Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yanshui (Centered on Taipei)

Yanshui, best known for the Beehive Fireworks Festival held here early each spring, is a charming old town. Also, it's ideal for exploring on foot, the side streets being full of quaint houses, small shrines and old-fashioned shops...

The summer issue of Centered on Taipei, a free English-language magazine aimed at Taiwan's expatriate community, features this piece, which I adapted from Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide. Yanshui - previously spelled Yenshui or Yanshuei - is one of my favorite towns in Taiwan's south.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tying the knot in Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

Couples planning to marry in Taiwan are expected to follow various customs and respect certain traditions. Before any formal engagement, both parties will submit their birth dates and times to a fortune teller who then determines if they are destined to spend the rest of their lives together in blissful prosperity, or if the match is doomed from the start.

Ahead of the actual marriage, the couple has to supervise the designing and printing of invitation cards, and choose wedding cakes to send out to friends and relatives.

In the past few decades, these age-old practices have been supplemented by another convention. Nowadays, some weeks before the traditional wedding banquet, almost every Taiwanese couple will spend one or more days with a professional photographer, posing in various costumes.

Pictures are taken both in a studio and outdoors at picturesque locales. Typically, the groom in his tuxedo and the bride in her white wedding dress will hold hands on a beach, or gaze into each others' eyes while sitting on a lawn in front of a historic building. These images are staged, of course, but far from stiffly formal. A skilled photographer can imbue such portraits with humor and elegance, as well as beauty and lashings of romance.

Just as important is what the photography studios then do with the images. Rather than simply print standard 4x6s, a great deal of thought and creativity is put into combining the pictures with captions, mottoes or song lyrics into an exquisitely produced album. The couple thus gain a souvenir of their youth and their wedding that will endure for decades.

Taiwan's wedding photography culture is very different to the West's, and the island's wedding-photography entrepreneurs can be considered world leaders in their field. This is largely the result of hard work, innovation and years of experience. However, the men and women who work in the industry readily admit nature has dealt them a strong hand.

Strange as it may seem, the brides- and grooms-to-be who step gingerly out of minivans so as not to crease gowns or muss hairstyles have something in common with the extreme sports enthusiasts who flock to Taiwan aiming to work up a good sweat. Both benefit from the island's incredible geographical diversity and year-round sunshine. In not much more than an hour you can get from downtown Taipei to Baishawan's pristine sandy beach. Scenic spots in mountainous Yangmingshan National Park and waterfalls near Wulai are equally accessible.

Taiwan's capital is full of manmade attractions such as Taipei 101. Imposing edifices built during the Japanese colonial era (1895—1945), such as the Museum of Drinking Water, are also popular backdrops. All in all, wedding photographers and their clients are spoiled for choice...

This is the first half of an advertorial text that appeared in the May issue of the American Chamber of Commerce's magazine.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Three culinary treasures (Travel in Taiwan)

Tell a local gourmet you're heading to Pingtung's west coast, and he or she is sure to rhapsodize about Donggang's Three Culinary Treasures. The town has always made it living from the ocean, so it's no surprise that all three of signature delicacies are seafood.

First and foremost is bluefin tuna, the availability of which peaks around the start of summer. It's often served Japanese-style as sashimi or sushi. If you order some, do try it before you sample any other dishes. Top-grade bluefin sashimi costs around NT$300 per slice, so it deserves a clean palette. In appearance, it resembles marbled beef. In taste, obviously, it's very different.

If raw fish doesn't appeal, order a tuna dish that's been deep-fried or steamed.

The second treasure is sakura shrimp. These are usually shallow fried, seasoned and served on a bed of fluffy white rice.

The third is escolar roe. Dark brown in color and surprisingly like cheese in both texture and taste, this dish is served cold and thinly sliced.

All three of Donggang's culinary treasures can be sampled at Sunrise Restaurant, a three-story landmark establishment that's been in business over 40 years. Like many banquet-style restaurants, the food here is best enjoyed by large groups who can order several dishes.

According the owners, Sunrise's chefs much prefer freshly caught seafood to farmed fish. Despite the emphasis on seafood, the menu caters for vegetarians and those who'd rather eat land-roaming creatures. For NT$400 to NT$500 per person, you'll enjoy a real feast.

Little Liuqiu has several seafood eateries, and one of the best is Baihai Restaurant. It's easy to find. If you're walking from the center of Baisha to Lingshan Temple, it's one of the last buildings on the left.

Not everything on the menu comes from the ocean. Locally-made pork sausages, chopped into slivers and served with lettuce, are a favorite. Baihai also serves up what locals call a Little Liuqiu Pizza It contains neither cheese nor tomatoes, yet in terms of shape and size it does resemble a pizza. Filled with prawns covered with flour and seasoning, it's deep-fried until golden brown – and it goes down a treat.

This short piece was one of three accompanying my ecotourism report on Little Liuqiu and Dapeng Bay in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. I'm not going to post the other two (about places to stay and souvenir buying); see my previous post if you need an explanation of how to read the magazine online.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A big bay and a small island (Travel in Taiwan)

Despite the best efforts of the Tourism Bureau's Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area (DBNSA) Administration, there are still tourists who've not heard of this area in southwest Taiwan.

Just in case you're one of them, here are some basic facts: Dapeng Bay is divided between the townships of Donggang and Linbian in Pingtung County. The waters of the lagoon here cover 532 hectares and average five meters in depth. Used by the military until the 1970s, the bay later became one of Taiwan's most important oyster-farming areas – it's said a man could get from one side to the other, a distance of 1,800 meters, by clambering from platform to platform.

The bay is stirred by consistent winds, but because the mouth is narrow, the waves never reach any great height. Conditions are thus perfect for all kinds of water sports. For those who like to stay dry, a bicycle path stretching 13.3km rings the lagoon.

On this occasion, however, Travel in Taiwan was not heading south to get fit. We were there to learn about the unique ecosystems of the scenic area, which consists of the lagoon and Xiao Liuqiu, an island 14km offshore.

The DBNSA official showing around the bay, began by telling me something so counterintuitive I had to double-check it. The bay, he said, is saltier than the nearby ocean. Surely not, I thought; freshwater inflow would reduce the salinity. Yet only two small creeks feed into the bay, and year-round sunshine evaporates a great deal of the water. Also, because salt is relatively heavy, it tends to sink and linger rather than being washed out through the bay's constricted opening.

A pleasurable way of seeing the bay is to get on a boat...

This longish article appears in its entirety in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan. To read it, go here and click on the cover of that issue (it's mostly green, and bears the numbers 5/6 in the top right corner). The second half of the article, which I've not posted, focuses on Little Liuqiu, and I've blogged about that part of the press trip, and posted some photos. For a previous article of mine about Dapeng Bay, go here.