Taiwan with its diverse landscapes and its compact size is the perfect place for a road trip. We decided to spend 2.5 weeks traveling round the island, heading down the east coast first from Taipei to Kenting.
Highlights of the East Coast of Taiwan
For the first leg of the trip, we decided to spend a couple of nights at a number of major cities along the way, which would give us more time to visit the surrounding areas. We chose the cities of Hualien, Taitung, and Kenting, purely because they were fairly large and would provide better and cheaper options for hotels.
Driving along the curvy mountainous roads, we were amazed at the spectacular views and took our time to relish the experience. The roads in Taiwan are well maintained, and the drive was relatively easy.
To encourage tourism on the island and ensure that various places receive the recognition they deserve the government set up the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, which established the national scenic areas and grouped the country’s natural attractions (NSA) per region. We found this useful on the drive, and stopped at a few of the scenic areas.
Hualien is a small city that is bordered by the Central Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean. After a short drive from Taipei, we felt it would be the perfect place to stay for our visit to Taroko National Park, as it is located just a few kilometres south of the park.
Highlights around Hualien
Taroko National Park
One of the 8 national parks in Taiwan, the park covers an area of 92,000 hectares in the Central Mountain Range and is most known for the gorge, which it is named after. The 19 km gorge was formed by a combination of the collision of two tectonic plates and erosion by the deep running Liwu river. The high pressure and temperatures have metamorphosed the original rock into marble.
Within the park are several attractions including the Eternal Spring Shrine, the Tunnel of Nine Turns, Cihmu Bridge (with the frog rock) and Swallow Grotto. The area with the most visitors was Swallow Grotto, where a 25 minutes walking path has been provided that leads through tunnels and has some rocky overhangs with dripping water. The cliff opposite is filled with small holes where swallows often nest.
The best way to discover the intimate areas of the park is by hiking the various trails, though depending on the season, several trails might be closed. A narrow windy 2-lane road (the central cross-island highway) runs through the park, and leads from the east entrance of the park to Dayuling, a distance of 75km.
Though we had lots of rain when we visited and the river was muddy and shallow, the views within the park were still spectacular.
Admission: NT$ 0
Getting to Taroko National Park
By car, the park is 20 km drive from Hualien. Buses also run from Hualien in the morning and stop at the visitor centre.
Sleeping in Hualien
Classic City Hualien
Booked at the last minute, the hotel was conveniently located and offered free parking. The room was of a decent size and reasonably clean. The complimentary breakfast though basic included both Western and local options.
Dining in Hualien
We couldn’t locate an English name for this restaurant, but this place was a pleasant find after walking through the drizzling rain and finding our first choice place (Dos Tacos) booked solid. The Japanese restaurant was almost empty, but had friendly staff and excellent food.
Highlights between Hualien and Taitung
The great thing about a road trip is the ability to stop wherever whenever! As we approached the bridge over the Fanshuliao river, the spectacular scenery caused us to pull over to get a better view. The valley below the bridge is 70 m deep and 50 m wide, and on the bridge both sides have a diverse landscape. On one side are low undulating hills and valleys, while on the other is the deep gorge with steep rocky mountains.
Getting to Fanshuliao
The bridge is located at the 28 km mark on Highway 11.
Shih Ti Fishing Harbor
Several kilometres south of Fanshuliao, the fishing harbor is the birthplace of whale watching in Taiwan, and the best place to catch a glimpse of one. We visited during low season, and as such the place was very quiet with no activity.
Shihtiping Visitor Centre
Located barely 5 minutes from Shih Ti fishing harbor, Shihtiping (meaning: stone stairs platform) is an area with incredible rock formations. A short walk from the entrance is a natural stone staircase of different lengths and widths jutting out into the sea formed by natural forces and tectonic effects.
Tropic of Cancer Marker
While there was not much to see here, outside of the marker, it was quite cool to be on the actual spot of the most northernly circle of latitude on earth at which the sun can be directly overhead. The marker is built with slits in the middle such that during the summer solstice the sun will shine right through.
Getting to the Tropic of Cancer Marker
The marker is located at the 69km mark on highway 11.
One of the most visited places on the eastern coast, Sanxiantai is made up of a 10 km beach and an island with three large rocks. The island used to be connected to the mainland by a stretch of land which allowed visitors to walk across during low tide. Due to gradual erosion this is no longer possible, and an 8-arch bridge designed in the shape of waves similar to the back of a dragon was built in 1987.
There is a trail among the rocks and coral reef leading around the island or to the top of the lighthouse. Most tourists only make it half way across the bridge and don’t reach the island. This makes the atmosphere on the island more peaceful. We climbed up to the lighthouse, and were rewarded with beautiful views.
Admission fee: NT$ 0; Parking fee: NT$ 60
Getting to Sanxiantai
Sanxiantai is located at the 111 km marker on highway 11.
Water Running Upward
Described as a miracle or a phenomenon, the “water running upward” site is basically a set of canals that go uphill around a small garden area. As one climbs uphill beside the canals, the water appears to run upwards defying gravity. Of course, it is all about the construction of the canals and the road beside it, that give this odd illusion.
Getting to the Water Running Upward
Turn right at the 148 km marker on highway 11.
The landscape around Taitung is beautiful, as it is located between a range of mountains and the Atlantic ocean. The city has a more laid back vibe than Taipei or Hualien, and the best way to get around is by bicycle. We biked along the Mountain-Ocean bikeway, a 21 km trail, through gardens, parks, and past the river.
Taitung is known for the annual hot-air balloon festival that occurs in June and July. During the festivals it is possible to go up in a balloon at a reasonable price, but since we visited during the off-season, the prices were exorbitant.
Getting to Taitung
Taitung is about 160 km from Hualien down highway 11. The drive took about 5-6 hours due to the additional stops.
Sleeping in Taitung
Taitung Z Hotel
We booked and confirmed this hotel totally by email, and were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the hotel and service. Breakfast was initially not to our taste or preference, but the next day the staff went out of their way to cater to us. Parking was located about 50 m from the property in a secured area. The hotel provided us with free bikes.
Dining in Taitung
南北餃子館 (North-South Dumpling Restaurant)
A traditional Taiwanese restaurant, we visited this place based on a recommendation from our hotel. The place was busy and is definitely a local favourite. The food was inexpensive, but good and tasty.
Rong Shu Xia Rice Noodles
Known for the tree that stands in the middle of the restaurant, as well as its rice noodles this place is popular with locals. The restaurant does not have a large number of individual tables, so the norm is to share the table with other diners. The food was good and reasonably priced.
Though Kenting and Kenting National Park are usually used to refer to the national park, Kenting is actually an area covering the southernmost section of Taiwan and includes the townships of Hengchun, Manzhou and Checheng. The area is known for its beaches and hot climate. The town is popular with Taiwanese tourists, and there are loads of hotels, bars and restaurants. Every night, the main road in Kenting turns into a night market with food and clothes stalls and is often jampacked!
Highlights in and around Kenting
Kenting National Forest Recreation Area
We visited early one morning, after we had heard that the park could be busy with tourists. Covering an area of 150 hectares, the recreation area is filled with diverse species of plants, trees and a number of caves. We spent just over 1.5 hours following the trail to the 14 key locations noted on the guide map. Though a walkway gives it a less natural feel, we enjoyed the hours we spent ambling around.
Admission fee: NT$ 100
Sheding Nature Park
The park is located quite close to the recreation area on land that used to belong to the aboriginal people. The park is open to the public at no charge, and is popular with locals. The best part of the park were the gorges through which we had to scramble.
Southernmost point of Taiwan
While Taiwan is a small island, and it does not take much to reach the southernmost point, we decided to make a trip to the marker denoting the spot. From this spot, the Philippines is just over 250 km to the south.
Admission fee: NT$ 0
Getting to Kenting
Kenting is just over 140 km south from Taitung. The end of the coastal highway # 11 is about 4 km out of Taitung, after which the road turns inland.
Hengchun Old Town
The old town was built in 1873 and is one of the best preserved towns of Taiwan. Built around the city were walls of 2.7 km in length. Currently, all of the gates are remaining, and about half of the walls. The East gate remains mostly intact and we were able to climb to the top, though there was not much of a view.
Chuhuo National Scenic Area
The scenic area was created around an eternal flame caused by natural gases which are emitted from cracks in the ground and ignited by a fire source. Since this was our first eternal flame experience, we were quite impressed, though we did have to search closely to see the flames.
Sleeping in Kenting
Kenting Location Hotel
Despite being the low season, we found most hotels in Kenting to be quite pricey. Kenting Location hotel was the most affordable we could find, and though it ended up being a few notches above a hostel, it was satisfactory.
Dining in Kenting
Located barely a few steps from our hotel, given our love for Thai food we decided to try the restaurant out. While the food was good, it was a tapered down version of true Thai cuisine.
The restaurant serves a plethora of Thai, Malay or Chinese dishes and is set off an alley behind the busy Kenting Road. Though it was pricier than other places, we enjoyed the atmosphere and food.