Viator’s team of travel insiders is obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere we travel. From traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, everywhere from Australia to Zimbabwe, we spend our time scouring the globe for the best tours and activities around the world.
Whether traveling for work or pleasure (or both!) our staff members are always on the go and we want to share their experiences with you! In this new series, Out of Office, we’ll bring you their stories, highlighting the best things to do and see in destinations around the world, as experienced by a real Viator Insider.
The Traveler: Michelle Woods, Associate Destination Marketing Manager, APAC
What’s your role at Viator? I merchandise and market products in our Asia and Australia Pacific Regions.
The trip: Taiwan (Taipei City, Taichung, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan) for 7 days in March, 2015
Why did you choose this destination? What appealed to you about the place?
I was invited on a trip by the Taiwan Tourism Board, and couldn’t pass up the chance to travel to Taiwan, especially during the 2015 Lantern Festival 2015 Orchid Show! The Lantern Festival is held for a week as part of Lunar New Year celebrations, attended by about 1.1 million people a day for a week (Taiwanese, as well as many mainland Chinese tourists and other international travelers) and centers around the theme of that year’s lunar mascot.
Being the Year of the Ram, there were rams all over the massive campground where this was hosted, amongst various other popular culture and historical figures and references—made into glowing lanterns crafter over the course of many months. It’s free and great fun to wander the through the festival and see the structures during the day, but once the lights go out and the lanterns turn on it is an incredible feast for the eyes. There are dozens of food stalls and at the opening and closing ceremonies there are performances by groups from around the world, music and dance of all varieties. To have been able to witness this festival felt once-in-a-lifetime!
Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of orchids and the 2015 International Orchid Show was stunning. There are orchid species from around the world, carefully flown to Taiwan to be displayed, as well as various cross-bred strains on display. This year’s winner of the show went to an orchid with 300 blossoms all blooming at once! In addition to individual plants, the show has rooms created by flowers—flowers covering the ceiling and walls, making archways, forming tree-like shapes. It was beyond anything we could’ve imagined, and I think if it now every time I stop to buy flowers at my neighborhood market!
What did you do on the trip?
I traveled through Western and Central Taiwan for a week with a group of six and a guide. We ate incredible Dim Sum at Din Tai Fung, zipped up to the top of the Taipei 101, rode the high speed rail, went to the 2015 Lantern Festival in Taichung, boated around Sun Moon Lake, were entertained by the musical talents of Grammy-nominated Ten Drum, cruised along the Sicao Green Tunnel, and gaped at the incredible flora of the 2015 international Orchid Show in Tainan. Somehow we managed to squeeze in stops to several breathtaking temples, exuberant markets, and delectable meals—and a personal favorite, a reflexology foot massage.
What was the best experience?
I loved wandering through different street markets and was captivated by the temples.
My favorite market was the street market in Tainan. The market provided opportunities for eating, shopping, playing games, making crafts, and best of all people-watching. It was easier to stroll than some other markets, partly due to the more laid-back nature of this warm, beachside city, and those selling goods or food were engaging without crossing the line to “pushy.” You pass by For Zeelandia and end up at the oldest Matsu Temple in Taiwan.The placement of the market in an older section of the city that leads to the Zengwen River. It was easy to veer of the main market drag and wander down small alleyways to find storefronts, families out enjoying the afternoon in front of their apartments, and small neighborhood temples. Sampling mochi along my way was also a perk!
Taiwan is host to several religions—Buddhism and Taoism, are the most common, and Confucius beliefs, folk religions, and Christianity are also easily identified. It was common to find temples that incorporate rituals and beliefs from more than one religion or belief system. The ability to participate and better understand the rituals at each temple enhanced the experience and deepened the appreciation, as a visitor, for the traditions practiced in each. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Wenwu Temple on Sun Moon Lake. Architecturally it was striking, with high ceilings and ornately decorated roofs. The smell of the incense there was intoxicating and the different opportunities for prayer and reverence were plentiful and without the need to fight through a crowd. Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucius influences were evident in the enormous structure that seemingly went on forever, and its backdrop against the lake furthered a sense of calm and reflection.
What surprised you the most about the destination?
The unwavering friendliness exhibited by the people we met, and the 7-Elevens all over the place! The local people I encountered throughout my trip were some of the friendliest people I have come by on my travels—quick with a smile, eager to help despite a heavy language barrier, polite, giving, and encouraging. They were eager to reveal their country and culture and hopeful you would enjoy it. In tourist areas or big cities there were often people who spoke some English, and tours guides we had as well as others I encountered spoke impeccable English and were incredibly knowledgeable about all the questions we threw at them!
7-Eleven is the largest convenience store chain in Taiwan. There are sometimes two 7-Elevens on one block. While I couldn’t find any neon-colored Slurpees at these stores, they did have anything a traveler could need as well as services we’d never imagine at our 7-Elevens; locals pay their bills, arrange domestic flights, and will soon have wash-and-fold laundry services. It was pretty remarkable.
What sight, activity, or experience would you tell people they should not skip?
The country is small and easy to navigate via high-speed rail, bus, or car. While flights are inexpensive, I would recommend traveling on land, at least some of the time, so that you aren’t missing how lush, green, and mountainous the countryside is, in contrast to bustling cities packed with scooters (the mode of transportation of choice).
Go to a night market! Shilin and Ningxia Night Markets are some of the best- beware of the stinky tofu…
If you can attend a festival, like the Lantern Festival, do so, and check out the hot springs! Beitou Hot Springs are some of the most well-known
What was the best thing you ate or drank?
Dim Sum, Bamboo rice and pineapple cake! I like a dumplings as much as the next person—which in my world is a lot. But the xiao long bao I had in Taipei at Din Tai Fung, was other-worldly. Our first bite was of a pork and black truffle dumpling, which I still dream about, and we followed with several rounds of soup dumplings, served in their wicker steaming baskets, as well as greens and tea. The lightness of the dough used to create these dumplings was remarkable, as was the strength of flavor in every bite. Part of the fun of eating at Din Tai Fung is watching the meticulous team of chefs hand fold each individual dumpling—they must make 18 folds on the first try, or the dough is thrown out.
A tradition stemming from aboriginal cooking on the island, bamboo rice is prepared and served in hollowed-out bamboo casings, about four inches tall. The rice maintains its glutinous nature so it’s easy to pick up with chopsticks, but it takes on little bit of a crispy and toasted texture that I loved, and the presentation in the bamboo stalk doesn’t hurt.
Pineapple cake is a traditional Taiwanese delicacy that you fill find in different iterations through the country. They call it a cake but it’s more like dense pineapple jam within shortbread. I brought some back for my family and co-workers and they were devoured instantly! There are shops that offer high-end versions, such as Miyahara in Taichung and then options you can find at convenience stores.
What are your top three recommendations to any visitor?
- Do not miss the National Palace Museum, located in the Shilin District of Taipei City. It is host to the largest and most significant collection of Chinese art in the world across centuries and should not be missed. Definitely go as early as you possibly can to avoid inevitably large crowds and take a guided tour or use an audio guide. Art was brought here from the Forbidden City in China for safe-keeping, but never brought back, so there are innumerable treasures in varied mediums held here and the museum is set up brilliantly to showcase what was happening historically around the world at the time certain pieces were made. Whether you’re a history buff, and art fiend, or neither but just trying to get a handle on this region of the world and its cultural evolution and influence, this is a must-see.
- Try as many teas as you can tea! Taiwan makes some of the world’s finest black tea and you will have opportunities to try it everywhere you go. Visitors should also try their Bubble Tea—that’s tea served hot or cold with milk and sugar (to taste) with chewy tapioca balls in the bottom—and their ginger tea and kumquat teas are also highly recommended.
- Get a foot massage! There are abundant good-quality establishments and it is very affordable in any of the major cities. The importance of massage, and particularly reflexology-style massage, on the feet is big in Taiwan. Not only did my massage feel incredible after the long journey from San Francisco to Taipei, but I was amazed by what the massage therapist could tell about the rest of my body from feeling my feet! Sleep and digestion-related issues and even the kinds of shoes I wear were all deduce by my masseuse, followed by suggestions for how to treat my body better. I was so relaxed and rejuvenated afterwards I almost booked another appointment for the following day! But we were off to our next stop…
What’s the best Insider Tip you can offer future visitors to this destination?
It is a unique place in Asia; without touching on geo-political discrepancies, the island nation is an amalgam of many cultures and they are intricately woven together. Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and aboriginal influences are evident in the architecture, interior design, social manners, music, and food in what is now an evolved Taiwanese culture. Many people are eager to help travelers and visitors, and showed an interest in Western Culture. A kind smile and a keen interest goes a long way in Taiwan, learn how to say “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” and you will be glad you did.
Where are you off to next?
I hope Mexico is on the horizon next! Now that I live on the West Coast, it is a constant subject when discussing travel with friends and I’m very intrigued. I miss speaking Spanish, I’m always longing to lie on a beach, and I love taking in ancient history, plus I can never get enough of Mexican-style food. Yes, Mexico sounds like a good next stop.