Earlier this month, an on-line article on the Lonely Planet website listed Taiwan in the top ten countries to visit in the world in 2012. Taiwan’s ranking came in at 9th place. The article praised Taiwan as follows:
Taiwan has always had a jaw-dropping landscape – oversized sea cliffs and densely forested mountains barely start to describe its majesty. And then there’s the museums, which are simply bursting with treasures (including the best of imperial China, spirited across the strait after WWII), plus a thriving folk culture that includes some wild displays of Taoist and Buddhist worship. In terms of cuisine, Taiwan is a fusion and slow-food showcase. So why is 2012 the time to visit? Because Taiwan is best seen on two wheels and in recent years the authorities have embraced the biking market with surprising enthusiasm, vision and (most importantly) funding. This year sees the linking of thousands of kilometres of paths, including two round-the-island routes, and a host of other cycling friendly infrastructure projects.
I certainly cannot argue about the description of Taiwan as having a fusion and slow food showcase (although the real ‘slow food’ movement has yet to really take off here). And I highly recommend visiting at least one art gallery or museums, not just the National Palace Museum but also the Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Huashan Creative Park and the Museum of Contemporary Art. As to temples, well you can pretty much take your pick: my favourite game on roadtrips is counting temples and there are usually so many that I lose count.
I was mildly surprised (in a pleasant way) to see Taiwan singled out for its cycling culture. Last weekend, Mr Taiwanxifu, Taiwanxifu Toddler and I headed out for our semi-regular weekend cycling trip. We are recreational cyclists so do not go very far, although I have lofty visions of family von Trapp-style around-island trips far in excess of my current fitness level. We really love to explore the riverside areas in Taipei, where the Taipei City Government has really improved the urbane landscape in recent years. Actually, the first time we headed out to cycle along the bicycle paths along the river Mr Taiwanxifu couldn’t quite get over how the area had changed in the fifteen years that he had been in Australia.
Years ago when I was a student in the southern city of Tainan, I stubbornly insisted on cycling everywhere. My home-stay family thought I was mad: they kept offering me the use of their scooter. Despite a few minor traffic incidents and sweltering hot tropical summers, and I insisted on peddling my trusty red Giant bicycle everywhere. Since then, Taiwan has gone through a cycling craze following movies about the voyage of discovery through cycling in Taiwan. So now cycling is one of the coolest things to do, and you will find cyclists just about everywhere.
Here are our top ten favourite cycling destinations, all of which are family friendly and mostly flat. Many of these places have affordable bicycle rentals nearby.
1. Rainbow Bridge, Keelung River. The Rainbow Bridge (also known as the Chaihong Bridge) is a happy-red footbridge spanning the Keelung River, just behind the Raohe night markets. It is fun to grab some snacks at the bustling night markets and then escape to the bright calm of the Rainbow Bridge, flanked by bike paths on either side, to enjoy a picnic dinner. There is a small ramp up the bridge, but also a lift for disabled access (useful for if you have a baby or toddler on board). Keep going along the left bank of Keelung River and you will eventually pass the previous Flora Expo Site, and wind up near the Lin An-Tai Old House and Taipei Story House.
2. Keelung River Bicycle Trail, right bank. The cycle track continues over the other side of the rainbow bridge up to the iconic temple-like Grand Hotel (Yuanshan). I particularly like the Meiti Riverside park, where you can stop and enjoy a brief interlude on picnic tables. On Sunday afternoons, this area is packed with families enjoying some fleeting time together. The shady space underneath the nearby Dazhi bridge is a defacto rest stop for cyclists and a good space to stop for a rest.
3. Bitan. Once upon a time, the riverside Bitan area was almost a day trip out of Taipei. But now, it is easily accessible by the subway (MRT, Xindian stop). Bitan is a small, riverside area with an LED-lit drawbridge, some kitschy paddle boats, hiking trails in the hills and lots of cycling pathways. It is a scenic spot, with its own quirky charm. I especially like visiting on a hot midsummer’s evening. There is a non-for-profit bike rental place next to the car park which is very reasonably priced: the staff are also exceptionally friendly. The best thing about cycling in Bitan is that afterwards you can celebrate by dining at one of the several restaurants along the riverbank.
4. Taipei 101 and Xinyi Commercial District. Feeling like mixing and sightseeing and shopping downtown with some cycling? The Xinyi Commercial District, home to the second tallest building in the world — Taipei 101 — and a cluster of luxury shopping malls, is one of the must-see destinations for visitors to Taiwan. It is also cycle-friendly, thanks to a grid of purpose-built cycling tracks. And if you forget to pack your bike, no worries. You can hire a gleaning one-size-fits-all hire bike by swiping your public-transport and convenience store friendly Easycard, then drop it back at one of eleven bike stands in the Xinyi district before hiring out another bike. Rental is cost effective (NT$100 — USD$3 — for three hours, or alternatively 30 minutes of any hire session free and NT$15 — USD50c — for each 15 minute block thereafter). To organise your youbike hire, speak to one of the attendants at the booth near Taipei City Government MRT station exit 3. You will need to bring along identification and an easycard.
5. Sun Moon Lake. Set in an idyllic alpine lake setting, Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s premier tourist attractions. On a recent visit, Mr Taiwanxifu, Taiwanxifu Toddler and I enjoyed a leisurely morning cycling by the lake. (Notice I didn’t say cycling ‘around’ the 29km lake. We stuck to the completed purpose-built bike paths, and were happy to see many new sections being built.) We keep having ‘ooh, ahh’ moments stopping to pose for pictures and admire the amazing view over the azure blue water to the hills beyond.
6. Dongshan Riverside Park, Yilan. The Dongshan Riverside Park in Yilan is a fun place for young families, especially during the summer Ilan Children’s and Folklore Festival. The Riverside Park is a sprawling complex along the Dongshan River; in summer there are heaps of water-slides and other aquatic equipment for kids to play on. But all year round you can cycle along bike track beside the river, and also hire a bike from one of many outlets in the park. Drive in from Taipei (less than an hour) and park in the complex. If you are feeling energetic you can cycle along the river to the National Center for Traditional Arts, where you can catch a traditional-style performance or two and shop for curios along the recreated ‘old street’.
7. Hengchun Peninsular, Pingtung. Earlier this year, we went on a group family holiday with three other families to Kenting, in Pingtung. We stayed at the Yoho Hotel, which was close to the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium on the Hengchun Peninsular. (The Yoho Hotel is a large, well-organised complex that includes the stylish Yoho Kids Hotel where we stayed, and the Yoho Bike Hotel.) There were several bicycle paths in the area, mainly along the sea, and the whole area was flat. And there were also dedicated biking activities run by the resort, including a mountain biking/BMX area. I loved seeing whole families out enjoying cycling adventures together. Kenting is Taiwan’s ‘Miami’ — a tropical paradise on the island’s southern-most tip, with a laid-back attitude a world away from Taiwan’s major cities.
8. Tainan. Taiwan’s ancient capital city, filled with temples, former Dutch forts, colonial Japanese buildings and a unique snack food culture is a fascinating place to visit. And one of the best ways to see it all is on two wheels, especially as the city is mainly flat. One of my favourite routes is to travel east along Cheng Kung Road, stopping to pause at the former Dutch Fort Provintia (Chikanlou) and nearby temples (God of War Temple and the Kaiji Matsu Temple). Reconnect to Cheng Kung Road and detour past the Tainan Park before heading up to the scenic National Cheng Kung University. Loop back around passing by the East City Gate, and stop at the Confucian Temple (historically the first temple in Taiwan).
9. Guandu Wharf to Danshui. Guandu is famous for its sprawling Guandu Temple, set inside a rocky hillside, and the bird-watching paradise of Guandu Nature Park. It also has great bike paths, and a selection of cheap riverside eats to help fuel a cycling day trip. Start at the Guandu temple and cycle 5.5km north along the river to Danshui, along an elevated wooden path through mangroves. Danshui is famous for its ‘old street’ riverside night markets. While it gets busy on a weekend (especially in the evening), there is plenty to see and you can continue cycling all the way along the river to the Fishermen’s Wharf. Make sure to stop a the historic Hongmao Castle to learn more about European history in Taiwan. If you get tired you can hop on the train and head back from Danshui to Guandu or continue on the red line to the Taipei Main Railway Station.
10. Seven Star Bay, Hualien. I have fond memories of Seven Star Bay. Not long after we started dating, Mr Taiwanxifu and I spent a memorable sunset picking stones together at the beach at Seven Star Bay at Hualien. In recent years, hotels and B & B (minsu) have begun to spring up although thankfully it is not yet on the mainstream tour-bus route. There is a dedicated bike path that snakes along the spectacular coastline for 15 km, as well as inter-connecting paths that take you into the center of Hualien and even out to pretty Liyu Lake. And for aviation buffs, the cycle path take you right past fighter jets parked in the nearby military airfield.
I have not included the recently opened 20km Old Caoling Circle bicycle path in the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area because I have not yet cycled it (although we plan to soon!). Similarly, I have seen but not cycled the sea-side bicycle path in Hsinchu. Nor have I included cycling options in the southern-city of Kaohsiung (such as along the Love River) which I have heard are also very good. For further information on cycling paths in Taipei, see the publication Taipei Metro’s Guide to Hiking & Cycling.