Many business visitors to Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China or ROC) don't have time to get far from the office blocks of Taipei or Hsinchu's cluster of high-tech companies. However, those who do jump aboard a high-speed train or a freeway bus and head to the south will find an appealing blend of cultural and natural attractions, as well as friendly people and lower costs. Here are eight things to do in the island's south; depending on what they enjoy most, visitors could spend between a few hours and an entire day on each of these activities.
Explore Tainan's ancient temples
Confronted by the incredible density of relics in the city that was Taiwan's capital between 1663 and 1885, it's hard to know where to start and what to miss if your time is limited. Among must-sees are Taiwan's most exquisite Confucius Temple; the nearby Tiantan (dedicated to the Jade Emperor, supreme deity of the Taoist pantheon); and Dongyue Hall, where relatives of the recently deceased beseech the gods of the afterworld to show mercy to their loved ones. Tainan also has a rich selection of Japanese colonial era architecture, the best examples being the Former Tainan Meeting Hall (don't forget to explore the adjacent classical Chinese garden) and Hayashi Department Store.
See Alishan's magical sunrise
Taiwan's best-known mountain resort is Alishan, 2,260m above sea level and reachable by a spectacular narrow-gauge railway or road (there are regular public buses if you don't want to hire a car and drive yourself). Most visitors get up well before dawn to walk or take a train to nearby Zhushan, a slightly higher ridge from which they can watch the sun rise over Mount Jade, northeast Asia's highest point. The moment the sun appears, expect applause and cheering. The transformation of the scenery (pictured above) over the next hour is stunning; as sunlight gradually illuminates valleys and cliffs, a "sea of clouds" way below becomes visible.
Drink tea in Fenqihu
The oolongs grown near Alishan and Fenqihu have been called the "champagnes of the tea world," and there's nowhere better to sample them than in the places where they're grown, dried and packaged. Several tea farms welcome tourists, but don't be surprised if you simply can't buy any of the best stuff. Harvests are often spoken for months in advance, and the finest leaves occasionally fetch more than US$10,000 per kilogram at auction.
Go birdwatching along the coast
Over the past few years, Taiwan has emerged as a birdwatching destination of global significance. In its mountainous interior, several endemic species can be spotted, yet perhaps the richest birding region is the southwestern coast, part of which has been designated Taijiang National Park. The mudflats and lagoons here attract migrating birds throughout the cooler months (October to March) due to an abundance of shellfish and other foods. One of the best-known avians to regularly hunker down here in the winter is the Black-faced Spoonbill. The global population of this wader, which breeds in Korea, is probably no more than 1,500.
Explore Kaohsiung's Treaty-Port past
Like Shanghai and several other cities in China, Kaohsiung was once a Treaty Port, a place where Western businessmen enjoyed special rights and immunities. Despite Kaohsiung's massive growth and development since World War II - it's now one of the world's busiest commercial harbors - some relics of that era remain. For history buffs, the main attraction is the Former British Consular Residence, superbly located atop a hill overlooking the mouth of the harbor. This is where British diplomats, among them the remarkable scholar-naturalist Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877), lived from 1879 to 1897.
Tour aboriginal hill districts
Several of Taiwan's Austronesian tribes can be found in the south, among them the Tsou people of Alishan, the Bunun in Kaohsiung's Namasia, and the Rukai in nearby Maolin. The most accessible indigenous community is Sandimen, dominated by members of the Paiwan tribe. Several artists and dancers live here, making the little town an excellent place to find souvenirs. Glass-bead necklaces and bracelets, produced in workshops like the one pictured here, are especially popular
Swim and surf at Kenting
Taiwan's most popular beach resort is inside Kenting National Park. Like Florida but without the retirees, it's a region where the sun shines year-round and young people gather during college vacations to let their hair down. There are several beaches: Some are delightfully sandy yet others are mostly coral, so neoprene booties are essential (these can be rented, as can life jackets, surfboards, parasols and other useful items). These tidal platforms are exceptionally rich in sealife and thus ideal for snorkeling. If you can't make it to Kenting (sometimes spelled Kending), Little Liuqiu - a small island closer to Kaohsiung - is an excellent option thanks to its ecological attractions and ultra-relaxing vibe.
Take a train to Taitung
The final segment of Taiwan's round-island rail network wasn't completed until 1992, and it's a gorgeous stretch of track. Trains leave Kaohsiung and chug through the bucolic landscape of Pingtung County before veering inland near Fangliao. To traverse Taiwan's Central Mountain Range, the railroad requires 158 bridges and 36 tunnels; of the latter, one is more than eight km long. This region is uninhabited because it's inaccessible to all but hardy hikers, but from the train you'll glimpse waterfalls, rock-filled creeks and steep mountains. Journey time from Kaohsiung to Taitung is usually just under three hours.
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