Few tourists make it to Taiwan and so it remains fairly unknown to Westerners, but there is much to discover in this distinctive island nation just east of China. Embracing democracy in the 1990s, its lively cultural life is informed by Chinese, Western and Japanese influences, while traditional Asian culture is well preserved here, as is the jaw-dropping nature.
There are lots of options for getting around Taiwan, including a network of buses and trains, and even domestic flights, as well as boats to islands. Signs in Chinese characters can make travel difficult, though increasingly Roman lettering can be seen; in any case, it's best to write down destinations to show staff. High-speed trains have brought the journey between Taipei and Kaohsiung down to five hours.
Taiwan has changed a lot over the last 50 years due to its staggering economic progress. Known as the Taiwan Miracle, the boom has transformed the island into one of the richest countries on the planet. Much of this can be seen in Taipei, the roaring capital city, with its 2.6 million inhabitants, soaring skyscrapers and modern architecture.
After the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai Shek's forces went in exile to the island to set up the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan. Apart from building a startlingly modern country, successive governments have preserved much of the traditional Chinese culture lost on the mainland, best found in Taipei's museums.
Apart from its modern and traditional Chinese/Taiwanese culture, Taiwan's natural world is wildly beautiful, and yet to be spoiled. Dazzling beaches abound on almost part of the island coast, but especially on the northern seaboard. There are also no less than eight national parks on this relatively small island, with Taroko National Park being one of the finest; its dramatic gorge features the treacherous river route, the Tunnel of Nine Tunnels. There are also several mighty mountains and precious offshore islands to take in.
One peculiar Taiwanese highlight is its extraordinary hot springs. First developed and promoted under Japanese rule, many resorts have been built over the sites of these naturally occurring warm wonders. Some of the most notable going back decades are at Beitou and Yangmingshan. The springs were neglected post-Japan, but hot-spring tourism has recently been developed again by the government and tour operators.
Although everyone knows about Taipei, another interesting city is Taichung. Apart from its glittering skyscrapers and booming arts scene, it has many beautiful temples and functions as a great stopping point for exploring the rural beauty of Nantou County.
Close to the Chinese mainland, Taiwanese cuisine has much in common with its big brother, especially Fujian province. But there are some subtle differences, and significant Japanese influences, for example rice wine, here known as Mijiu.
Rice is naturally a staple, while indigenous fruits abound, and seafood dishes are common – this is, after all, an island. Expect grouper, tuna, crustaceans and sardines. Pork is widely eaten, beef much less so with older Taiwanese still sometimes abstaining from eating it. Vegetarianism is common, largely thanks to Buddhism. There are a number of elegant restaurants in Taipei and Taichung, though local restaurants also tend to be of a good quality in and around the cities.