TAIWAN AND ONLY

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Tower of power: Taipei 101 Observatory]

MANILA, MARCH 13, 2010 (STAR) CULTURE VULTURE By Therese Jamora-Garceau - Looking for the next cool destination to travel to? Taiwan, that island in the West Pacific located in between the Philippines and Japan, has the potential to become the next hotspot in Filipino travelers’ itineraries.

Why do I say this? Because Taiwan has everything that appeals to the wayfaring Pinoy: bargain shopping, delicious food, comfortable accommodations, breathtaking sights, a distance conducive to impulse-travel — a mere two hours away by plane — and it’s so cheap to get there.

Cebu Pacific Air (CEB), now our No. 1 domestic airline with the most domestic destinations (33), the lowest year-round fares and the youngest fleet of planes, is currently offering its lowest Go Lite fare to Taiwan — P1,499 one-way to Taipei. How can the savvy globe-trekker say no?

Prior to visiting Taiwan, I had only the haziest notions about the country. I knew it was part of the Republic of China, that one of my favorite film directors, Ang Lee, was from there, and that it had a lot of theme restaurants. I’d heard about one restaurant that served all its food in toilet bowls, and another that looked like a correctional facility (read: a prison). Which is all very well if you like gimmicky cuisine, but I have only one requirement for food: that it be good. The fact that a restaurant needs a theme to gain attention doesn’t say much about the eats.

So when CEB tied up with the Taiwan Tourism Board for a media familiarization trip to this unfamiliar country, I was looking forward to having any urban myths debunked and my vague notions clarified.

We took Cebu Pacific’s 10:30 p.m. flight out of NAIA 3 and arrived at 12:40 a.m. in Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport (there’s no time difference between here and Taiwan). At night Taipei looks like any other modern Asian city, with broad, brightly lit highways and neon signs written in Mandarin Chinese, the official language of Taiwan.

Our home for two nights was the Miramar Garden Taipei (83 Sec. 3 Civic Blvd., Taipei, +886-2-8772-8800, www.miramargarden. com.tw), a five-star hotel with gorgeous, ultra-modern rooms ranging from US$219/night for a deluxe to $250/night for business (you can find even lower rates online), generous buffet breakfast included.

The Best History Lesson I’ve Ever Had

Pinoys don’t typically make time for museums abroad, but if there’s one museum you must visit make it Taipei’s National Palace Museum (www.npm.gov.tw/en/home.htm), and move heaven and earth to get Mr. Yang as your guide. This cultural edifice is as busy as a train station because it houses the world’s largest collection of priceless Chinese art, which take on even more epic proportions thanks to Yang’s dramatic, Laurence Olivier-type delivery. Referring to Mao-kung Ting, a bronze cooking vessel inscribed with text from 771 BC, he intones, “Ladies and gentlemen … the Mona Lisa,” before exiting with a flourish and leading us to other treasures like a Ch’ing Dynasty stone that looks exactly like a piece of roast pork, and a jadeite cabbage with katydids that a prospective queen presented to a Ch’ing Dynasty king, claiming that it guaranteed fertility and many sons (it didn’t).

We then lunched at Red Castle 1899 Restaurant, a beautifully designed, crimson-walled eatery with no theme and really good food. Taiwan is famous for its smelly tofu, but its silken mapo tofu is excellent as well, and best tried through Red Castle’s hotpot seafood tofu or hotpot tofu in lotus leaf. Other must-tries are the steamed codfish topped with crispy soybeans, and spicy beef with onion and red chilies.

Shopping + Eating = Night Market

Well-fortified, we were in the mood for shopping at Danshui Old Street, the main road of Danshui (which means “river outlet”), a quaint seaside town about an hour’s drive away from Taipei. Old Street is lined with boutiques selling clothes, jewelry, toys, souvenirs, and street-food stalls offering all manner of local snacks: fish crisps, shrimp rolls, fish balls, “iron” preserved eggs, and fried meat pastries.

The perfect ending to a Danshui day trip is a stop by Fisherman’s Wharf, a leisure fishing port developed by the Taipei County government. Couples stroll hand-in-hand across Lovers’ or Valentine Bridge, which spans the Danshui River, and watch the sunset munching crispy crablets or shrimp from a nearby covered market.

Though we snacked on that very same deep-fried seafood, our next stop was Shilin Night Market (across the Jiantan MRT Station). Taipei is famous for its night markets, and Shilin is one of the most popular, featuring not only a shopping section with trendy fashions and accessories but also a large food court where you can try local specialties like stir-fried squid, huge chicken cutlets, scallion pancakes, pearl milk tea and paopao ices. After buying pasalubong, we settled into one of the eateries and ordered Taiwan’s famous oyster omelet, Shilin super-size sausages, and guava juice with milk.

Electronics Haven

Gadget hounds should know that two of the most popular portable-PC brands, Acer and Asus, are made in Taiwan. Consequently, you can get a laptop or netbook for 25 percent less in Taipei (and save around P5,000 to P6,000 on Manila prices). That night we went to an electronics market that happened to be really close to our hotel and found, not only our dream netbook, but also cell phones and cameras like the Canon G11 being sold at 10 to 20 percent cheaper than back home. The only catch? If you do buy a laptop, you’ll need to get it converted from Chinese to English, but that’s a service the vendors here willingly offer, and it only takes a day or two.

Wraparound Views

Save a whole morning for sightseeing. The next day we trooped to the majestic white-marble and blue-glass-roofed Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (www.cksmh.gov.tw/eng/index.php), commemorating the great political and military leader who became the father of Taiwan and its longstanding president. Inside you can see artifacts like Chiang’s first sedan, which was actually a gift from the overseas Chinese living in the Philippines in the mid-’50s. There’s also a picture of Chiang discussing the Asian outlook with Philippine President Elpidio Quirino in 1949.

It seems that every thriving modern city except Manila has an observation tower as a symbol of thrusting progress. Taiwan has Taipei 101 (www.taipei-101.com.tw) and, at 509.2 meters and 101 floors, it was the tallest tower in the world until Dubai opened its Burj Khalifa this year. But no matter. Its wraparound views of Taipei and the surrounding mountains are stunning, it has the fastest ascending elevator at 60.6 km/hr, and it even has a luxury shopping mall located within.

Soup Dumplings So Good

Ever had xiaolongbao? Well, these amazing soup dumplings actually originated in Taiwan, and the restaurant that invented them is Din Tai Fung (www.dintaifung. com.tw/en/index.asp), which no less than The New York Times has hailed as one of the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world. The restaurant lives up to the hype, with lines of customers snaking out the door and down the block, and a level of energy that could best be described as frenetic. We had to wait half an hour for a table, but the dumplings were well worth the wait: DTF has steamed soup dumplings of every stripe — pork, shrimp, shrimp and pork, and fish — all served piping-hot and delicious. There’s also traditional chicken soup, braised beef noodles and eight-treasure glutinous rice, but dumplings definitely reign supreme here. There are even steamed mashed-taro dumplings for dessert.

Raise The Red (And Pink, Yellow & Green) Lanterns

We took the Taiwan High Speed Rail, the nation’s version of the bullet train, from Taipei to Chiayi for the Taiwan Lantern Festival, which is celebrated every year at the end of Chinese New Year. The festival is held annually in a different city and hundreds of thousands flock to that city to enter the lantern competition or just appreciate the artistry involved. A sea of red lanterns undulated around the park, punctuated by landmark lanterns in the form of dragons, a lotus, and an earth-like globe.

Lighting the huge, Chinese zodiac-themed lantern — in this case a bling-laden tiger — culminated the half-day-long program, which included performers from all over Taiwan, speeches from Chiayi Mayor Huang Ming Hwei, Minister of Communication Mao Chi Kuo and Prime Minister Wu Dun Yi, and a fireworks display that lit up the night sky.

The Big Teas

Our last day was spent even further afield, at Alishan, a mountain town four hours from Taipei accessed by a zigzag road very similar to Baguio, but instead of growing strawberries and coffee, the cash crop here is oolong tea. And what oolong tea it is. We visited Shen Le Farm, a tea plantation that’s won first, second and third prize in the years it’s joined the annual tea competition, and witnessed a tea ritual, in which the clear green brew is served in a teacup vacuum-sealed to an overturned teacup. When you twist the top cup off, oolong tea gushes into the bottom cup, and you can sniff the top cup as if it were a wine cork.

Atop the shop is Shen Le Farm Restaurant, where you can have a tea lunch in which the majority of the dishes have been prepared with — you guessed it — tea. We heartily enjoyed a prawn salad, sinus-clearing wasabi tofu, tea-steeped pork, giant snow peas with red and yellow pepper, tea rice, and a subtly sweet tea jelly dessert all washed down with glasses of green and black oolong. Needless to say, frequent bathroom stops are necessary on the drive down.

Once back in Taipei we bought the ultimate pasalubong in the form of pineapple cake, Taiwan’s premier specialty. They are individually wrapped and beautifully boxed at Xiang Yi Taiwanese Food (No. 32-1 Songiang Rd., Taipei City), where you can also find other local pastries.

A HOT-SPRING SPARTY

You can relax before boarding your flight back home at Tang Spa, a wellness center built on natural hot springs that also has a good restaurant (don’t miss the steamed fish fillet over noodles). Tang has private rooms for both families and couples. After soaking in the hot-spring tub, where the water temperature can reach 55 degrees Celsius, rinse off in the shower, lounge on the bed and indulge in a little KTV or flatscreen TV.

* * *

Cebu Pacific Air (CEB) flies five times a week from Manila to Taipei, on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (ETD is 22:30 and ETA is 12:40).

CEB flies from Taipei to Manila on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (ETD is 01:40 and ETA is 03:50).

Starting now, this March, CEB is offering P1,499 one-way Go Lite fares to Taiwan, at present the lowest year-round fare available.

For inquiries or to book seats, call 702-0888, (032) 230-8888, or visit www.cebu pacificair.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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