Steam rises from the outdoor pool with water of around 41 degrees C, in which I am soaking in my birthday suit, while the gurgling sounds from the River Nashi surround me. The water here is rich in sodium bicarbonate, odourless and colourless and supposedly good for soothing and whitening the skin, and easing sour muscles.
Shrouded by mist and steam from foliage and fumaroles filled with spring waters, the surrounding mountains is a lush emerald canvas interwoven with white froth from waterfalls, looking like a lost Eden. Except that I am in Volando Urai, the ne plus ultra of luxury hot spring resorts in Taiwan — or more specifically, Wulai — a 30-minute drive away from Taipei city centre.
Except for its practice of paying tribute to the Taiwanese aboriginal culture in the Atayal-dominant area through tasteful artwork, sculptures and performances, the Relais & Châteaux member hotel with en suite hot spring baths — public baths including separate outdoor ones for men and women, refinements and attention to details — would not look out of place in Japan, the motherland of onsen.
The Japanese introduced hot spring bathing to Taiwan during its 50-year colonisation after winning the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894. Like Japan, Taiwan sits on major tectonic plates and is home to over 400 geothermal sources, which have given rise to over 100 hot spring resorts. Volando specialises in healing — evident from the attention paid to seasonal eating — a concept known as jie qi, based on ancient Farmers’ Almanacs using local produce, and takes the luxury spa theme a notch higher than ryokans in Japan by offering Western and Eastern treatments based on Traditional Chinese Medicine tenets. But this luxury wellness segment is a secret among the local well-heeled, not known to many outside the country.
A cultural performance at Volanda.
In fact, Taipei as a city for sybaritic indulgences, culture and creativity remains under the radar; not many people are even aware that the capital was named Design Capital of the World last year.
Even to other Asians, Taiwan is known mostly for its soap operas, street food, night markets and politicians so unbridled in their passion for pushing their agenda that they would throw shoes at each other during parliamentary debates. Taipei’s image as a destination for a cheap and cheerful weekend was further perpetuated by the budget airlines that sent shoestring tourists to the country in pursuit of affordable attractions. Many of the well-heeled in Asia who are in need of a short break bypass Taipei for Hong Kong or Japan. But the city actually has much to offer.
Beneath the veneer of dust, honking traffic and uninspiring buildings, there are many hidden gems. The city planning looks haphazard in some parts, with different legacies left behind by different governments throughout the island’s history. In former Japanese enclaves, a distinctly Japanese system of city planning is evident in the tree-lined alleyways where independent boutiques and fine dining restaurants are tucked away. Laid out in the same system as Shanghai (in the fashion of European cities) in the 1920s, the leafy boulevards of Da’an District is where you may find an art gallery or a local designer’s atelier on the ground floor of a building. This part of Taipei’s city planning was done by Chiang Kai-shek’s government when he moved to Taiwan after the Nationalist Party lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party after World War II. When Chiang left China, he brought with him a two-million-strong army and 3,000 crates of antiques from the Forbidden City.
An outdoor dining area at Shi Yang Shan Fang.
Today, the finest repository of Chinese art in the world — from oracle bones to luminous jadeite sculptures of Chinese cabbage and fatty pork — are found in the National Palace Museum on the outskirts of Taipei. Built in the same style of Qing palaces in 1965 and refurbished in 2008 to boast interactive displays in good lighting, the museum has such a vast inventory that less than a third of the art and antiques it holds has ever seen the light of day. Alas, this history buff has to tear herself away by noon for lunch at Shi Yang Shan Fang.
It is easy to get lost meandering on your own through the green labyrinth where Shi Yang sits. The poetic panorama of bamboo and cypress trees and a rippling brook greets me upon arrival, making the hassle worth it. Built by a former architect and devout Buddhist, Shi Yang resembles a Zen retreat in Kyoto, complete with paper-latticed sliding doors fully open to let a gentle autumn sun caress the tatami flooring. The 11-course menu of seasonal, locally sourced produce is designed and paced to encourage mindful eating. A signature dish of “lotus chicken soup” takes centre stage, with a lotus bud that blooms slowly, giving off a gentle scent.
Another legacy the Taiwanese inherited from the Japanese is their cuisine — the best I have tasted outside of Japan. At Sasa Sushi in Zhongshan district, I experience for myself the exacting skills of chef Yong Long Yang who started as an apprentice at 14 and is well-known for his precision in balancing tastes, textures and even temperatures, such that you get a full experience of the fresh ingredients he procures from Tokyo every morning.
One of Chef Yong Long Yang’s creations at Sasa Sushi.
Besides a wave of foreign Michelin-starred chefs setting up outposts such as L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Ibuki by Takagi Kazuo at Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel Taipei, young Asian chefs are also opening, fuelled by aspirations to be part of a culinary city that has escaped international acclaim so far. Raw, overseen by Singapore-based, Taiwan-born Andre Chiang and helmed by Taiwanese Alain Huang, and Mume, opened by a trio of chefs — both specialise in fine dining cuisine in a casual bistro setting using as much local produce as possible — are currently the hottest tables in town. At Raw, the menu changes every three months, with classics such as beef tongue cracker, a Taiwanese snack shaped like a bovine’s tongue, but at Raw is topped with an actual bovine’s tongue.
Despite the variety of quality regional Chinese cuisines available in Taipei — be it fiery Szechuanese or exquisitely folded Shanghainese xiao long baos — quality Cantonese cuisine was sadly lacking till W Taipei opened in 2011. Now reservations are a must to secure a table at W’s Yen restaurant currently helmed by Executive Chef Hoi Ming Wo, formerly of Michelin-starred Xian Tao in The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka. Wo’s double-boiled Cantonese soups with beautifying properties are relished by society ladies. Popular with the younger set, who frequent Woobar where guest DJs frequently spin and a poolside Wet bar, W Taipei’s gym with its state-of-the-art equipment is also the home gym of a society ladies’ triathlon club headed by Yongjie Jia.
For those seeking to relax in elegance and if I dare say, opulence, one spa to visit is at the one-year-old Mandarin Oriental, Taipei. At over 3,500sq-m, the well-appointed spa offers the ultimate indulgence while you surrender to the ministrations of a therapist in a signature treatment, such as the Formosa ritual that hydrates and mineralises your skin with butterfly massage techniques. Attention to details is paid at this hotel where all rooms and suites decked in luxuriant silks, fine leathers and Italian marble, have a valet box, so that requests are met with minimal disturbance. The hotel’s Jade Lounge, with interiors that rival a tearoom in the likes of Versailles, is popular for its European-styled high teas.
Executive Chef Wo Hoi Ming from Yen restaurant at W Taipei.
Eating well and languishing in chichi spas aside, the Taiwanese also enjoy good books, art and architecture. Besides galleries in the restored winery of Huashan Culture Park, public art spaces in Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, there are also avant-garde buildings being built by foreign architects such as Rem Koolhaas’ Taipei Performing Arts Center.
The refined practice of mindfulness is also more pervasive in Taipei than in other Asian cities. At Buly 1803, the first international store of the Parisian apothecary, brand manager Wen Song lets on a privileged background through his demeanour. Scion of fashion entrepreneur Yaming Feng who brings in brands such as Comme des Garçons and Maison Martin Margiela to Taipei, Song and his staff wrap purchases in an elaborate process of origata, the Japanese art of gift wrapping, before finally sealing it with wax and personalising it with Western calligraphy. The staff take lessons and practise for an hour every day, I’m told.
A sense of cosmopolitan and openness coexists with traditional Confucian values in Taipei. The young respect their elders and focus on self-improvement and decorum. To a large extent, this is a legacy of an elite class whom Chiang brought with him more than 70 years ago. But given Taiwan’s past history of martial law and oppression, this isn’t something that people speak freely of.