Covering All the Bases in Taiwan

January 11, 2010 at 9:43 am | Posted in Asia, Taiwan | 3 Comments
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by Victor Block

It’s true that not long after arriving in Taipei I found myself stewing in traffic jams as maddening as any back home in the United States. And yes, locals lined up at the same fast-food restaurants and wore pretty much the same clothes. At times I felt I could’ve been in a Chinatown in any western city.

And yet…both here in Taiwan’s go-go capital and countryside I also discovered an abundance of sites reflecting a rich history and culture stretching back five millennia. Not just a wealth of ancient artifacts and artworks, but hundreds of active traditional temples where even in the 21st century, worshippers still pray, burn incense, and perform ancient rituals, such as burning fake paper money for deceased loved ones to spend in the realm beyond.

Nor are traditional ways of life totally a thing of the past. On the southern tip of Taiwan, I spotted laborers bent in the hot sun, planting tender rice shoots much like their ancestors thousands of years ago. Many of the aboriginal people still cling to their old way of life (the first Han Chinese didn’t reach Taiwan until the 17th century, driving its Polynesian/Malay inhabitants into the high mountains in the interior; the influx from the mainland continued for two centuries).

Han immigration was given a huge boost in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek and some two million followers fled here as mainland China fell under communist rule. In the process of definitively turning the island into a Han country, they also endowed it with many priceless treasures from Peking’s Forbidden City. Today, those gorgeous antiques are on display at Taipei’s National Palace Museum, Taiwan’s single most important tourist attraction and one that by itself practically justifies a visit to the island; ranked with the world’s A-list museums, it houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts anywhere. Strolling through room after room, I was awestruck by displays teeming with treasures including precious jade, bronze and porcelain artifacts; rich tapestries and embroidery; and books and scrolls filled with mesmerizing ancient calligraphy.

There’s plenty else just in Taipei to fill several busy days, too. Exhibit A: an imposing monument to Chiang Kai-Shek which includes a vast memorial hall, and the palatial National Theater and National Concert Hall. Both share a 62-acre (25-hectare) city-center compound where I spotted a number of couples, drawn by the picturesque and tranquil setting, posing for wedding photos.

Not surprisingly, traditional gardens abound. The most outstanding for me was the Lin Penyuan family garden, employing classic Confucian principles to embody a harmony of man and nature;  I found it a masterpiece of serenity, reminiscent of a serene village from a bygone era.

Far less tranquil is the hustle-bustle on Hwa Hsi Street, better known as Snake Alley. Here I found myself introduced to a very different and colorful aspect of local life. Tiny, crowded sidewalk restaurants and busy shops proffer live fish and crabs, shark fins, and countless unidentifiable animal parts. The hottest action takes place at stalls crammed with cages that give the place its nickname, a-swarm with writhing serpents, and passersby are subjected to a loud and constant singsong by the vendors. The oddest thing I found was one hawking the fresh-drawn blood of snakes, touted as greatly beneficial to both libido and general health. I passed.

Beyond Taipei, I greatly recommend Tainan, the island’s oldest city and its first capital (1663-1885). One key feature here: more than 300 intensely atmospheric temples enshrining a variety of gods — Buddhist, Taoist, folk, and animist. These range from huge imposing structures striding broad boulevards to tiny neighborhood shrines tucked away on side streets and alleyways. The Confucius Temple, built in 1665, is the oldest in Taiwan to honor the renowned philosopher. For me, even more moving was Wufei Miao (Temple of the Five Concubines), erected in the 17th century beside the tombs of a prince’s mistresses, who committed suicide when he fell in battle.

When it comes to nature, also Taiwan shines. It’s dominated by the towering mountains that bisect the island, and the rest consists of terraced flatlands, bamboo forests and coastal plains rimmed by magnificent beaches (Fulong Beach on the northwest coast is a local favorite). You’ll find most of the most impressive settings in parks like Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei, where volcanic craters, bubbling hot springs and breathtaking mountain scenery are the top draws. At the nearby Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, I was fascinated by the restored ancient walking trail and fanciful rock formations.

There’s a reason 16th-century Portuguese explorers named this island Formosa (“beautiful”). Touristically as well as politically, it may sometimes seem overshadowed by its enormous neighbor across the strait — but I’m here to assure you that Taiwan is a classic case of “good things come in small packages.”

More information: Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

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Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

U.S.A.
For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

CANADA
The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

MEXICO
The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

THE CARIBBEAN
This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

CENTRAL AMERICA / SOUTH AMERICA
In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

MIDDLE EAST
With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

ASIA
The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

AFRICA
From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

What Recession, Comrade? Shanghai Flies High

November 2, 2009 at 9:17 am | Posted in Asia, China | 1 Comment
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by Eric Hiss

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

Recently back from China’s largest metropolis, my head’s still spinning — while many world cities are still in a slump, Shanghai buzzes 24/7. Orbs, obelisks, rectangles and other geometries take form hundreds of feet above ground while billboards proclaim in Chinglish: “Shanghai: With Luck and Brilliancy.” After sundown, things turn even more electric, as tour boats plying the Huangpu River and shimmering towers create a neon nightscape as brash as any Vegas strip.

Gearing up for next May’s World Expo, it seems all 22 million denizens are seeing this not only as a coming-out party for Shanghai, but a point of national pride — like the Olympics, a defining moment for China’s arrival as a superpower (another billboard: “Greeting the Expo with Civilization!”). Certainly the raw materials are present: superb cuisine and hotels, cool nightlife, and seemingly unlimited shopping. A shortlist to help you dive in:

A dramatic 950-room pair of towers, the Pudong Shangri-La (from 1550 RMB/$227 double):  delivers five-star service and amenities like an award-winning spa. One tower features chandeliers, original Chinese oils, and Queen Anne-style furnishings, the other sleek, contemporary, high-gloss rosewood, leather, and silk. Floor-to-ceiling windows over the river afford among the best views in town.

As China’s first carbon-neutral property, the 26-room Urbn Hotel Shanghai (from 1,300 RMB/$190),  right next to the French Concession (see below), offers luxury with a conscience, plus minimalist-mod sunken lounges, slate-lined bathrooms, raised platform beds, and rooftop garden.

Finally, for affordability and historic appeal, 12-room Old House (from 720 RMB/US$103) is an excellent, central choice in the charming French Concession neighborhood.

Foodwise, FU 1039, in a grand former residence off shopping thoroughfare Yuyuan Lu, is the real Shanghainese deal: oily, sweet and savory dishes like chilled jellyfish with spring onion oil, sweet lotus root, and slow-cooked sweet river eel in soy sauce. It’s tricky to find (down a long, unmarked lane), the antique furnishings are a tad musty, and few staffers speak English. But it’ll be one of your visit’s most memorable meals.

M On The Bund is a Deco-era gem on the historic riverside Bund promenade where you can tap into the romanticized Shanghai of the 1920’s over excellent European and North African specialties. Fantastic views across the Huangpu River and of neighboring buildings with swirling Deco adornments.

Haute Japanese is on the menu at the Shanghai outpost of Tokyo’s famed Nadaman. A striking minimalist decor of granite, natural woods and modernist lanterns set the backdrop for impeccable fare served by kimono-clad staff. The traditional kaiseki meals are especially memorable.

After dinner, hit Bar Rouge, another Bund spot that evokes retro Shanghai — albeit with decidedly modern twists: recessed red lights, sleek surfaces and a party-ready crowd of expats and locals. The scene’s pretty high-octane, but for a true Shanghai experience, head out to the expansive open-air patio and take in the glittering lights of the city and river below.

While Bar Rouge is predominately peopled by expats, the two-story JZ Club is where a bohemian, mostly local bunch sips moderately-priced cocktails and takes in live jazz. A neighborhood vibe predominates, fusing boho-chic with neighborhood-bar ambiance. Weekends are popular; go early to get a good seat (especially the cozy tables upstairs).

Now for shopping. Though America created consumerism, China plays the game as well or better — and always more cheaply. To not shop here would be like missing Paris’ Louvre or a Hawaii sunset. While the quality (and prices) of housewares, silk-lined jackets, leather furnishings and other merch at sleek boutique Shanghai Tang of match New York’s or London’s, at the “South Bund Soft Spinning Fabric Market” south of Old Shanghai, they’re as wide as the China/U.S. trade deficit. For the savvy, it’s a shopping nirvana where you can score $100 custom-made wool suits and $70 tailored silk cheongsams. With hundreds of stalls, the four-floor complex can be daunting, so stick to the first two, which have the best outlets. (Tip: local hotels like the Pudong Shangri-La can arrange for a tailor to escort you, negotiate the best deal, then tailor your design. In my case, I spotted a mandarin-style leather jacket in Shanghai Tang for US$1,000. I later described it to a shop owner and tailor in the Fabric Market who had it ready for me the next day, perfectly executed, for all of 1,000 RMB — about US$130).

In contrast to the concrete, steel and glass of most of the city, the historic French Concession, the 19th-century French merchant quarter, is an inviting respite. Among tree-lined streets and Continental-style brick-and-stone manses, shops both quirky and trendy purvey everything from hip fashion to vintage Mao-mentos. Fashionistas should check out eno on Changle Lu with its designs by young locals, while Madame Mao’s Dowry is filled with wry riffs on Mao gear and propaganda. (Note: while bartering is expected at the Fabric Market, most of these shops are no-haggle zones.)

Final note: love ‘em or hate ‘em, counterfeit goods are a reality; you can’t avoid ’em. More than a few expats and visitors were spotted recently at the A.P Shopping Center (aka the “Fake Market”) near the Shanghai Science Museum, where copies of name-brand bags, watches and luggage are on display, and Da Gu Lu (aka “DVD Street”), where knockoffs of every category are sold at dirt-cheap prices.

More info: Meet-in-Shanghai.net.

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