Living in Taipei means that lungs, nasal passage and skin are daily bombarded with particles spewed out from factories, vehicles and buildings. The first thing I notice after walking out of the Taitung airport was how clean the air was. This sudden revelation alone was worth the trip, and the contrast become increasingly evident during the drive away from the airport and into the mountains.
Our destination is Chihpen National Forest Recreation Area (知本國家森林遊樂區), a hot spring resort located about 20 minutes from the airport.
The long and storied history of the resort area begins over a century ago when Japanese explorers stumbled on Aboriginal people bathing in its clear and odorless waters here. But it wasn't until after colonization that locals started taking advantage of the scenic appeal and health benefits of the hot springs and build hotels and guesthouses.
If the roads leading out to the resort have changed little over the past few decades, the services provided by the hotels are modern and appealing for any traveler who wants to relax for a few days.
Take my lodging: Hotel Royal Chihpen (知本老爺大酒店), a top-end hotel that sits on the side of a mountain overlooking the Chihpen River and a densely forested vista. Since its construction, the hotel has gone through many transformations, the most recent of which was a complete overhaul to produce an ambiance of expensive simplicity.
My large renovated room was furnished with its own hot spring tub made from cut slate, the hot water a perfect way to unwind after spending a few hours in transit. The balcony offered views of the forested mountains above, and a temple area below.
In addition to the in-room spa, the hotel also offers a large segregated indoor hot spring bathing area with spas ranging from cool to skin toasting hot. There are two outdoor spas, the first of which are public and feature a variety of pools, some of which are scented in rose and lavender. A little way up the mountain is a Japanese-style spa that has segregated areas and offers beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains. There is also a large swimming pool and wading area and a bar that offers drinks.
For those not staying at the hotel, the facilities can be used for NT$350, a real bargain considering the views outside and the relaxing atmosphere inside.
At One with Nature
Having spent the first day checking out the hotel's facilities, it was time to explore the surrounding area. The greatest benefit of staying at the Royal Chihpen is its close proximity to Chihpen National Forest Recreation Area (知本森林遊樂區), a 20-minute walk away.
Though the weather can be a little unpredictable, November is a good time of year to enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of Chihpen as there are very few tourists.
Admission includes a map that clearly denotes the highlights of the park and the various flora and fauna found within its boundary. The gentle terrain make it easily accessible by young and old alike.
The visitor center offers comprehensive information about the park and a conservation room highlighting the park's achievements in conservation, of which the recovery of the fragrant Formosan wild orchid is most notable.
Next to the visitor center is an elaborately designed medicinal herb garden built onto the side of the mountain which serves as a stage for the over 200 varieties of medicinal plants. Dancing over the top of this small canopy of curatives are thousands of butterflies of all sizes and varieties. Each herb bears a sign introducing its commonly used name, the part of the plant used and the curative benefits.