taiwan – formerly Formosa, for “beautiful” – is lauded by both Lonely Planet and Fox News as a must-see spot.
GYPSY: Joshua Brown, who has authored two guidebooks focusing on Taiwan, says that although he’s constantly on the road, he would consider settling down in the country where his heart remains.
“Taiwan has always had a jaw-dropping landscape — oversized sea cliffs and densely forested mountains barely start to describe its majesty,” noted Lonely Planet, the guidebook publisher, collating ideas from its family of travelers, bloggers and tweeters before deciding its Top 10 spots around the globe.
Taipei, capital of Taiwan, “has an emerging culinary scene (world-famous chef Joel Robuchon opened a restaurant there in November 2009) and plenty of snazzy new construction, while the surrounding countryside offers lush hot springs, majestic mountains and golden-sand beaches,” according to Fox News, naming it a Top 10 budget travel choice.
VISITORS WELCOMED: Janice Lai, director general of Taiwan Tourism Bureau, appears onstage during a recent visit to Los Angeles with Jannelle So, popular talk show host on KSCI Channel 18. As of November 2011, Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s total number of tourists was at a record-breaking high of 619,343 – marking a 17.08 percent growth rate. Bureau officials are expecting a benchmark of 10 million tourists to Taiwan in 2015.
Jannelle So, after two tours of Taiwan, aired segments on her talk show on KSCI Channel 18, said she can’t wait to return.
“The shopping, the food, and my gosh, you must see Sun Moon Lake. It is misty… it is heaven,” she said of the attraction designated one of 13 national scenic areas of Taiwan. “I would go to Sun Moon Lake anytime.”Indeed, Taiwan’s tourism surpassed its record with the 6th million visitor arriving at Taoyuan International Airport on Dec. 28. That’s an 8 percent increase in the number of visitors in 2011 compared to 2010, said Janice Lai, director general of Taiwan Tourism Bureau, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Nurturing the steady pace of growth, officials touted a host of vacation options. including bird-watching, museum-hopping and two major incentives singled out by Lonely Planet and Fox News: busing and bicycling.
With the debut of Taiwan Tourist Bus Travel Service, day trips to island attractions start as low as $11. The places to see includes the previously noted alpine Sun Moon Lake – a trip that includes a cable-car ride, a boat tour and electric-scooter rental.
And there’s good news for bike enthusiasts, with railroad stations countrywide geared up to be friendlier to bikers, stocking bicycle ramps with bicycle shops located near stations for convenience. While the Eastern part of Taiwan has blossomed into a bicycle paradise, across the country workers at police stations offer help in fixing bikes and provide water and aid to bicyclists, Lai said.
“This year sees the linking of thousands of kilometers of paths, including two round-the-island routes,” according to Lonely Planet.
“When I go to Wulai,” famed for hot springs and aboriginal culture, “I can leave my bike at the police station and they watch it for me,” said Joshua Brown, author of the 2007 and 2010 editions of Lonely Planet’s Taiwan. For its new book called “Top Street Foods,” Brown penned homages to two of his must-eats, bamboo rice and “stinky tofu,” made with a brine of fermented milk, vegetables and meat. It may also contain Chinese herbs and dried shrimp.
“Taiwan is underrated,” said Brown, who has helped write guides to Belize and Singapore. “I’ve been telling people that for 15 years. They’re starting to listen.”
In 2011, for Taiwan’s 100th anniversary, officials created 100 travel itineraries for those eager to learn about the country, exploring all manner of delights. And the celebration continues, with the upcoming “Year of the Dragon” touted in Lunar New Year events for 15 straight days, starting Jan. 23 through Feb. 19.
AT THE BALLPARK: Michael Young, chief revenue officer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, says his team is an enthusiastic supporter of “Taiwan Day” at Dodger Stadium.
Michael Young, CRO or chief revenue officer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, would not be surprised. His team is enthusiastic about its “integrated partnership” with Taiwan Tourism Bureau, resulting in an annual Taiwan Day at the ballpark. “It’s a great way to recognize the long history of the country and to expose our fans to the beauty of Taiwan,” he said. “We really enjoy it. We are the first major league baseball team to play in Taiwan, the first team to sign a Taiwanese player (pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo) and we have many Taiwanese fans in Taiwan and in the U.S.”
Young has visited Taiwan and hopes to take his family back for the Lantern Festival, which celebrates folklore, usually the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
Elyse Glickman, a writer based in Southern California, timed her trip to attend the 2010 Culinary Exhibition, witnessing an impeccably choreographed chef parade and sampling everything from cult-favorite dumpling joint, Din Tai Fong, to a Cantonese banquet at Silks Palace, a restaurant inside Taipei’s National Palace Museum. At its table, the twist of reproducing in food form some of the museum’s best-known items led to an unforgettable carved jadeite cabbage with insects.
Curious? “Go and experience it yourself,” Glickman said. “From street food to five-star establishments, I found it amazing – and at every price point. The consistent quality is that it was all consistently good.”
So, the Filipino show host, cites as favorites the oyster omelet and, of course, stinky tofu. “If you want a trip where you are learning, from history to culture, combined with new fashion to take home, this is the place,” she said.
ROMANCE ON THE ROAD: They chose Taiwan as their honeymoon destination and comedian Rob Schneider and his wife, Patricia, savor memories from their trip.
For the comedian Rob Schneider, and his wife, Patricia — newlyweds who honeymooned in Taiwan — a highlight is tea. “Nowhere is tea as good as it is in Taiwan,” he said during a reception hosted by Taiwan Tourism Bureau in Los Angeles. Seeing tea made at a tea plantation, observing tea ceremonies, hearing stories, these proved unforgettable.
For Patricia Schneider, it was “tasting everything. I did not shy from anything. And the duck neck was my favorite,” said the woman from Mexico City. “Every night, we went to the night market… The sounds, the rhythm – and oh, the people – the people were lovely. We talked about our trip a lot before we got there. And when we were right there, it was much better than I thought.”
“There’s a real kindness and a sweetness to the people,” added Rob Schneider, whose film, “Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo” is a pop-culture hit in Taiwan. “Also, the best chicken soup I’ve ever had in my life was in Taiwan.”
As Taiwan, with “the heart of Asia” as its logo, seeps into mainstream culture, its influence is spreading via, what else, television. Last year alone saw the country play host to tapings of reality show stalwarts, “The Bachelorette” and “Amazing Race.” The Taiwanese government offers subsidies to cruise lines, and among those who make port stops to the country are Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean International, according to Trust H.J. Lin, director of Taiwan Tourism Bureau in L.A.
Taiwan Tourism officials participated in the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and the agency had a key role in helping to organize Taste of Taiwan at the Kodak Theater, home to the Academy Awards.
CONSTANT TRAVELERS: F.B. Chang, vice president of China Airlines, expects tourism to Taiwan to continue to climb, even in a lagging economy.
Taiwan’s ascent is boosted by the boom in tourism in China, said F.B. Chang, vice president for the Americas for China Airlines. He predicts “Taiwan will remain strong,” along with Europe, thanks in part to it being affordable, quality service, marketing and innovation.
“More and more people want to come here,” said Joshua Brown, on assignment for Lonely Planet. “I consider myself a gypsy. But if I had to pick a city where I have to live the rest of my life, I’d pick Taipei.”