Taiwan is often seen as revolving around the big city of Taipei. But the island contains plenty of natural marvels. The eastern part, less populated and more natural, is a real paradise.
The most valuable hidden treasure of Taiwan are the small islands around it. Here, the tourism industry is still almost non existant and the beaches are beautiful.
It's a small island, but you can find modern cities like Taipei, and more rural cities like Taitung (in the aboriginal area). The prices can be expensive in Taipei but the island is cheaper as you head south on the island.
You can travel around the whole island via the fast train, which stops in every major city. The island is small, so you can go from Taipei (north) to Kaohsiung (south) in 2 hours for a cost of around 1400 Taiwanese dollars (~$45 USD). So you can stay in the south of the island and go for the day in Taipei and come back to enjoy the more friendly southern part of the island.
The culture has known many influences. It is rich, young and vivid. A must see example are the "night markets" which are like a big festive cafeteria in open air, where you can find alot of stands selling special foods (macerated tofu, roasted duck, soup, etc.) and where many young people come to eat, play the games or buy clothes and accessories. You can find alot of these night markets in a single city, but the ones I went to in Taipei seem to be less fun the ones I visited in Kaohsiung.
If the northern cities like Taipei are too grey and urbanised for your taste, the southen cities, like Tainan or Kaohsiung, are far more enjoyable and have alot of natural activities to offer. It would be a shame to not visit this area at least once and to experiment the very fresh and friendly attitude of the locals. You might find yourself in the subway of Kaohsiung like I did, watching a group of young people playing rock paper scissor with loud laughs, to be surprised to see that the game was actually supposed to determine the loser who will have to come and speak english to me! The unfortunate girl ended up finding the courage to ask me 2 or 3 questions in English. Funny and refreshing.
Taiwan also contains many temples with brigtht colors. Taipei offers some as well, but they are not the most beautiful ones.
If you are bored with cities and want more nature, Taiwan has everything you need: mountains, thermal baths, forests, beaches, cliffs, water falls or caverns.
They offer all the opportunities you can expect: jet skiing, wind surfing, diving, etc. For exemple, Green Bay beach, north of Taipei (around Chinshan), has all the water sports you may want to try: canoe, kayak, fishing, diving, snorkeling, jet ski, surf, kite surf and even parasailing!
Another activity-based beach is Baishawan, not far from Taipei, where the strong winds make for some very intense water sports. In the south, Kenting beach offers all the same opportunities. But, if you want less crowded, more preserved beaches, you can find some near the very popular ones (you may have to walk a few miles around to reach them), or go in the east part of the island.
If you want to surf, the locals preferred choice seems to be Honeymoon beach.
The aboriginal area
This preserved area is an excellent destination for many reasons. The land belongs to the tribal primitive inhabitants of Taiwan. Don't expect a National Geographic kind of tribal. They are pretty up to date with the modern world. Here, you'll find some beautiful nature, which gives opportunities for trekking, walking, mountain biking, snorkeling at the beach. This is also where you'll find the thermal sources where you can take a bath in a natural hot water in the middle of a forest!
The aboriginal people have a very interesting culture, and the festivals are very popular, often involving group dancing and traditional music.
It's the secret of Taiwan. Many small archipelago surround the main island. The most famous of these is the Penghu islands archipelago, elected the most beautiful of China’s islands. It’s located west from Taiwan, and includes 60 islands. The beautiful scenery is a mix of cliffs and sandy beaches and allows you to practice diving and snorkeling in the pristine nature. You can even go fishing here.
The others islands, like Lanyu, east of Taiwan, have volcanic rock scenery which makes for a very interesting coast line. It’s not the best place to be if you're looking for a regular relaxing beach, but if you want nature, snorkeling and wilderness, it's perfect.
You can find other small and nearly untouched islands around Taiwan, closer to the Philippines or Okinawa. Here, there is no tourist industry to speak of.
To get there, connect via ferry or plane.
Different styles will satisfy different budgets.
You can find a dormitory for $15 USD a night, and a private room for $25 USD. The hotels with middle to high standards will cost you more in Taipei than in Kaohsiung. Many small charming hotels can be found, often including breakfast, for $30 USD a night in Kaohsiung. In Taipei, for the same price, you’ll have less. Here it will cost $50 USD for a room in a normal hotel, and much more for luxury options.
Other possibilities are camping, commonly done in the aboriginal area. Or negotiating a free stay in one of the temples. Expect minimum comfort, but a very refreshing change of scenery, sharing a part of the life in a temple, with the monks.
The different cities of the island offer different specialities. Taiwanese food is known to be bitter. But you can count on many other cultural influences, inherited from Japanese colony or Chinese culture. Don't hesitate to enter a small restaurant and try everything that suits your eyes. The prices are usually so cheap it doesn't cost much to give something a try.
Taiwan is among the most safe country in the world. Crime rate is low, and the tourist are not considered a target. The Taiwanese people are very friendly and nice.
The only dangers, besides the traffic accidents, come from nature itself. In August, the typhoons can be strong and numerous, often killing people and flooding cities.