Taiwan–A Travel Review

My family recently had the opportunity to travel to Taiwan during our recent Christmas holiday. In a previous post, I discussed why I love traveling with my young children. In this post I want to talk about Taiwan in general—overall impressions for those who might be interested in Taiwan and recommendations for my expat friends who might think of traveling there.

Overall, Taiwan is easy to get around in. The high-speed train is efficient and clean. Our intention was to also try the bus system, but each time we were about to purchase bus tickets, we had an offer from a taxi that made it worth the extra cost to go with the taxi instead (buying bus tickets for a family of four made the difference minimal enough that we opted for the taxi).

Taiwan would be a hiker’s paradise. For ten years I lived in Seoul where I had mountainous parks for hiking within an easy reach. It was one of the things I most missed after moving to Beijing (an incredibly flat city). It was nice to have the mountainous views and options for hiking once again.

Kenting, Taiwan

Most of our time in Taiwan was spent at the southernmost tip of the island—in Kenting. It’s not the easiest place to get to. Traveling from Beijing, there are no direct flights to Taipei. Once you get to Taipei, you need to take the high speed train for a couple hours to the southernmost stop. Then it’s an additional two or two-and-a-half hour trip by taxi or bus to get to Kenting. Our late flight to Taipei meant we had to spend a night in the city before making the rest of our way to the southern part of the island. We had a wonderful time, but the long trip to get there probably means we won’t be returning to Kenting, at least for several years.

By traveling to Kenting in January, we were there during low season, which was both good and bad. Good because every time we went to the beach we shared it with only one or two other families. Bad because some things that were open during high season were closed (like the water park).

We were a little worried about the climate before we left because we couldn’t get a clear idea of what to expect. Some sources said we should expect it to be cold. Other sources said it would rain all day. And yet others said it would be beautiful. Our own experience was that Kenting was perfect weather for wearing shorts and tank-tops. It did rain a little in the afternoons, but it usually didn’t last very long. Taipei, in northern Taiwan, on the other hand, was rainy and colder. We definitely needed jeans and jackets there.

At the BeachYou won’t find the long stretches of sandy beach in southern Taiwan that you’ll find in Thailand or the Philippines. The beaches in southern Taiwan are smaller stretches of sandy beach enclosed by volcanic rock. The beach which served the resort where we stayed was clean and had a nice sandy bottom with nice views of the rocky outcrops and cliffs in the distance. The water temperature was perfect for swimming. My kids preferred the beach over the pool at the hotel (and this says a lot coming from my pool-loving five-year-old).

Night MarketThe main street in Kenting has a nice night market where you can find any deep-fried food you can possibly imagine—fried Oreos, milk, squid, you name it. The night market has games, friendship bracelets, winter hats, clothes, even liquor bars that are set up nightly. It’s really an eclectic mix of items and it’s fun to browse the street to see what treasures (or oddities) you might find.

The main street also has a nice selection of little restaurants offering a mix of Asian food. At one of the restaurants my husband surprised me by ordering steamed squid. I voiced my bewilderment at his selection to which he responded, “AreSteamed Squid you kidding me? We’re on the coast. Fresh squid? Haven’t you ever tried it?”

No, I hadn’t. And, oh my goodness was it ever amazing. For the rest of the week, at every meal, I suggested we try out a new restaurant to see what types of steamed squid or squid salads they had on the menu.

Howard Beach Resort

As for this hotel overall, it is located in a convenient location. It offers a tunnel to a clean beach and is very close to the night market in Kenting. The resort is right next to a Starbucks and a Tex-Mex restaurant called Smokey Joe’s (though I recommend the smaller restaurants down the main street in Kenting).

This is a massive complex and the variety of things this hotel offers varies widely in quality. The hotel contains regular hotel rooms or larger villas with more amenities. Our villa had character. Gaudily ornate decorations mingled with a rustic cabin decor. But the villa delivered on whatVilla Courtyard really mattered to us—ease of travel with children. The villas have two separate areas for sleeping rather than two beds in an open room. Since my kids go to bed at 7:00, it was nice to be able to close the door after putting them to bed in their own space.

Each villa also has its own courtyard area with a private wading pool and jacuzzi tub. The wading pool, at only half full, was a nice depth for my five-year old. We could come back from exploring and relax in the courtyard. The pool and hot tub could keep my children happy for hours if needed. It was also nice to relax and enjoy a glass of wine in the jacuzzi after the kids went to bed.

Lobby for Howard Beach Villa

Lobby area for Howard Beach Villas.

There were times when I found myself thinking that the villas were overpriced, but at the same time, having the wading pool, hot tub, and extra privacy made traveling with kids so much easier for us. This time around, we opted to spend less on activities and more for lodging, and with a five- and three-year-old, this was the right choice for us. There were other ways in which the hotel made up for some of its inadequacies. I’m unsure of how the service was in the rest of the hotel, but the service in the villa section was fabulous. Every time we asked a question to the ladies in the lobby, they were quick to be of service and very polite. They brought dessert drinks to us every evening—something that the kids thought was pretty special.

The resort itself is a bit aged. Though the villa lobby was lovely, there were places around the complex that smelled musty. There were plenty of things to do in the complex itself, but much of the facility was empty. This may have been because we were staying there during low season, but it also could have been because the facilities they offered seemed a bit outdated. The observation that my husband made when we entered the bowling alley and arcade was, “Wow. This feels like we just stepped back into the eighties.” Yes, it did. The indoor miniature golf course kind of smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned in that long, too.

The most disappointing thing about our stay was the breakfast buffet, which was included with the price of our room. The buffet options are extensive, but with a very Asian focus, which made it difficult for me to find something I wanted to eat, especially since the few Western choices were poorly done. The scrambled eggs had a funny oily taste. The “cheese plate” contained neatly cut triangles of cheese. Upon closer examination, I discovered it was actually American cheese slices (what I call “fake cheese”) stacked and cut into triangles. It was gross. There was no granola. No oatmeal. No decent pastries (the pastries seemed like they had come out of a bag). Even the bread for toast was subpar. The buffet had plenty of fresh vegetables, but I didn’t really want a salad for breakfast. Call me picky, but the only thing I could find to eat were pancakes with sweetened condensed milk on top, and I don’t really like either of those two things.

Fishing BoatsThe hotel offers four tours. As villa guests these were free to us, but if they hadn’t been included in the price, the cost of the tour was minimal and would have been worth it. We went on two of them. One was in the morning for a half day and focused on scenic view points. The other was a half-day tour in the afternoon which took us to a fish market, temple, and other local places.

Beach ViewThough it was nice that the tours gave us a chance to see different sights in the area, it would have been nice to rent a car here. We would have liked to drive around and explore the Kenting area to see what we could discover on our own. We only have a US driver’s license and a Chinese license. We hadn’t done any research about how easy it would be to rent a car here with those, or if it was even an option.

Overall, I’m happy with this hotel. Staying in the villas made for a more enjoyable trip with a five- and three-year old. If the kids were older, we would have opted to spend less on the accommodation and more on the activities. But in this stage of our family, this place was perfect for us. The hotel certainly had it’s quirks, but I like quirks—it keeps things interesting.

Taipei

On the GondolaWe didn’t spend much time in Taipei because we opted to go to southern Taiwan where it was warmer. We only gave ourselves one full day to explore Taipei, and we decided use the day to try out the Gondola and the zoo. We really enjoyed both of these sights, and both were appropriate for our five- and three-year old. We could have easily spent hours at each, but because of our limited time, we did a speed-visit for both.

Tea HouseThe Gondola is a nice long ride, and at the top there are walking paths and tea houses. We didn’t spend a lot of time walking, but it seemed like the walks contained nice scenic views of mountains and local farms. The gondola is closed on Mondays for maintenance.

The zoo was huge. We had so limited time that we asked the kids which animals they most wanted to see and made sure we made it to those areas. We could have spent all day there, but had to skip large sections of it.

Despite the rainy weather, Taipei was a city that I would have liked to have had more time to explore. There were other things I wish we could have taken the time to see. But I guess it just gives us a reason to go back again another time.