Anthony Cheng, chief operating officer for APF Travel // © 2015 Anthony Cheng
Feature image (above): Cheng visits Taiwan at least once per year and often sells the destination to repeat clientele. // © 2015 iStock
Born to Taiwanese parents, Anthony Cheng typically travels to the island nation of Taiwan once per year to visit friends and enjoy the country’s scrumptious cuisine, often at one of Taipei’s many popular night markets. Cheng, chief operating officer for APF Travel in Alhambra, Calif., still sells Taiwan regularly to repeat clientele, and he shared with us some of the destination’s can’t-miss highlights.
Why is Taiwan a destination U.S. travelers would enjoy?
It’s a very interesting mix of culture, because Taiwan has Chinese influence and also aboriginals. You have the dominant, newer Chinese culture brought over from China, but what you’ll find that’s different about Taiwanese culture is that people are more hospitable.
In China, [the attitude] is much more “go, go, go,” and I would say people are overly ambitious there, which leads to an amazing energy. But in Taiwan, you get a more comfortable, very sweet and helpful feeling.
Can you explain Taiwan’s indigenous culture?
These are the folks who had been in the South Pacific islands for hundreds and hundreds of years before colonization happened. One place people can learn more is at Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village near Sun Moon Lake, an amusement park designed to teach people about the various indigenous cultures of Taiwan while having fun.
There are also some famous indigenous festivals in Taiwan, such as the Amis Harvest Festival, which takes place every July and August on the east coast, and the Yami Flying Fish Festival, which is held sometime between March and June, depending upon when the fish arrive.
What cultural experiences might appeal to U.S. travelers?
One great experiential activity in Taiwan is visiting a night market. There are night markets in other countries in Asia, but the ones in Taiwan are very unique. Vendors sell food and goods, and it has become a pastime for locals as well as tourists.
The food at the night markets is amazing — there’s a lot of great street food. You can get all kinds of skewers and kebobs. For example, you’ll get Chinese Islamic skewers from the northwest of China, and then right next door you’ll find fried noodles with all these different hot sauces.
One thing that is very unique to Taiwan is the smelly tofu. People might be a little scared to try it, but if you’re there and you really want to experience what the locals love, you’ve got to try it.
One of the most famous night markets in Taipei has always been Shilin Night Market. I used to go there a lot, and I’d eat everything from fried and sauteed noodles with beef to all kinds of dumplings.
What are some of Taiwan’s can’t-miss destinations?
You should spend three to five days exploring the whole city of Taipei. It’s Taiwan’s largest city by far, with a brunt of the country’s population.
Don’t miss some of Taiwan’s hot springs. There are hot springs all around the island, but there are some close to Taipei in Yangmingshan National Park. That’s a really good getaway and could be a day trip from Taipei. A lot of folks have opened up their own little bed-and-breakfasts near the hot springs there. There are also hot springs close to Sun Moon Lake, which is another not-to-be-missed destination because of its natural beauty.
If you go south, another popular spot — especially for summer time — is Kenting. It’s on the very southern tip and offers great beaches. A big hot spot on the east coast is Taroko Gorge, which is kind of like a mini-Grand Canyon in limestone mountains.
What activities might appeal to U.S. travelers?
Bike riding is an option that has expanded over the years. Before, it was just a mode of transport around Taipei and the big cities. But now, there are more and more great companies offering bike tours around the countryside and around the island. It’s also fun to just rent a bike and explore the cities that way, especially to avoid sitting in traffic in a car.
A lot of American visitors tend to spend three or four days in Taipei exploring, and then they’ll hop on a circle-island tour. These generally run around eight to 10 days long and hit pretty much all the major cities and sites around Taiwan. If you want to work with a U.S.-based tour operator, go with Super Value Tours.
What hotels do you recommend to clients?
W Taipei is definitely one of the best. It’s very modern, with wonderful service in a great location. For a lot of U.S. travelers, Taiwan is already very foreign. The food is going to freak them out a little bit unless they’re already very adventurous. So to have a familiar brand that’s sort of like a safe zone is always good — W Taipei fits that nicely.
There are more traditional hotels, too, such as Grand Hotel Taipei. It’s a little out of the way and a bit further north, but its traditional style will be a huge draw for culture buffs, in part because they’ll feel like they’re in a big pagoda. Another nice option outside of Taipei is The Lalu, Sun Moon Lake hotel, and there’s also Silks Place Taroko.
Apart from the night markets, what are your favorite restaurants in Taiwan?
The most famous restaurant is Din Tai Fung, located at Taipei 101/World Trade Center Station. Though it’s not the original location, it is the fanciest one with the biggest menu and a few dishes that none of the other locations have. It is world-famous for all of its different dumplings. Some special ones are the truffle and pork dumplings and the seasonal seafood dumplings. I’d advise people to arrive early for lunch or go during off-hours, because the lines can get quite long.
Fried chicken is another craze in Taiwan, but it’s done very differently. The chicken is smashed to almost the thinness of a magazine, then breaded and fried. Additionally, there’s a chain called Two Peck that offers great, little hole-in-the-walls all around Taipei.