Wed, Nov 27, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Home away from home

Young entrepreneurs are breathing new life into Taiwan’s quintessential homestay experience

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Guests are served tea from the central hearth at Sunden Sundu,
a homestay in Yilan.

Photo courtesy of Dear B&B

On a recent weekend trip to Yilan, I spent a night at Border Hill (邊境之丘), a spacious bed-and-breakfast set flush against the forests of Baishihjiao (白石腳).

To get there, we had driven down the coast and made unlikely turns into a narrow country lane, asphalt giving way to pebbles and grass. The red-brick manor housed just three rooms, outfitted with antique furniture. From facade to interior, it seemed like a transplant from the English countryside.

Over tea and scones, we learned that the owner was an art professor who had studied in the UK, which explained the English influences — more personal history, less exoticism. He ran the inn with his brother and maintained a painter’s studio and family residence next door.

Border Hill and its quiet surroundings were an ideal way to unplug from city life. Yet ironically, we’d never have made it there if not for Dear B&B (dearbnb.com), an online curator in Chinese, Japanese and Enlgish of exquisite minsu (民宿), or homestays, from around the country.

With thoughtful design, a strong sense of individuality and air of exclusivity, Taiwan’s homestays have grown a world apart from their earliest incarnations as spare rooms in retirees’ homes. For years, weak marketing and a lack of English resources has kept the best of these homestays under the radar of international tourists — but no longer.

A COMMON DREAM

“The main thing was that we felt Taiwan’s travel accommodation was just too wonderful,” says Michelle Wen (溫名秀), who co-founded Dear B&B in 2012 with partner Rae Lin (林睿瑀).

For the widely-traveled duo, who share backgrounds in marketing, the starting point was the realization, reached through their own travels, that Taiwan offers world-class travel accommodation but lacks name recognition.

“When you leave your hometown, you start looking back on it,” Wen says. “When I was traveling, I formed this impression that I was always introducing myself as coming from Taiwan, explaining that Taiwan isn’t a part of China.”

While the idea of putting up in a local’s home has become common practice through Airbnb, Wen and Lin say that what sets Taiwan’s homestays apart from that of other countries is the generosity of the owners. For many, the job of running a homestay is an aspiration, not just a way to capitalize on a spare room.

“This is a lifelong dream for many of them,” Wen says. “Everyone feels that they must give the best to their visitors, so for example in many of the beautiful coastal properties, you will see the owners stay in the warehouse or the smallest rooms, while giving the biggest rooms to the visitors.”

In fact, many of Taiwan’s best homestays are now better described as family-run boutique hotels. Many now take the form of purpose-built estates, with hefty investments into commissioning architects and designers. The results are comparable with international hotel and resort chains, but retain a personal touch.

To illustrate, Lin highlights Houhu Garden and Resort (後湖水月) in Hualien, embedded in hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The property was developed by a retired journalist, who bought and converted the marshland into his family home and four holiday villas, surrounded by lush greenery and water lily ponds.

But things weren’t always this way.

AUTHENTIC ABODES

Homestays have been a fixture of local tourism for some 20 years, since labor law amendments in 2001 set a limit on working hours and freed up days for domestic travel. They were a quick way to meet rising demand for travel accommodation, as well as a source of supplementary income for retirees and other houseowners.

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