When I was studying French at school, the advice was immersion. Listen to the radio in French, watch French films, snag a French boyfriend. (That last one usually worked the best.)
I added one more to the list when I lived in Toulouse as a young adult: drive. I bought a car and used it to slingshot myself across the country (Marseille and Montpellier to party, the Pyrenees to ski, Paris to shop) every weekend. I got to know the intricacies of the parking meter, what an aire was (a surprisingly pleasant rest area on a motorway) and how to pump a deflated tire. My French improved immeasurably when a speeding ticket arrived in my boîte à lettres.
Ten years later, I’m banking on the same logic but 10,240 kilometres, 50,000 characters and five tones away.
I’m a fledgling Mandarin speaker – and am driving the length of Taiwan to improve that. I’m travelling with my colleague Mike, a photographer, whose Mandarin stretches only to nihao (hello). This is good. I’m our only hope if we want to make it from Taipei in the north to the southernmost tip in Kenting and back up to the port city of Kaohsiung.
Helpfully, this mountainous, urbane, plucky little island is ideal for a road trip over a long weekend. In just three days, we whizzed through cities, up mountains, along coastlines; spotting animals, surfers, shoppers and foodies as we went. I was doing the talking; Mike was taking the photos.
We picked up the car, a robust Ford Focus, outside the airport in Taipei and drove into the city. For those new to driving in Asia, Taiwan is the best place to begin. Drivers are courteous (the only time anyone honked a horn was when I accidentally leaned my elbows on the steering wheel) and lanes well-signposted. It was a good sign for the 461 kilometres we’d be driving from north to south over the next two days.
In Taipei, we wanted urban: and we found it in Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a former tobacco factory-turned-arty district. We had kafei (coffee) on battered Chesterfield sofas and thumbed non-fiction books under Anglepoise lamps in Yue Yue, a bookshop fashioned out of a wooden cabin. We shopped in Design Pin, selling all kinds of cool things that you want but don’t really need: wooden toothbrushes with tiny bristles, shu (book) that open up into a lamp. In Songshan, even the toilets looked like an exhibition space.
Happily, Taipei is also one of those cities where shiwu (food) is front and centre. Which is good, because I learnt the major food groups in Mandarin around lesson 11 and now can order choudoufu (stinky tofu), Taiwan’s iconic niuroumian (beef noodles) and point to hongdoubing (red bean pancakes) for lunch at roadside sellers on traditional street Dihua Jie. Had we not left in the afternoon, we would’ve needled our way to the Shilin night market at dusk, hoovering up waffles, soups and almost anything on a stick.
We still wanted to visit a night market, so we drove south to ancient capital Tainan to do it. Tainan was four hours away on the pleasant-enough, but unatmospheric Freeway 1. Outside the car, we skirted Taiwan’s west coast, the mountains in the middle and some of the island’s metropolises: Taichung, Taoyuan and Chiayi.
Inside the car, we argued over the yinyue (music). I like up-tempo dance music at any time of day; Mike prefers old-style songs with guitars and melodies. He even suggested Bruce Springsteen.
The immersion tactic known as local radio (103.9 MHz) won this particular battle, even if I could pick out nothing aside from the occasional city name: Xianggang (Hong Kong), Beijing, Kaohsiung. It could’ve been a shipping forecast, the news headlines or an interview with the latest Mandopop star. I hoped my language skills were improving.
The talking had given way to an odd Mandarin R&B song as we pulled into the labyrinthine underground tingchechang (car park) under the centre of Tainan. First stop: the traditional city’s prettily named Huayuan Yeshi (Flower Night Market), which sells everything classically Taiwanese. Dinner was hot bags of airy, deep-fried sweet potato; crispy jiaozi (dumplings), dunked in hot sauce; and fried jirou (chicken) with a generous sneeze of paprika. Handily, according to an old school friend of mine now living in Tainan, fried chicken is the city’s favourite dish.
Tainan is Taiwan’s oldest city, and Shennong Jie one of its best-preserved laojie (old streets). We ambled down it with a can of Taiwan Beer, peering into its micro-bars (one even called Taikoo) and design stores. We even ordered from a vending machine hidden in a wooden booth behind a curtain. There’s more than a little Japanese influence in this former capital.
By the end of day one, we’d made it two-thirds of the way down Taiwan. On day two, we were going to drive the rest of it: to Kenting National Park.
And so back onto Freeway 1. Around Kaohsiung, the scenery changed from industrial-looking farmland to sweeping mountains, palm tree-studded highways, and blue, blue sea. Miao (temples) rose from green fields. Roadside sellers flogged smooth slices of mango and dragonfruit washed a beetroot purple. A gou (dog) appeared at a petrol station with two stickers where its eyebrows should be.
We pushed on until there was no more road.
The southernmost point of Taiwan is marked by a concrete cornucopia structure overlooking crashy waves and a field of black-navy spongy-looking rocks. It made for a good photo (it’s also the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea) but local holidaymakers are more likely to be found further up the coast. Where surfers were picking off squat waves, where yellow sands rolled into clear seas and slightly faded fandian (hotels) overlooked both.
Away from the coast, the whole area around Kenting National Park is mountainous, easily hikeable and flushed a rich green with palms, banyans and bushes. This landscape continues in Kaohsiung, a gentrifying, artsy port city two hours’ drive north of Kenting.
On the third day we found ourselves in this city that’s a neat mix of mountains, coast and urban development: a microcosm of Taiwan itself. We barrelled up Chai Shan (Monkey Mountain), the city’s version of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Mike snapped plenty of mean-looking houzi (monkeys) while I found several dead ends.
Here’s immersion tactic #12: ask a local about the best way to do a seven-point-turn halfway up a 356-metre-high mountain.
We made it down Chai Shan in time for a quick lunch and snoop around at Pier 2, a new creative district carved out of Kaohsiung’s former port buildings. I tried to decipher a few of the characters in Taiwanese comic strip gallery ACGN Warehouse, but had more luck pointing out xianhua (flowers) in cute boutique Danny’s Flower.
This asking for directions, ordering zhenzhu naicha (bubble tea) and listening to Mando R&B was all very well. I needed to prove myself – and it came in the form of an intercom on the side of the coastal road from Kenting to Kaohsiung. I (almost seamlessly) ordered a hot black coffee for me and nine chicken nuggets for Mike.
Last entry to the immersion handbook: visit a McDonald’s drive-through.
Four driving highlights
1. Best album: In Return by American electronic duo Odesza was about the only record we could find that straddled both our music tastes. It was surprisingly calming when navigating Taipei’s many traffic lights and motorbikes.
2. Best game: Popping mini balloons with darts at Tainan’s Flower Night Market. You needed eight to win a soft toy (I managed six).
3. Best (worst) manoeuvre: The awkward seven-point-turn near the top of Kaohsiung’s Monkey Mountain, being side-eyed by the monkeys.
4. Best meal: A generous bowl of niuroumian (beef noodles) at a roadside restaurant in Kenting, washed down with a can of Pocari Sweat.
Where to stay
Regent Taipei: A much-loved Taipei address, the Regent promises excellent views over the constantly busy Zhongshan neighbourhood below, an elegant clubhouse – the Tai Pan Club – for important guests and a clutch of luxury stores (with discounts for hotel guests) as well as restaurants and cafes in the basement. regenthotels.com/regent-taipei
Silks Club, Kaohsiung: This brand-new luxury property in southern Taiwan’s emerging powerhouse takes its inspiration from water. There’s a 4D ‘dancing particles’ installation in the lobby created by Art+Com (also behind a similar installation in Singapore’s Changi Airport) and almost all rooms (all lashings of pine and starched white linens) come with superb harbour views. Michelin-starred restaurant Ukai has a destination outpost in the hotel, with teppanyaki and barbecue front and centre; and for after dinner there’s a Dassai sake bar. silks-club.com/en
Unlock the adventure
Taiwan is a land of contrasts with many best-kept secrets – and one of the best ways to uncover these hidden gems is on a self-drive holiday.
The country has distinct climates: temperate in the north and tropical in the south. Spectacular coastal scenery combines with an interior of wooded hills and marble peaks: think vertiginous skyscrapers and modern architecture versus traditional tea houses and pagodas.
Taiwan joined the Avis network in 2012. Today, Avis in Taiwan is a one-stop service for self-drive car rentals, leasing, chauffeur-driven cars as well as outbound reservations for overseas rentals.
Avis’ service points and offices for self-drive rentals are across the island, including airports and railway stations; and it provides meet-and-greet services, too. Offering a wide-ranging fleet of cars with extensive insurance coverage including the Avis Prestige series, Avis makes it easier for you to embark on a wonderful and memorable journey to enjoy the sights and sounds of Taiwan.