Ilha Formosa – Beautiful Island. This is what a group of Portuguese sailors, said to have been the first Westerners to lay eyes on the island, uttered upon seeing Taiwan for the first time. We imagine they must have been pretty enamoured. While not every Westerner has the same love-at-first-sight reaction to Taiwan, our Portuguese seafaring friends were just the first of many. With the lush mountains of Wulai, pulsating cities like Taipei, the stunning basalt cliffs of Penghu , excellent hiking in Taroko Gorge, not to mention some of the world’s best hot springs (we especially like the Taian Hot Springs), Taiwan cuts a figure as one of the most diverse destinations in Asia.
True, Taiwan hasn’t yet made it to the top of everybody’s ‘to visit’ list, but we think this is partially a result of people not quite knowing what Taiwan has to offer. But within the borders of this small, sweet-potato-shaped island barely the size of many American states lies a world of contrasts and a melange of cultural influences you’re not likely to find anywhere else on the planet.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Taiwan is increasingly drawing travellers of all stripes: from spiritual seekers looking to experience the island’s religious heritage to gourmands in search of the perfect night-market meal to computer geeks scanning the horizon for the latest high-tech gadgets. Taiwan offers visitors a hypermodern skin, an ancient Chinese skeleton and an aboriginal soul. And more than that, Taiwan has some of the world’s warmest people, affable to a fault and so filled with rénqíng wèi (which, roughly translated, means ‘personal affection’) that few who come to Taiwan a stranger leave that way.
Much has changed in the centuries since the Portuguese first saw Taiwan. Still, we think if the same group of sailors came back in the present day, they’d call it Ilha Formosa all over again.