Taiwan, the long way

For our final 2014 trip we booked a near-round-the-world ticket to Taipei, Taiwan, with stops in Europe in both directions. As with most of our longer trips we used miles, in this case US Air miles, and by booking in early 2014 they still had access to their former Star Alliance partners. This meant we would fly a range of new-to-us airlines for 90k miles per person.  Thankfully, everything was in business class!

Stats for this trip:

  • 11 days
  • Four countries
  • Eight flights on five airlines  (Brussels, Austrian, EVA, Thai, Lufthansa)
  • a total of ~22,000 airline miles
  • lots of trains, buses, taxis and Uber!

ChristmasTrip14

 JFK-BRU-VIE-BKK-TPE-BKK-FRA-BRU-JFK

Flights:

Our favorite carrier was Brussels Airlines, with a nice combination of comfortable lay-flat seats, good food and drink, and pleasant cabin crew. After our overnight flight to Europe we each received a box of tasty waffle cookies as a parting gift. Transferring in Brussels involved more walking than we expected; the airport is quite large and under construction. Thankfully, the Brussels lounge was well positioned for our next flight, with a nice array of breakfast items, and the shower rooms helped us reset after the overnight flight.

We also flew Brussels Air on Dec 23rd to return to the US, and this time we each received an entire box of Neuhaus chocolates… merci! The one downside of Brussels Airlines was the relatively small selection of movies, but we always travel with our own so it didn’t bother us.

 brussels chocolates
our business class seats and a delicious box of Belgian chocolate!

Lufthansa and Austrian were both intra-Europe business class, so the seat size is no different than coach (just with the middle seat blocked off). Both were short flights, and we did get breakfast which was reasonably good. The Austrian lounge in Vienna was surprisingly small prior to our EVA flight and not particularly memorable; the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt was large, with quite a few breakfast options (including sour cherry jam) for our early morning regional flight.

lufthansabrekkie
cold meats and cheese plate for our second breakfast + flat Santa

EVA Air was a mixed bag – they had an interesting choice of movies, and the food we pre-ordered was pretty good. (Leandra’s Note: On two of the three legs, my special order was ‘missing’ but thankfully the normal meals were fine.) They also had a nice amenity kit, perhaps the nicest of all our flights, and we’ve become fans of the Bvlgari lotion. However, the Premium Laurel seats on Vienna-BKK-Taipei route are lumpy and uncomfortable, something we discovered after the tickets were booked, and confirmed on the flight. Better than coach, but we would likely choose a different route or carrier for such a long future flight. We did get a chance to try the new seats (Royal Laurel) for four hours on our return and they were much nicer. Strangely, we never received a landing card for Taipei while in flight, so we had to hastily fill one out while in line for immigration.

eva-1 eva-2 eva-drinks
Premium Laurel seats (meh), Royal Laurel seats (nice), champagne (always a plus)

Thai Airlines was our least favorite of the flights, with older seats and food that was just not good, especially surprising given we flew from their hub in Thailand. We had a really tight connection, so were were escorted through the airport at a hurried speed by an EVA airline employee. This also meant we didn’t have time to check out their lounge which is widely known to be better than the actual in-flight experience.

thaiairlines

Taiwan the long way: where we stayed

Hotel 73 – Taipei, Taiwan

After getting turned around coming out of the Dongmen MRT metro (note: Taiwanese maps don’t always have north at the top, and maps in different parts of the metro station have different orientations!) we found the entrance to Hotel 73. The check-in desk was very friendly and had our room waiting for us. After two nights on planes (!) we finally had a real bed.

Hotel 73 Hotel 73 lobby
fancy lobby sign and seating area

We knew our room was going to be a smaller boutique-sized room, but we couldn’t pass up the deal. However, it was even smaller than we expected – we only had our carry-on bags and a backpack each, and we struggled to get around them at times. Another potential con: our window faced the street, and it didn’t block much noise. Thankfully we had earplugs so it didn’t affect us much.

Hotel 73 - our 'intimate' room

The bathroom was reasonably sized and quite clean, plus we liked the amenities.

Hotel 73 had a lot of nice perks, including reasonable wifi and free laundry, and some fun art too.

do not touch   laundry
‘don’t touch’ button on the coffee machine; complimentary laundry facilities

The included breakfast consisted of Eastern and Western choices such as salad, rice, boiled eggs, pastries, pasta, chinese porridge, etc. Not memorable, but solid, and choices did vary each morning.

Another plus: the hotel was only a few blocks from Din Tai Fung, where we enjoyed soup dumplings several times during our stay. Also, the hotel can arrange a car to take you back to the airport for 990 Taiwanese dollars (~$36 USD), good for early morning departures where you don’t want to take the MRT to the bus or train.

Overall, we liked Hotel 73 and would consider a return on a future trip, but I would spring for a larger room.

Sheraton Frankfurt Airport Hotel

The closest of the Frankfurt airport-connected hotels, we booked a cash-and-points award for our night here. It is a large hotel, so be prepared for some extra walking even once you get in! Overall it was quiet, comfortable and spacious, all of which suited our needs for the night.

Tip: the shopping area under the hotels and train station has a grocery store with pretzels, beer, chocolate, etc. Good for grabbing some gifts and snacks.

Radisson Blu Antwerp, Belgium

Located directly across from the main train station, we really enjoyed our night at the Antwerp Radisson Blu. You can reach the center of old town Antwerp with a 15 minute walk (or metro ride), so the location isn’t too far out.

Our assigned room was on the highest floor with a great view of the train station and square:

antwerp-station

Our room was very quiet at night and after the small room in Taipei this room felt quite spacious too. The bed was very comfortable, and the bathroom had everything we needed.

There is a small supermarket on the neighboring corner that had nice pastries and other breakfast items so we didn’t avail ourselves to the expensive hotel buffet breakfast.

Possibly the largest con to the property was the checkout wait, with a line of about 15 people at 11:30am. Since we had a train to catch we simply handed our cards to the desk and left; It worked out fine but I would probably make sure to setup the express checkout on a future stay.

Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Brussels Belgium

On our fourth trip to Brussels it felt quite odd to not to stay in our usual Brussels lodging, Maison Noble. On the pro side, the price was right (free on points) and the location only three blocks from the Grand Place and center of Brussels. On the con side, the Brussels Radisson Blu felt stuffier and much more dated than the Antwerp version. It was difficult to find the concierge to help with dinner reservations and the 29 euros price for breakfast is just silly. Outside of a free night we would not stay here again.

Exploring Taiwan: arrival and day 1

Monday

After two days of travel we landed at Taipei airport just as the sun set. Immigration was only a short line and then we were out in the main terminal where our first order of business was cash. The ATM turned into a bit of an adventure. Leandra put in her card, input her pin, selected the amount… then received a receipt with no money. Uh oh. Turns out the receipt said ‘canceled’ in simplified Chinese, which of course we couldn’t read. After several failed attempts we found another machine and Eric’s card worked. Cash acquired, we found the attached bus terminal, paid the equivalent of about $5, and got on our bus to the main train station. Traffic was bad getting into city so it took about 1.5 hours.

From the train station we made our way to the MRT station, and took the red line to the Dongmen stop. We got completely turned around coming out of the station and only the next day realized that north isn’t always at the top of maps, and even more confusingly, the orientation of the map can change within the same metro station. After going several blocks in the wrong direction, we turned around and found our hotel.

Going the wrong way, however, took us past the famous Din Tai Fung, so after dropping off our luggage, we decided to head back and try the famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings). There wasn’t a long wait and we were seated just as we finished picking out our items on the paper checklist/menu.

soup dumpling - Xiao Long Bao posing with a dumpling

These bites of deliciousness hooked us, and we returned three of the four nights in Taipei.

After our late dinner we wandered around the area soaking in the scene.

Taipei night scene

Having exhausted ourselves, we went back to the hotel for a well-earned sleep in a real bed.

Tuesday

For our first full day we decided on a day trip out of the city to Pingxi.

pingxi-map

Doing some last-minute research we found out that the Shifen waterfall overlook had been recently closed… Boo. While it would have been a highlight, we decided to continue with our plans and experience the rest of the valley.

One of the great things about Taipei is the ability to get to hiking via mass transit, and this was our first experience. First we took the MRT back to the main station, then figured out tickets for the Pingxi branch line east of Taipei. We couldn’t get the machines to give us the tickets we wanted, but we were successful via the attended ticket window. These tickets got us to Ruifang station, where we could transfer to the Pingxi train itself.

In Ruifang we obtained a map from the visitor center and advice on train tickets. The easiest option was a one-day pass which let us get on and off the train at multiple stops. Also important- take a photo or write down the schedule for return trips, as they are not always easy to find at stations along the way, and trains only come ~45-60 minutes. We had a 25 minute wait for the next train and made a rookie mistake by staying in the waiting area. Seats go fast, so early arrivers wait on the platform and get on as soon as the train opens the doors. By the time we got there all seats were taken so we stood for the most of the 40 minute journey.

Lingjiao was our first stop, where we intended to visit Motian Waterfall. Signage was lacking, so we took some photos of the bridge while reconning the area.

PANO_20141216_125850

Pingxi railway line - Lingjiao station

Leandra mentioned she had seen the waterfall just before we pulled into the station, so we figured out that we needed to cross the tracks and go down some stairs. Once we did we found a lush forest area that was nearly empty of other people and enjoyed the view for a bit.

Lingjiao waterfall grotto

Lingjiao waterfall

Since we had 20+ minutes until the next train we decided to walk to next town. Unfortunately it was less scenic than we had hoped.

We took the train to the end of line in Jingtong and explored the village. This valley is famous for lantern ornaments, and we enjoyed watching several groups paint, then release, their lanterns at the end of the train tracks.

Lingjiao lantern

We also found the red love bridge and lots of bamboo ornaments with wishes written on them too.

prayer bridgeprayers and wishes on bamboo

On our way back to the train station we stopped to try a pork roll at Yang’s stall- bean curd, taro, pork, onion are in pre-made rolls that are fried on demand and cut into bite size pieces. They had crunchy texture and a slightly sweet flavor that made for a great snack while we waited for the train.

waiting for my "porl roll of the Yangs"

On the return we stopped at the popular village of Shifen. The town was very busy, with lots of lanterns being released along the train tracks in the middle of town.

busy scene in Shifen

lighting lanterns in Shifen

Everyone was walking along the train tracks so we did too.

on the tracks

We spent more time enjoying lanterns, some of which we could read.

money for shopping  bunny

With so many food options in town we couldn’t pass up another snack, and were quite happy with the curry croquette we choose.

curry snack in Shifen

The train back to Ruifang was quite crowded, so we stood for the 30 minute ride, then had a 30 minute wait for the Taipei connection. We were quite happy when the train arrived as it was starting to get quite cold (low 40s)!

After a quick refresh at the hotel we headed out to Yongkang Street market, our first night market.

Wow, so much bustle! We saw slices of beef being seared with a blowtorch, various meats and seafoods on sticks, lots and lots of clothes…. and so many lights. One cart had shaved peanut brittle with ice cream and cilantro that we had to try.

fresh peanut brittle for our crepe

Since we were nearby we stopped in at Din Tai Fung for another helping of dumplings, and this time also tried the mini sesame buns. A good mix of sweet and savory with fine black seeds, they were lightly sweet and quite a tasty treat.

On our way out we noticed the nice view of Taipei 101 so we walked closer for better view.

Taipei 101 @ night

After a very full day we slept well yet again.

Exploring Taiwan: day 2

Wednesday

Weather forecasts had predicted that Wednesday would be the coldest of our trip so we decided to stay closer and explore the city with an all day MRT pass. We started at Xingtian Temple, which was quite ornate but busy with a service so we didn’t go in.

Taipei temple

It was amazing how this temple was surrounded by an otherwise bustling neighborhood.

commerce

Next we took the MRT south to the Lungshan Temple. This complex was more interesting to us with waterfalls and ponds in the courtyard, and a quieter atmosphere.

Lungshan TempleHsing Tian KongHsing Tian Kong

Hsing Tian Kong

Ximen was our next stop … wow! Similar to Times Square in activity and sensory overload.

Ximen panorama

We wandered the streets of Ximen exploring the myriad shops and food stalls. Getting snacky we stopped at Ah Zong Mian Xian, a popular beef noodle stand. Noodles were good; the broth was OK, with a slight plastic scent and a lot of black pepper spices to warm us up. The beef intestine pieces were quite chewy, so we mostly ignored those.

waiting in line for beef noodle

Refortified, and in need of a bit of quiet, we next went to the Taipei Botanical Garden. Though only one MRT stop away, the gardens are a world different and still quite green and lush even in December.

bloom in the botanical garden

From the garden we walked to the Memorial Park plaza with the massive Chiang Kai‑shek Memorial Hall, National Concert Hall and Performing Arts Center. Lots of photo opportunities in the golden light!

National Concert Hall

Chiang Kai‑shek Memorial Hall

view from the top of Chiang Kai‑shek Memorial Hall

After several hours of walking we needed a break so we headed back to our room to recharge and plan our evening.

Evening in Taipei means night markets, so Wednesday night we went up to the Songshan MRT stop, then walked south to the Wu Fen Pu clothing market. We’ve never seen so many clothes in our lives! Block after block of stores offering goods for sale…

clothes market

Nothing was catching Leandra’s fancy so we headed to Raohe night market. On our way we stopped at a bakery in the metro station and found a tasty red wine roll with cranberries and nuts, and a tomato and cheese roll too. Along the way we stopped to enjoy the new ceiling light installation.

Songshan station lights   Songshan station lights

The entrance to Raohe market is right next to the the beautiful Song Shan Fu De Temple (Land God temple) which makes for an interesting blend of commerce and spirituality.

Raohe Street Night Market

Raohe is one long lane packed with vendors. This marked Leandra’s first experience with stinky tofu… Whew. The smell invades your nose and is overpowering. We hustled along to get out of that cloud. Even though it was a Wednesday night, the lane was still very crowded and eventually it became exhausting to simply be around so many other people. At the exit we stopped for a pepper cake, and we are glad we did.  Basically, these pastry pockets are stuffed with scallions and minced pork seasoned liberally with black pepper all assembled by a small army of workers right on the street. The buns are then baked on the side of a brick oven.

the making of pepper pork buns

The 15 min wait in line was well worth it, as the buns are excellent; similar to an pork hamburger cooked inside the bun, with lots of flavor.

Exhausted, we took the MRT back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Exploring Taiwan: day 3

Thursday

For Thursday we decided we wanted to hike some of the Taipei hills, so we choose Elephant Hill which is renowned for its view over the city. As usual, we took the MRT, this time to Xiangshan Station. There was a sign when you come out of MRT, but it was not entirely clear after that. We went through Zhongqiang Park to the road, made a left to go up the hill and around the corner to the right to find the start of the stairs.

elephant-hill so. many. stairs.

So. Many. Stairs. However, it is well worth it, as the views were great.

Taipei 101 from Elephant Hill

Taipei 101 from Elephant Hill

Note that there are multiple viewpoints, so if one is crowded just keep going up for the next one.

Having looked at Taipei 101 all morning we decided to stop there next. There is a large Din Tai Fung in the basement, but also busloads of tourists, so we decided we’d rather wait at the original and headed back to Dongmen.

We were a little low on cash at this point (most places don’t take credit cards) and had our second round of ATM adventures cards at Sino bank, which wouldn’t take either of our cards. Having made friends with the Din Tai Fung hostess (this was our third time since Monday) Leandra was advised about another ATM across the street. Success! Our last meal at Din Tai Fung was just as good as the others, and this time we tried the sesame peanut noodles. While they have a spicy option, we were a bit scared of that, so we ordered the regular version and simply added a few drops of chili oil. It was an excellent combination.

prep for soup sumplings
dumpling prep!

Taiwan is famous for pineappple cake, but the most famous place was not convenient to the rest of our plans, so we opted for a store near our hotel. Upon walking in we were offered several samples, along with free tea. We loved the sour pineapple so bought a box to share with family over Christmas.

pineapplecake

After dropping off the cakes at our hotel, we took the MRT to the Taipei Zoo Station, then walked 500m to the gondola. We thought it a little odd that they didn’t connect them more closely but the weather was fine for an outdoor walk. Hello Kitty was everywhere in the station, including our cabin on way up…

Hello Kitty and me on the gondola

The ride was quite pleasant with views of the zoo and lush green hills – palms, tree ferns etc.

At the top (Maokong Station) we turned left and walked along Zinhan Road for about a mile. This area is famous for tea houses, and we saw several with amazing views over the hills and the city. We walked past the Tianen temple and around the bend to a viewing point.

Tianen temple

view on Taipei City from Maokong station

Leandra wasn’t interested in tea, so we returned to the gondola to go down one stop on a glass bottom car.

The Zhinan Temple complex was bigger than expected with an array of beautiful gardens and walkways.

Chi Nan Temple

prayers hung in trees

After regrouping in room, and recharging phones, we went back out to Raohe Night market specifically for the pepper pork bun, as well as the bakery for the last chocolate strawberry bun.

pepper pork pie (round 2) @ Raohe Night Market

For our final market we decided to visit the massive Shilin night market. The largest yet, Shilin covers multiple blocks and features more game and food stalls on the periphery, with clothes and other shops in middle. It feels like you could wander for days. Leandra finally tried the flamed beef – her verdict was “chewy,” but she ate most of it. :)

Shihlin Market  flaming beef (literally) @ Shihlin Market

Exhausted after another long day we went back to the hotel to pack for our early morning departure. We really enjoyed our time in Taiwan and we will definitely return for a longer future trip.