Tony Taiwan

This island nation emerges as a contrast of click city scenes and natural wonders.

Rarely does the average U.S. traveler spend more than a day or two in Taiwan. And that’s a shame. A growing number of savvy globetrotters are taking note, however, that this compact island nation merits more than a shopping and dining fix when routing to other far-flung hotspots like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

Fortunately, Taiwan’s evolution from a backwater into glossy Asian dynamo has generally spared its rich culture and traditional values. While cities pulsate, rural outposts captivate with exotic landscapes depicted in Chinese scroll paintings.

Even in revved-up Taipei City, visiting a Buddhist temple to burn incense is as ingrained into everyday life, as splurging on trendy attire at Taipei 101’s flashy shopping mecca. In Taiwan, it’s not the fact these contrasts exist. It’s how seamlessly they coexist.

“Taipei City is a hop to so many other destinations, but it’s our goal to give travelers incentive to stay and explore more of our beautiful island,” says Trust Lin, director of the Taiwan Visitors Bureau’s (TVB) LA office. With avant-garde architecture, retail range and global cuisine on line with its more celebrated Asian counterparts, the country is actually earning a “China Lite” reputation, thanks to its manageable size. “What really surprises people is what they see when they leave the city—our festivals, hot springs, and other natural wonders like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge.”

According to the TVB, some 240,000 U.S. visitors hit the island from January through August this year—a decline of 7.9 percent for the same timeframe in 2008. “The good news is that in August, we had 10.6 percent growth from the U.S.,” says Lin. He attributes that hefty hop to a drop in airfares and addition of stopover incentives which encouraged visitors to linger, versus simply transit through. Lin adds that the TVB is working with tour wholesalers and both China Airlines and Eva Air on promotions to help boost those tallies in 2010.

Lin recommends agents urge clients to visit during Chinese New Year so they can truly dig into the country’s cultural fiber. The grandest event on that calendar is the 21st Taiwan Lantern Festival slated from mid- to late-February in Chiayi. Commemorating the “Year of the Tiger,” the central-western city will showcase some 300 themed lanterns. Other events include the Heavenly Lantern Festival in picturesque Pingsi Township and the high-voltage Yanshuei Beehive Rockets in Tainan County.

Spa lovers are especially pampered in Taiwan, boasting one of the world’s highest concentrations of hot springs. Lin notes that with the exception of Changhua, Yunlin and Penghu, nearly every region countrywide is graced with these natural refreshers—thus earning it a “Hot Springs Kingdom” moniker.

“If you enjoy nature, you’re in paradise here—hot, cold, mud and seabed springs. It’s perfect for anyone wanting to relax and recharge their mind and body naturally,” remarks Lin.

While many are tucked into forests and along rivers, others have been diverted into bathhouses and health spas with pools and private bathing rooms. Those nearest to Taipei are in the village of Beitou, where visitors should make a point to peruse its Bathhouse Museum. This original spa garnered early popularity with the Japanese, including WWII Kamikaze pilots gifted a luxurious break before their final missions.

For clients into ultimate solitude, Beitou’s Villa 32 is an intimate 5-room retreat overlooking mist-shrouded Yangming Mountain an hour from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE). But figuratively, the stylish escape is about as far as you can be from Taipei’s clamorous urban cityscape.

Originally designed as a private home, the modernist hotel indulges with geothermal baths in each of its pair of oversized Japanese tatami and three well-appointed Western suites. Five additional private chambers accommodate day visits.

Villa 32’s Zen-influenced garden spa offers therapies on heated tables that warm bodies between pre- and post-treatment plunges. Lin adds that hot springs visits are most palatable November through February when Taiwan is at its coldest. Other luxe touches include staff addressing each guest by name, butler service and Hermes silverware in The Restaurant to give the gourmet Tuscan fare added cachet. Suites range from $500-$769 nightly dbl for guests 16 and older.