Monday, 22 September 2014

Taiwan Sep 2014: Urai Volando Hot Spring Resort

Having visited numerous hot springs in Japan and one in Beitou Taiwan, I wasn't at all impressed with Taiwanese hot springs so wasn't keen on going to a hot spring again. But Chris managed to entice me with this Relais Chateau establishment. 

Chris had arranged for a complimentary shuttle to pick us up from Xindian station (about 40 min from Taipei Main Station). The shuttle took about another half an hour to reach the resort.

Although a little jaded on the outside, the interior is well-maintained and it won our hearts with the impeccable service. Upon arrival, there was a welcome dance performance at the lobby. The resort has a series of zen-like performances referred to as rituals.

We were given a corner room with excellent view of the emerald green river beside the resort. I love the bathtub which dispenses hot spring water and the romantic bed!

We had the complimentary tea before going to the public bath. Although the bath was not really spectacular like some of the Japanese ones we have visited, the foot massage we did after dinner was very good! I do foot massage every month in Singapore and I must say the masseuse at this resort is very skilful! I was completely relaxed and slept very well that night.

For dinner (included in room rate), we selected the French meal at Abu Restaurant and enjoyed every single dish tremendously! Relais Chateau chain hotels really impress when it comes to service and cuisine. The piece de resistance came in the form of a trolley decorated with roses and a freshly-baked soufflé because the very next day is my birthday!

Abalone salad

Truffle egg

Lobster and crab bisque

Grilled fish


Grilled prawns

Oolong tea to finish off the french meal =)
When we returned to the room, we were greeted with more pleasant surprises. They have not only turned down our bed but have added a special touch, for my birthday!

The next morning, the emerald green river turned into a dirty brown river because it rained in another region and the churning of the soil caused the water to stir. This reminded me that we need to enjoy nature while it lasts because in just a matter of one day, a lovely emerald green river can look so different.
The day we arrived

The day after
It should be nice in Autumn
I selected the Taiwanese while Chris had the western breakfast the next day. I was very impressed that my breakfast came with Din Tai Fung Xiao Long Bao! Not just any xiao long bao, but DIN TAI FUNG! That's what it says on the menu.

Steamed cod

Taiwanese sweet potato porridge

Din Tai Fung Xiao Long Bao

Fried Carrot Cake 
We enjoyed our stay at this resort because of the personalised service and liked that the room rate included tea, dinner, supper (we were too full for the complimentary congee supper) and breakfast. There is a walking trail in the region so there is something to do. We also saw a huge group of cyclists on our way to Xindian Station.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Taiwan Sep 2014: Jiufen 九份 and Shifen 十分

I was very thrilled to visit jiufen because it is the inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Spirited Away and it certainly did not disappoint :) we took the TRA to Ruifang and had lunch there which cost only TWD$95!!! Amazing value for money! 

Intrigued by this oven, we bought a baked black pepper bun to try. Although the crust is tasty with the sesame seeds, we found the filling a little too peppery. 

We took a 15-min taxi to Jiufen and since the roads are very narrow, had to walk a short distance to find our minsu.

When Chris told me we will be staying in a minsu 民宿, I pictured myself squatting in the bathroom scooping out water from a tub/pail to bathe. But when we arrived at 日光涵管, I was very impressed with the amazing view from our rooms. It's a maisonette unit where the lower level is a living area and the upper is the bedroom, toilet and bathroom. And thankfully, I didn't have to squat in the toilet and scoop water to bathe hahaha perhaps because I didn't have any expectations, I was rather happy with the room. It's certainly not luxurious but you can think of it as a very nice chalet. In Chinese, we describe it as 麻雀虽小,五脏俱全. Even though I felt the mattress was hard like rock, we slept through because we were tired from all the walking.

The pink guava here is really sweet and juicy!

We enjoyed strolling along old street 老街. A must-try is Ah Zhu's ice cream popiah. It's so good that we went back the next day to eat it again! 

Hinoki soap

Grilled mushrooms

Ah Zhu ice cream popiah

Shaving caramel peanut for the ice cream popiah

Melody and her lollipop
Worth a try is the yam ball dessert which we were too full to try. There is also a bakery selling freshly baked pineapple tarts and sun biscuits but we didn't buy because we already got the cute ones from a shop in Taipei. Old Street is open from 9am to 7pm.

A visit to the iconic Ah Mei Teahouse for a pot of oolong is also necessary. Although rather pricey at TWD$300 per pax, if you get a good al fresco seat, the experience is quite memorable.

When night falls, the whole street lined with tea houses comes alive and is packed with Japanese tourists gasping in awe at Ah Mei Teahouse "Sugoi!", "Kirei!" are common adjectives you hear uttered at the sight of this beautiful antique teahouse. You're almost transported to the magical street in Spirited Away. The street lined with tea houses is open til 11pm and there are various dinner options available.

After a leisurely breakfast and saying goodbye to the minsu's house cat, we took a taxi (the minsu called one for us) back to Ruifang to deposit our luggage (TWD$50 for a cabin-sized piece and TWD$30 for a small one) and got the one-day Pingxi rail pass to Houtong 猴硐 a cat village where many cats roam freely. The place is actually rather rundown but we enjoyed the cat-spotting and paparazzi-ing nonetheless. 

Pineapple tarts

Even the toilets are so cute

I collected so many stamps!
We hopped back on the pingxi rail to Shifen to see the famous waterfall and fang tian deng 放天灯. I have read about how scenic the pingxi train ride and was thrilled but the train was so crowded that I hardly had the chance to look out. When we arrived at Shifen, it reminded us of the train station we went to in Thailand where the train runs through the town. The railway track actually runs through the shops and people walk along the track and fang tian deng there. Of cos when the train arrives, you should move to the sides unless you want to die. We didn't get to see the magnificent Shifen waterfall because it was under restoration so we proceeded to fang tian deng before returning to Taipei for the night. It would have been much nicer to fang tian deng when it's dark but we were rather tired from the hot weather and wanted to go back to Taipei fast haha.

I guess if you are staying only for one night in Jiufen, it's rather difficult to see Jiufen at night and also fang tian deng in Shifen at night because you can't be at two different places at the same time.

Method 1: Upon arriving at Ruifang, leave luggage at luggage deposit (costs apply), get the Pingxi one day pass and do the visit that you want, ending off in fang tian deny just as it turns dark. Come back to Ruifang, grab your baggage and catch a cab to Jiufen to check-in and stroll the streets (since they close at 11pm). The next morning, go through the streets again to see it in the day before going back to Taipei.

Method 2: Do like us but hang around in Shifen until dark and fang tian deng then return to Taipei late.

Access: Take the TRA to Ruifang and transfer to the Pingxi line to Shifen. You may want to get the one-day pingxi line pass if you intend to hop on and off. Train intervals are about an hour apart so do plan your travel carefully to avoid having to wait an hour if you miss the train. From Ruifang to Jiufen, it's a mere TWD$180 15-min taxi ride so don't bother taking the bus if you have baggage.

Do make reservations for the TRA to and from Ruifang if you want to get seats, especially if you are traveling with children and old folks.