Monday, September 5, 2011

RSL Cold Spring Resort in Suao 瓏山林蘇澳冷熱泉度假飯店

This is quite simply one of the best hotels in Yilan - and in Taiwan. It's quite expensive, but you get value for your money. And the opportunity to soak in the cold spring water during the hottest days of summer, immersed in unapologetic luxury, is pure bliss.

This is an odd location for such a luxurious hotel. Suao is the only part of Yilan which was developed for heavy industry. The town has some large cement factories and steel foundries, which makes it feel more like Kaohsiung than Yilan. The town of Suao is basically an eyesore, despite a pretty setting wedged between mountains and sea. As you drive toward the hotel you'll wonder whether you've made a wrong turn somewhere. And the hotel is in a decidedly unscenic place, next to a gas station, because that's where the cold spring happens to be.
Don't worry. The hotel itself is absolutely magnificent, and turns inward on itself to feature the array of courtyard cold and hot spring pools. Once you go inside you're deliberately cut off from the dusty streets outside and encircled by impressive architecture. The style is Southern California Palladian, and it looks like everything was magically transplanted from Beverly Hills. The staff maintains the highest level of service I've ever encountered in Taiwan, and they all seem to speak sufficient English.

In the courtyard at the center of the hotel are a dozen gorgeous pools with spring water of various temperatures - cold, cool, warm, and hot. The pools and surrounding Italianate sculpture are all quite tasteful and elegant.

I had purchased a special package which included room, dinner and breakfast, spa, cocktail in the bar, drink by the pool, and the naked spring on the roof. I recommend getting the package - it's a good deal. Because we had a package of activities, we were busy the whole time.

After bathing in the various courtyard pools, we went for the spa. The spa area was very beautiful - everything was first rate. The spa treatment was basically a relaxing rubbing massage (instead of the usual painful Chinese acupressure). Afterwards we were served herb tea in a little lounge area.

Meals qualify as haute cuisine. I arranged in advance for the vegetarian option, and I was very satisfied. Everything was very tasty, featured local ingredients, and was elaborately presented. The people in the kitchen definitely know what they're doing.

After dinner we went to the impressive bar for a cocktail. A duo was playing live jazz, which I enjoyed. However, all of the bathing and spa had turned us into jelly, so we just ended going to bed early. Even though we were in a tatami room (which came with the package) and sleeping on the floor, I slept better than I had in a long time.

The next morning, after a beautifully plated breakfast, we went upstairs to the nude spring. As with the rest of the resort, the nude spring area is also very elegant. There was only one other person in the men's area, which was surprising. If you don't have a package, you have to pay extra to use the nude spring, so most people seem to just stick to the courtyard pools downstairs. The men's nude spring features hot springs and two cold springs, one pair inside and another pair outside, so you can look at either the mountains or harbor while bathing.

As far as I could tell, I was the only foreign guest that day. About half of the guests had brought their children, which surprised me. In the US a hotel this elegant would be a romantic retreat for couples, but Taiwanese seem to consider anything with a swimming pool a place to take kids. The other guests were very well behaved and the kids weren't a problem. However, all of the kids made the dining room a bit noisy, which was odd for a restaurant serving such high end food.

Don't bother to dress up. Despite the high price and surroundings, most of the other guests dressed like they had bought their entire wardrobe from the clearance bin at Carrefour. As far as I can tell, the only time most Taiwanese people ever dress up in their entire life is for their wedding photos.

Although the hotel is famous for its unique cold spring, because there is also hot spring water this would also be a nice getaway in winter.

To get here just drive south along the highway to the very end and exit at Suao. Then follow the signs to the hotel. You have to make a few turns to get there, but the route is well marked with large signs and billboards. You can unload in front of the hotel, then park in the lot on the left side of the hotel.

Here is the hotel website:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Old Shikong Trail 石空古道

Even though this mountain trail is near the prime tourist sites in Toucheng, it isn't very well known. Nor is it particularly beautiful or dramatic. However, this ordinariness is the trail's main charm. Because the trail isn't very popular, it feels more natural than the major tourist trails. It's an extremely convenient way to get into the mountains for a taste of typical Yilan rainforest. It is a short walk from Waiao beach and Wushigang, two of the most popular tourist spots in Yilan. So it's possible to take a walk in the mountains, then go back to the beach and take a dip in the ocean to cool off afterward. There is also an air conditioned coffee shop in the beach visitors center where you can rest and cool off after your hike.

The trail theoretically runs for about two and a half kilometers, but the final kilometer has been paved and made into a rough concrete road which is completely devoid of charm. So the trail is now only about 1.6 kilometers long. Round trip takes about 1 hour 45 minutes. The trail is pretty basic - mostly just a dirt path. In some places you have to climb up or down slippery mossy stones. Given the condition of the trail, you should definitely wear appropriate trekking shoes. You will probably also want to avoid coming here after a heavy rain, as I imagine that it gets very muddy.

As you start to ascend, you will have a superb view of the ocean. Because the mountains are right next to the sea, you can get a fantastic close-up panorama of the ocean, rocky beaches, and
Guishan Island from here. After you get to the top of the first mountain and start going inland, you find yourself in a very quiet subtropical rainforest. The trail runs next to a stream, which is very pretty in spots. Unfortunately some selfish people living downhill have run water pipes through the forest to get free spring water from the source, and these pipes mar the scenery for much of the way.

At the top the trail exits the forest and you find yourself out in the open. If you like you can keep going and walk down the concrete road, but there isn't much to see. The only reason to go forward is to visit a little shrine which dates from the Japanese colonial period, which is located just beyond the forest. Also, the concrete road runs next to a stream which has places where you can bathe in summer. It's a good place to soak in the cold mountain water on a hot afternoon.

The entrance to the trail is easy to find. Directly across the street from the large yellow visitor's center at Waiao beach, north of Toucheng town, is a little road which passes under the railroad tracks. After you go under the tracks you will see two temples. The big temple is called Jietian Gong 接天宮. There is a big brown map of the Shikong trail on the right side of the temple, and
signs in Chinese point the way to the trail head. You can park next to the temples and start walking north next to the tracks, or you can just walk over from the beach. The path along the train tracks which leads to the trail head doesn't look too promising - it becomes very narrow and you will wonder if you've made a mistake. Don't worry - this is the way to get to the trail. When you see a train platform on the other side of the tracks, you will notice some concrete stairs leading upward on your left. A white arrow with red characters marks the trail entrance. Just go up here and keep walking.

Niannian Restaurant 年年小館

Yilan isn't famous for its fine restaurants. Local people are mostly very traditional and rarely eat out, so the restaurant culture isn't very well developed. Most restaurants I've been to here aren't anything special. However, Niannian is an exception. I've eaten at the Jiaoxi branch a number of times, and the food is consistently good. What's more, they specialize in traditional Yilan dishes, so this is the place to come for a taste of the local cuisine.

There are three branches of the restaurant. The main branch is on the north side of Yilan City. I've never been there, but a friend tells me that the food there is better than at the branch locations. The Jiaoxi branch is conveniently located on the main road that cuts through town not far north of the train station area. There is also a branch in Luodong.

The menu is very extensive and is basically an encyclopedia of Yilan food. One page is even devoted to Yilan snack foods like you would find in a night market. Many of the dishes here are distinctive regional foods, such as shrimp cooked in hot stones, spicy lemon chicken, chicken soup with medicinal herbs, pork ribs with kumquats, and anything with scallions. Ask your waitress for recommendations of unique local foods.

The addresses are -

Main restaurant:
Huanshi East Road, Section 2, no. 777, Yilan City

Jiaoxi branch:
115 Jiaoxi Road, Section 5, Jiaoxi 宜蘭縣礁溪鄉礁溪路五段115號

Luodong branch:
126 Yangming Road, Luodong

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ah Xian Hot Spring 阿先溫泉會館

I probably shouldn't tell anyone about this place, because the main reason I like it is that it isn't crowded. This certainly isn't the nicest hot spring in Yilan. Nor is it the cheapest. Nor is it beautiful or elegant. In fact the facilities are worn and a bit tacky. But it's still my favorite Jiaoxi hot spring. It offers good value for the money, and I appreciate the lack of crowds.

This hot spring has something for everyone. The building in front is a hotel. There is a hot spring pool in each guest room if you want to stay overnight.

If you just want to bathe in private you can also get a private hot spring room in this building and soak for an hour. These private rooms aren't very big but are certainly ok for a soak.

In back (behind the parking lot) are the communal springs. You have to wear a swimsuit in the outdoor spring. This is basically a big swimming pool full of hot water, and is the best option for people with kids, since they can splash around.

Inside the two long buildings are separate naked pools for men and women. The men's pool is basically a large swimming pool, with a little pool of cold water and some water jets for back massage. There aren't many communal pools in Jiaoxi, and this one is my favorite. The water is very clean, the temperature is right, and unless the weather is unusually cold, there are usually not many people. I assume that the women's pool is the same.

There are lockers for clothes and valuables, but you have to pay a NT 100 deposit to get a key.

Be sure to observe the proper etiquette if you use the communal pools. (See my post on Jiaoxi hot springs). Take off your shoes at the entrance to the changing area of communal naked pool. There are shelves on the side for you to put your shoes. Most importantly be sure to wash off thoroughly at the showers before getting in the pool!

To get here, follow the street away from the train station and keep going uphill past the various hot spring hotels. Where the street forks, turn right. Drive two minutes and you will see a big sign in Chinese for Ah Xian. Turn left and park behind the hotel.
The hot spring has an English website:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Songluo Trail 松羅步道

This is a fantastic trek which I recommend very highly. It has everything - gorgeous rain forest scenery and a beautiful river all along a fairly easy trail which is easy to access.

From the parking lot, you cross the little footbridge and start walking up the concrete road into the hills. You have to walk about two kilometers to reach the trailhead, but you pass by a pretty river along the way, so it's not a hardship.

The trail itself is mostly dirt and crushed stone heading uphill at a gentle slope the entire way. At one point you have to cross over a river along a rope bridge, which is fun. And in a couple of places
you have to walk over large rocks. The rocks can be kind of slimy, so you should wear good walking shoes.

The point is just to admire the beautiful forest and river scenery. There is an amazing array of plant species here - this is what scientists mean when they talk about biodiversity. In particular, there are lots of birds nest ferns growing on the branches of trees, which are a wonderful sight.

From the parking lot to the top of the trail is a little more than two kilometers. Walking up and back takes about two hours if you keep moving, but I recommend that you take your time and savor the gorgeous scenery. The forest here is incredibly photogenic, so be sure to bring your camera. (I'm
lazy so I just take pictures with my iphone - they don't do the scenery justice.) This place is paradise for nature photographers.

The only problem with this place is that it's very popular. The parking lot is huge, which is a bad sign. I visited on a warm Monday in November and I only saw two other people on the trail. But I bet there are a lot of people on weekends during the high season. So if at all possible, visit on a weekday.

To get here, take Road 7 west from Yilan City and drive up into the mountains. You will pass a long bridge over the river, with a nearby gas station. Soon after you will come to the town of Songluo.
The trip from downtown Yilan City to Songluo takes about half an hour. This is an aboriginal area - people here belong to the Atayal tribe, so the trail is marked by a big wooden sign with an aboriginal warrior next to the side of the main road. The access road to the trail is on the left side of the town, next to the big wooden sign. Turn right here and follow the access road down to the parking lot.

After you've walked the trail, if you have the time I recommend you swing by the nearby Cherry Blossom hot spring (see my post) for a bath. Soaking in the hot water feels wonderful after the hike. To get to the hot spring, get back on Road 7 and keep going west (away from Yilan City). After about 5 minutes you will get to a bridge over the river - the Douniu Bridge 鬥牛橋, with a sign pointing the way to Douniu. Cross the bridge and drive for another 5 minutes. The hot spring is marked by a hot pink sign on the right.

Cherry Blossom Hot Spring 櫻花溫泉館

This hot spring is in a remote area of Datong 大同 township not far from Road 7. If you happen to be passing by on the way to or from other attractions, it's worth the detour.

The setup here is a bit different from most hot springs. Most of the rooms are little huts with a tub big enough for one person, so you bathe in private. A regular room only costs NT 200, which is a real bargain. There are also deluxe rooms equipped with a jacuzzi which cost 500-600 NT, but I don't think this is necessary. The facilities are simple but spotlessly clean.

The water here is totally different from the famous calcium carbonate hot springs down in Jiaoxi - in fact it's quite different from all the other hot springs I've ever been to in Taiwan. Here the water has a noticeable sulfur smell and some natural chemical in it stung my eyes slightly (don't worry - stinging eyes are part of the fun). The water is also slightly murky, as it contains some ultra-fine volcanic ash in suspension, giving it an odd slippery feeling.

They also serve food here, and rent out campsites for people to pitch their tents. If you want to camp along Road 7, this is the place.

To get here, drive west on Road 7 from Yilan City. After a little more than half an hour, you will come to the second bridge over the river. This is the Douniu Bridge 鬥牛橋, which also has a sign marking the way to the town of Douniu. Turn left, cross the river, and keep going. This road is called 7 Bing (7 丙). After about five minutes you will see a big hot pink sign on the right marking the hot spring. (If you get to the next bridge, you've gone too far.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Meihua Lake 梅花湖

This lake near Luodong isn't very big, but it's worth a visit if you're in the area. The lake is extremely popular on weekends, so it's not the place to get away from it all and commune with nature. But on weekdays it's usually fairly quiet.

There's really nothing in particular to do here - it's just a pretty place. Most people just stroll around the lake and enjoy the scenery. You can also ride a bike around the lake. But it's so small that you can zip around the lake really fast. If this is your main destination, it's probably better to walk and stop several times at the lakeside pavillions to take in the scenery and relax.

The lake isn't far from the Lanyang River Bike Path (see my post). You can rent bikes from shops on the road in front of the lake. To get to the riverside bike path, you ride down the access road to the lake and turn left at the corner. Ride uphill and cross the traffic roundabout. The bike path runs along the levee on the south bank of the river. This bike path connects with several other bike paths,
so you can ride quite far in several directions from here.

There are some shops lining the road leading to the lake which sell snacks and drinks. The specialty seems to be a special Taiwanese sweet which consists of ice cream and shaved peanut brittle wrapped inside a pancake. If you've never had one, it's definitely worth trying.

The lake is in Dongshan township, next to the foothills southwest of Luodong. To get there from Luodong, just take a road in the general direction and follow the brown signs to the lake. Road signs aren't Yilan's strongpoint, so I'm afraid it's not possible to give better directions than this. If you're afraid of getting lost, you can just follow the road next to the Lanyang River upstream. Turn left at the roundabout and go downhill to the lake. There is a huge temple on a mountain above the lake. The temple is easily visible from a long distance, so driving toward the big temple might help you get there.