Sun Moon Lake is a modern-day boating and cycling tourist destination, a holy site for Taiwan’s aboriginals and Chiang Kai-Shek’s former retreat. // © 2014 Taiwan Tourism Bureau
I was trying to fit in at Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest freshwater lake and one of the country’s 13 national scenic areas. With my arms outstretched in front of me gripping my iPhone, I shushed my ego and attempted to take my first public “selfie.” The blue-green water looked pristine behind me, though I had certainly seen better hair days. But I was under the influence of the endorphins of exercise, my beautiful surroundings and groups of Taiwanese women, men and children — all of whom were enthusiastically engaged in the art of taking a selfie.
I was joining them at Come! Bike Day, a family-friendly bicycle ride around Sun Moon Lake’s 19-mile perimeter, a picturesque ride named one of the world’s most breathtaking cycling routes by CNNGo. Come! Bike Day is just one part of the Taiwan Bicycle Festival, a nine-day celebration of the country’s fantastic cycling opportunities.
Laughing at my attempt to take my own photo, two women excitedly pointed at my phone and then at themselves, communicating that they could save me from my hashtag-selfie-fail. The fact that I was staging an artful digital self-portrait was lost on them, but I appreciated the friendly gesture and obliged.
What To Do in Sun Moon Lake
While sharing the bicycle experience at Come! Bike Day with locals is certainly a beautiful moment, biking the perimeter on any day of the year is a worthwhile activity.
In addition to its bike route, Sun Moon Lake offers a range of leisure options, making it a popular vacation spot with Taiwan residents, especially for honeymoons and weekend getaways. Sun Moon Lake’s ties to Taiwan’s minority populations and political history also draw in visitors.
Most westerners, however, have yet to discover Sun Moon Lake. According to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau (TTB), out of the 6.6 million visitors to Sun Moon Lake in 2012, only 38,000 visitors (or 5.5 percent) were from Europe and America.
Because of this, visiting Sun Moon Lake feels like being in on a well-kept secret. Taiwan has been active in improving the destination as a tourism site, especially after the Sept. 21, 1999 earthquake, which was very destructive to the area. Construction done after the earthquake included Sun Moon Lake’s four piers (Chaowu Pier, Shueishe Pier, Ita Shao Pier and Syunguang Pier), its 14 distinct walking trails and tourist-friendly spots such as the Bamboo Stone Garden and the Meihe Garden.
The main cultural attractions at Sun Moon Lake are those that were built after Taiwan’s Retrocession, when Japanese rule of Taiwan officially ended in 1945. These include the Xuanguang Temple, Xuanzang Temple and the Cien Pagoda. The pagoda was built for Chiang Kai-Shek — who loved visiting Sun Moon Lake for vacations and meetings — in memory of his mother. Looming above the entire area, the Cien Pagoda stands tall at the top of Shabalan Mountain.
Wenwu Temple, on the other hand, was built in 1938 as a response to the lake’s sudden rise in water level, which was a result of the hydroelectric power plants that were built during Taiwan’s Japanese occupation. Perched high above the water, Wenwu offers another exotic photo-op. At the top of the temple, there is a beautiful panoramic view of the wood-paneled orange rooftops staggered in front of layers of blue from the distant mountains and lake. Depending on the time of day and weather, this can be a particularly ethereal setting.
History and culture lovers will enjoy learning about the Thao, one of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes who call Sun Moon Lake home. It is believed that a white deer led the Thao to Sun Moon Lake, telling them that the location was their promised land. More than 100 years ago, during the Qing Dynasty, the original Thao settlers were joined by large numbers of Han Chinese and Pingpu (plains) aborigines who moved in to cultivate the land, thereby establishing the cultural diversity of the area.
The Thao are the first aboriginal tribe to take part in tourist activities at Sun Moon Lake and share their singing and dancing traditions with guests. Visitors to Sun Moon Lake can learn more about the Thao tribe at the nearby Dehua Village. The most sacred site for the Thao is Lalu Island, the small island in Sun Moon Lake that is believed to be the residence of the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors. Though the sacred island is off limits, visitors can take a leisurely boat ride around it. On our private boat, the captain shared his family’s history in Taiwan and pointed out areas of interest along the lake, including the luxurious Lalu hotel, the former site of the Chiang Kai-Shek Guesthouse.
For the best views of Sun Moon Lake, head over to the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway for a pleasant cable-car ride that provides expansive views of the lake and an aerial view of the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, a theme park that features rides and elaborate cultural shows. The views from the gondola-car reveal the scope of the lake, making it perhaps the best spot in Sun Moon Lake for a selfie.
Visiting Sun Moon Lake Basics
How To Get To Sun Moon Lake
Though it may be a new frontier for Westerners, Sun Moon Lake is only 14 miles south of Taipei in Nantou County and is accessible to visitors by several methods.
“In a typical Taiwan itinerary, visitors will first spend several nights in Taipei, then begin to head south by motorcoach, train or airplane,” said Sylvia Yu, director of TTB’s San Francisco office. “Because of Sun Moon Lake's proximity to Taichung, transportation to get to the lake typically goes through this gateway. Typically one would access Taichung (flight, train, motorcoach) and then proceed to Sun Moon Lake via car or motorcoach.”
When To Go
Taiwan is located in the South China Sea, and like other popular Asian tourist destinations, possesses a tropical climate. As such, the best time to visit is between September and April, when the summer heat has subsided and the rainy season has not yet started.
Taiwan Cycling Festival
The nine-day Taiwan Cycling Festival is held on the second week of November each year. In addition to Come! Bike Day, the festival includes the Formosa 900 — around-the-island cycling and short-distance tourist biking tours — and the King of the Mountain Challenge, a grueling upward battle to the top of Taroko Gorge for competitive bikers.
“Owing to the tremendous success over the years, Come! Bike Day will be held at Sun Moon Lake annually for the foreseeable future,” said Yu.
Where to Eat
Don’t miss the huge, high-quality buffet dinner at Fleur de Chine Hotel. Make arrangements for your clients in advance, as this is very popular option.
What to Buy
One treat to try here is nougat, made in many flavors. Look out for street carts selling homemade varieties.
Though swimming in Sun Moon Lake is prohibited, there is one day each year when the ban is lifted. During the Sun-Moon Lake Ten-Thousand Swimming Carnival (held in September), 25,000 swimmers — attached to buoys and wearing caps — complete the non-timed, two-mile swim, which has been named one of the top 50 swims in Asia.