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Rural Taiwan offers idyllic Japanese-style hot springs, bubble tea fest and magnificent hiking

The i logo The i 08/11/2019
© Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

You’re unlikely to go thirsty in Taichung. This city on the west coast of Taiwan, close to the forested foothills of Xueshan – Snow Mountain – is regarded as the birthplace of bubble tea.

In July, a festival was launched to celebrate the city’s connections with the drink. It is referred to by locals as pearl milk tea, although baobing (shavings of ice topped with condensed milk and fruit) is just as popular. I pay less than £1 for my first bowl of shaved ice, purchased from a vendor on a side street, which I wolf down while perched on a plastic stool.

a large waterfall over a body of water © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Taichung is a surprising place. In the city centre, a tangle of skyscrapers gives way to serene green spaces, such as Taichung Park, built when the country was under Japanese rule.

It is filled with Japanese-style pavilions and quirky statues, including a chubby goat atop a mountain. In Charlotte Park, an enormous sculpture of an ear pays homage to the adjacent building – the spectacular National Taichung Theatre. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito, it is renowned for its womb-like interior, which is entirely free from straight lines.

a large waterfall in a forest © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Joys of spring

Taichung is a popular base for hikers keen to explore the foothills of Xueshan (Photo: via Kate O'Brien)

Taichung is also a popular base for hikers keen to explore the foothills of Xueshan, a soaring, often snow-topped landscape warmed by natural hot springs. The area’s appeal was bolstered this summer by the opening of Hoshinoya Guguan – a hot spring resort and the first Taiwanese operation for Japan-based Hoshino Resorts.

It takes 90 minutes to drive from Taichung to the property, via a serpentine road that thrashes its way past tumbling waterfalls and villages clinging to mountainsides.

The resort’s design – a low-rise collection of buildings dotted around a vast, pine tree-filled plot – was inspired by traditional Japanese ryokans, or inns. As welcome as it is, it is also surprising that it has taken this long to open. Japan’s Emperor Meiji visited the area in 1907; soon after, his wife became pregnant and the springs became known as the “male child springs”, bubbling between 45°C and 60°C.

Staff glide quietly around the incense-fragranced resort, seemingly floating along wooden walkways that wind through the sprawling gardens. The employee who shows me to my room points out the internal door I can close should the gurgles from the onsen, or spring, on my balcony keep me awake. In fact, I find it calming. I’m not usually one for long soaks, but that evening I spend 40 minutes in my onsen, admiring the stars that pierce Taiwan’s dark skies.

The place feels intrinsically Japanese. There are Shiseido toiletries in the bathroom, and everything looks immaculately beautiful, from the toothbrush holders to the sculpture-like stool by the bathroom sink. I don’t even have to lift my loo seat – my toilet is a Toto, a Japanese extravaganza with control panels and optional sound effects.

On my first morning, I sign up for a lesson in qigong, a tai chi-type discipline involving slow movements and deep breathing. There is something incredibly relaxing about performing these long, slow movements in the middle of a forest, to a soundtrack of birdsong and frogs, although I’m sure my fellow qigongers – including a Taiwanese teen who earns a sharp rebuke from his father when his iPhone tumbles from his waistband – are appalled by my ineptitude.

Into the woods

Reassuringly, there are sedentary activities, too (Photo via Kate O'Brien)

There are dozens of activities on offer, but I spend much of my time exploring the surrounds, starting with a trail that winds through the slopes above the resort.

Although I am not planning on summiting any of the region’s peaks, some of which top out at 3,000m – Xueshan is Taiwan’s second-highest mountain at 3,886m – hiking the narrow trails is hard work. But it is rewarding – the forest sings with birdcalls and there are colourful clouds of butterflies at every turn.

Reassuringly, there are sedentary activities, too, not least in the resort’s enormous spa. I find it behind a huge wooden door that glides open when I wave my hand in front of a sensor. Once inside, I am presented with Hoshinoya Guguan’s signature dish – shaved ice shaped like Xueshan mountain, topped with pine tree powder, which is revered for its energy-boosting properties.

After, a spa therapist talks me through the gentle exercises traditionally carried out before visits to an onsen, and serves me a cup of liver-cleansing hibiscus tea, commonly drunk during sessions in Taiwanese spas.

Full disclosure: I didn’t use the public onsen. In Taiwan, swimwear is worn, but here guests are (rather firmly) encouraged to do as the Japanese do and disrobe entirely. In my defence, I make it as far as the changing room, buoyed by my assumption that I will be able to cast off my dressing gown and throw myself straight into the pool – but that’s not the case.

From the safety of the changing room, I spot a row of naked women sitting poolside, leisurely splashing water over their feet prior to their dip. The arrival of Taiwan’s answer to Gigi Hadid makes up my mind and I scuttle back to soak on my balcony instead. And contemplate how my bathtub at home suddenly seems rather small.

When to go

Xueshan is particularly picturesque during spring blossom season, as well as in autumn when the trees are ablaze with colour. Although rare for Taiwan, snow can fall in the mountains during winter. Cities such as Taichung and Taiwan can be very hot during the summer.

The north-east monsoon is from October to March and the south-west monsoon is usually from May to September, with typhoons hitting the east coast and central mountains in the latter months.

How to get there

Heathrow to Hong Kong return fares on Virgin Atlantic are from £569. Hong Kong to Taipei returns on Scoot are from £154. Eva Air flies from Heathrow to Taipei via Bangkok.

Where to stay

Double rooms at the Hoshinoya Guguan start at £468 a night.

Where to eat

Don’t miss the chance to enjoy a kaiseki-style meal at Hoshinoya Guguan’s main restaurant. Kaiseki is a traditional, multi-course meal served in Japan, although here, it’s been given a Taiwanese twist with the use of local specialities such as sturgeon.

In Taichung’s North District, seek out the novel Banana New Paradise. Tucked inside a replica of a Taiwanese city street, complete with fake Fifties shopfronts, ranging from a toy store to a hair salon, the tiny restaurant on the first floor houses a petrol pump and various vintage toys. Food is standard Taiwanese fare – noodles, seafood and fried rice-based dishes.

One of the city’s most popular bars is ChangeX Beer in Taichung’s centre. There is an enormous range of craft beers, and the pizzas will fix any late-night hunger pangs.

What to see

As well as Xueshan, there are public hot springs near Taipei. Xinbeitou Hot Springs in the Beitou Thermal Valley is open every Tuesday to Sunday.

More information

British passport holders can visit for up to 90 days without a visa.

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