Eastward Ho! The Magnificent East Coast, on Wheels Train, Car, Bike

My four indispensable ingredients for the perfect travel experience? Road trip, trails, bicycling, nature’s beauty. The East Coast? Perfect.

By Rick Charette

We had a two-day window, Thursday and Friday. We decided on the East Coast. Lots of places to cover, but I was heading out with two old friends who also loved spur-of-the-moment jaunts, preferably during the week to beat the crowds.

Let me explain about the “East Coast.” To Taiwan folk this means the region from, roughly, the small cities of Hualien to Taitung. It isn’t all “coast,” however. Taiwan is about two-thirds mountain and high hill, and the rugged north-south central mountains pretty much plunge into the Pacific north of Hualien and south of Taitung. The East Coast is, again roughly, the area framed within. Part of this area is another and lower range, the coastal mountains, which runs from just south of Hualien to just north of Taitung. On the western side of this mountain range is the long, narrow East Rift Valley, and on the coast side is a long ribbon of, in most places, flat land.

You might say, then, that our destination was the “east coast of the East Coast,” the long Pacific-side ribbon. Almost the entire length of this ribbon falls within the East Coast National Scenic Area (www.eastcoast-nsa.gov.tw).

Day One
Train trip! Our train left Taipei Railway Station at 8 a.m. We’d be in Taitung at 12:40 p.m. We were on a Ziqiang-class train, meaning fastest and most comfortable. Taiwan train travel is wonderfully convenient and inexpensive; my one-way ticket to Taitung City was just NT$785. This was mid-week, so there were empty seats – this doesn’t happen on weekends/holidays.

After Hualien City, East Coast trains traverse the East Rift Valley, not the coast. This is prime farming area, Asian style, filled with eons of mineral-rich silt from the mountains either side, filled with small, neatly tended farms, filled with pastel-colored crops. Each time I pass through I think how Van Gogh and Monet would have enjoyed time here.

[Car Rentals]
In Taitung we picked up our rental car right outside the station. We used Hotai Leasing Corp., which rents Toyota/Lexus vehicles. Exit the station and go to the last building on the right; after that it’s open field. Our Camry cost NT$3,600 per day, and we dropped it off at the Hualien Railway Station outlet the next day. If concerned about English ability, start with a website visit (www.easyrent.com.tw) or first visit the Taipei Railway Station office. Note that other reputable national agencies also have Taitung/Hualien station outlets.

Road trip! Our road to fun was Provincial Highway No. 11, pleasantly sleepy on weekdays, which rolls along the coast between Taitung and Hualien cities, pretty blue Pacific almost always immediately on your right, pretty green coastal mountains immediately on your left. Almost all the sights we visited were right by the highway; our longest off-road drive was but a few hundred meters.

Buckle up tight – time and word count is very limited, and we’ve places aplenty to cover.

Before hitting our first official stop, Xiaoyeliu, we dropped in at Fugang Fishing Harbor, just north ofseaside Taitung City. The attractions here are the eclectic, brightly painted fishing boats, appropriately beaten up a bit by Pacific wind, wave, and salt, and the even more ebulliently colored ferries to Green and Orchid islands, big, sleek, modern, and obviously built for speed.

Don’t know what a mushroom rock is? Honeycomb rock? Cuesta? Tofu rock? You will after visiting Xiaoyeliu

Xiaoyeliu is your first stop inside the East Coast National Scenic Area. I strongly urge you to visit the visitor center before hitting the palm-lined paths to explore the impressive shoreline rock formations. The center has good exhibits, and good English, on Xiaoyeliu and east coast geology. Don’t know what a mushroom rock is? Honeycomb rock? Cuesta? Tofu rock? You will after this.

The sprawling, big-shouldered old Dulan Sugar Factory, in Dulan town, makes sugar no more. The heritage complex, now protected, has been taken over by local artists from this indigenous town. There’s an art workshop, café, driftwood stage, homestay, and retail shop (see our accompanying “Buy” article). There’s also live music Saturday nights.

Donghe Baozi is another iconic Taiwan must-try food experience. A baozi is a traditional meat-filled steamed bun. The attractive Donghe Baozi shop is right on the highway in Donghe town, and the food treat is indeed well worth the stop. The pork was very tender, and quite noticeable was that a liberal dose of pepper and extra-big squared chunks of bamboo shoot had been added, both great decisions with me.

The East Coast has a heavy concentration of indigenous peoples. The relative isolation of the region has resulted in a degree of cultural protection. The Amis Folk Center, by the headquarters of the national scenic area administration (which has a good visitor center), has replicas of traditional indigenous architecture, a cultural exhibition area, crafts, specialty products for sale, and traditional song-and-dance performances (weekends).

[Bicycle Outings]
In the past decade or so, Highway 11 has been made very bicycle friendly. South of the Xiuguluan River, grades are easy and bike lanes/shoulders wide and well-marked. There are more challenges north of the Xiuguluan, where mountains at times come down to dip toes in sea, the road narrows and is more winding, and there are tunnels. The national scenic area website is very helpful.

Day Two
We had stayed in a cabin at a very inviting “spa villa” south of Chenggong town on the night of Day One (see our “Stay” article). Much against my will, my over-energized travel partners insisted I get up much before dawn on Day Two to catch the justly acclaimed sunrise at Sanxiantai, on Chenggong’s north. I obliged, am now happy I obliged – no earlybird I, but I’m also always pleased after the fact, and a bit more sleep.

Sanxiantai is a small volcanic island said to resemble three Daoist deities, in petrified form, who visited here on an immortal cross-ocean flight journey long ago. You reach it via a long, dragon-shaped arch bridge. The island, today an eco-preserve, is the East Coast’s most famous landmark and most popular tourist site. Be sure to take the island-looping trail, a 90-minute-walk, bridge included.

Sanxiantai, today an eco-preserve, is the East Coast’s most famous landmark and most popular tourist site

After our Sanxiantai outing I had a snooze back at our villa and then went on an invigorating bike ride on an old section of the coastal highway. It was then back in the car and on to the Baxian Caves. These are the “Caves of the Eight Immortals,” a key Taiwan archeological site. Numerous large caves, carved out by wave action and now pushed high above sea level by tectonic activity, are linked by paths and stairs. Visit the small visitor center first for basic explanation in English. Once home to some of Taiwan’s earliest settlers, today a number of caves also house Buddhist/Daoist shrines.

While here, also be sure to cross the highway to the lovely fronting bay, where the offshore waters are dynamically divided into bright pastels. Locals informed us that the ships on the horizon heading north were riding the powerful Kuroshio Current for extra speed and fuel-savings. Those heading south were further out to avoid the current, and of course looked smaller.

Everyone stops at the soaring Tropic of Cancer Marker to take a quick photo – and so did we. Stand spread-eagled before the obelisk and half of you is in the tropics, half in the subtropics. The marker is about two kilometers north of the Hualien-Taitung county border.

Shitiping means “stone steps.” The great erosive powers of the sea are in dramatic evidence here in this wild place of dramatic terraced volcanic rock, surging tide pools, and teeming marine life. Again, take advantage of the good explanatory info at the bright, attractive visitor center.

Further north, the Baqi Lookout is one of the highest points on the highway, a place of cooling breezes and tremendous views north and south. Far below and beyond the highway snakes around promontories, and fishing boats slowly make their way in and out to sea.

We did not visit the wildly popular Hualien Farglory Ocean Park because it deserves a full day and because it did not fit the “trip ingredients” I gave you in my opening. Rest assured, however, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, with rides galore, a fairytale castle, lagoon, underwater world, marine-animal shows, and more. Something important: management policy is to use show animals saved from unpleasant prospects, not snatched from the wild.

Tiring but contented, at 8 p.m. we pulled up at the rental agency’s office right in front of Hualien Railway Station, dropped off the car, picked up food and drink for the ride home, and headed home on a Ziqiang-class train at 9:10 (ticket NT$440). We pulled into Taipei at 12:05 and I was in bed at 1 a.m., lulled to sleep by the soothing sound of Pacific breakers still in my ears.

[Taking the Bus]
If you don’t feel like doing your own driving, here’s two ideas. The inexpensive Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service (www.taiwantrip.com.tw) operates coach shuttles between Taitung City and Sanxiantai. Hop on and off at the stops along the way, paying by section. The Taiwan Tour Bus service (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) offers great-value, full-package bus tours in English.

(Source: Taiwan.net.tw 18/07/2012 Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly July August Issue, 2012)