Eat, Sleep, Shop ... Taipei Basics

From night markets to luxury hotels, Taipei offers a feast for the senses.

By: Andréa R. Vaucher

TAIPEI, Taiwan Taipei’s night markets literally assault one’s senses. There are the ubiquitous bright neon signs and colorful mountains of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

Pungent fish stews, Aboriginal-style barbecued pig, oyster omelets and fried and steamed dumplings tempt tourists to throw caution to the wind and dig right in.

The noisy hawkers, one after another, scream into their tinny microphones, creating a cacophony as they entreat passersby to verify the virtues of their wares everything from electronic equipment to knock-offs of expensive Swiss watches. Shiny house wares and rock-bottom-priced apparel $5 for a stylish white cotton blouse, $3 for a kid’s sweatshirt with Chinese characters scream “Buy me!” Several stands sell inexpensive suitcases, conceivably to cart the bargains home.

This exotic carnival is frequented nightly by tourists and locals alike and filled with Taiwanese teenagers with chopped and dyed hair, their slim limbs clothed in fashion as progressive as anything you’d see on London’s Portobello Road. Prowling the night markets has got to be some of the best and least expensive entertainment in Asia.

Taiwan boasts 10 night markets; they open for business around 7 p.m. and go until past midnight. Shilin is the most famous and boisterous, but the Tonghua Street, Raohe Street and Huaxi Street markets are definitely close runners-up. Other more traditional places to shop in Taipei include:

The tree-lined Zhongshan North Road, where the upscale Europeans, such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, have set up shop. This is where the wealthy Taipei ladies “do lunch” and check out the latest imports.

Office workers and young city dwellers shop on Dunhua South Road, where one can find everything from street vendors to department stores selling brand merchandise. Cantonese teahouses line the street and stay open 24 hours. The young and the trendy shop in the new Xinyi shopping zone, which with its multiplexes is the Taipei equivalent of a mall. On the weekends, there are often outdoor live performances by local pop stars.

Big and Little Luxury

Are luxury hotels in Taipei really more sumptuous than their counterparts elsewhere? Or is it that after a 14-hour trans-Pacific flight, one is so much more appreciative?

Take the Grand Formosa Regent, whose English-speaking management team will arrange to whisk clients from the airport in a Mercedes and seamlessly check them into one of the 538 guestrooms (including 60 suites).

All the rooms in the 21-story hotel measure almost 500 square feet travelers won’t find that in Paris or London and have extravagantly appointed marble bathrooms with double sinks, a Jacuzzi tub and separate shower.

The Grand Formosa Regent has a marketing and consulting contract with Four Seasons/Regent International Hotels and Resorts and was the only hotel in Taiwan to make the 2002 Conde Nast Traveler Gold List.

It’s easy to see why.

In addition to outsized rooms all the amenities one expects from a five-star property great linens, fax machine, two International Direct Dial (IDD) lines, VCR, in-room safe, etc. the Grand Formosa Regent also has a 24-hour butler service and an “Executive Club.” For an additional $38 per day, club members get complimentary breakfast, all-day beverages and hors d’oeuvres, exclusive computer facilities and express check-in and check-out services. Plus there’s a rooftop pool and the hotel’s Wellspring Spa. What more could a client want?

While the Grand Formosa Regent may seem like the obvious choice for clients demanding the best, some clients just don’t like huge hotels, no matter how many stars. Fortunately for them, there’s a five-star boutique hotel, also smack in the middle of Taipei’s financial district.

The Evergreen Laurel, with its 100 luxury suites (albeit often one-room “suites”) offers many of the amenities associated with its larger competitors.

While the Evergreen Laurel features the standard five-star bells and whistles large desk with multi-functional office machine, dual-line IDD phone and voice messaging system, 110- and 200-volt power supplies, elegant decor, dual-sink bathroom with separate tub and shower it also has a few features that go beyond the norm.

First of all, the hotel boasts an exclusive soundproof construction that reduces ambient noise to under 40 decibels. Translated: When you’re lying in bed the only thing you hear is your heartbeat.

And all rooms have a 42-inch wall-mounted plasma TV that allows free broadband Internet access. While the wireless keyboards aren’t the easiest or fastest to operate, they make retrieving e-mail possible if a client happens to be traveling without a laptop. Another plus is the bedside control panel that regulates nearly everything from the television to the thermostat to the lights.

The ultrasound massage tub in the marble bathroom fills in seconds flat, and spa suites also feature a steam shower.

The Evergreen Laurel has two restaurants offering Western and Chinese cuisine, 24-hour room service, business center, gym and the full-service Being Spa. The Evergreen Laurel proves that sometimes bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Delicious Dumplings

Ting Tai Fung restaurant is as popular with the locals as with tourists. The specialty here is dumplings and the place is as funky as any dim-sum joint one might find in San Francisco’s or New York’s Chinatown.

The restaurant has four narrow floors, each accommodating about 30 diners. There is no English menu, though a few of the waiters do speak English. But apparently, the item numbers have never changed No. 2 is still the restaurant’s famous chicken soup made with black-skinned chicken, which is blanched and steamed with ginger and scallions.

For dessert, try the red bean dumpling, which features sugary sweet mashed red beans. This one was discovered by accident alas, its number remains a mystery. Open 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Closed Mondays and Jan. 22-28 for Chinese New Year. A meal will run about $20 per person.

Ting Tai Fung, 194 Hsin-I Road, Section 2