As winter descends on northern Asia, Taiwan’s hundreds of mineral-rich hot springs welcome long-distance travelers and day trippers alike into cosy and relaxing retreats from the cold.
Aside from great food, shopping and nightlife, the nation offers a hot spring culture that is one of the best-developed in Asia, with escapes for every price range and timeframe.
At the confluence of two major tectonic zones, the nation is a geological marvel where frequent earthquakes rearrange the stunning mountain scenery and unearth new hot spring sources with every rumble.
For the budget traveler on the go, a visit to public outdoor hot springs in Taipei is the best way to squeeze in a few hours of soaking without breaking the bank.
With towel and bathing suit in hand, hop on the MRT at Taipei Main Station and ride the train north for about 25 minutes to Beitou (北投).
From there, a short branch line goes to the Xinbeitou (新北投) area, the undisputed hot spring capital of the nation.
One step off the train is all it takes to sense the difference.
Instead of the ubiquitous car exhaust and motorbike fumes of the city center, the rich scent of sulphur from the area’s hundreds of hot pools fills the air.
From the metro exit, walk east on Zhongshan Road for about 10 minutes, past the Beitou Park, to the entrance of the Beitou Park Open-Air Hot Springs.
This no-frills public place, founded in 1999, is a bargain at NT$40 for unlimited soaking in warm pools on four levels and two cold pools.
Half the fun of this relatively downmarket spot is the community feel.
Retirees and blue-collar types, likely to be chit-chatting in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) rather than in Mandarin, make up the majority of attendees.
Overweening lifeguards exhort against standing in the water or dipping only the feet — which in hot springs lore is bad for the circulation — but the overall atmosphere is relaxed and foreign visitors are welcome.
Be aware of the temperatures in each pool. The hottest one can reach a scalding 45?C, enough to make the thin-skinned feel like they are being boiled alive.
The majority of bathing places in Xinbeitou are resort-style hotels with in-house restaurants and hot spring tubs in every guest room.
Many also offer private bathing facilities by the hour, of varying levels of quality.
At the fancier end of the spectrum, Villa 32, about a 10-minute walk uphill from the public hot springs, is a fairy-land experience at great value — NT$2,000 for a 90-minute two-person private bath.
The entrance, almost indiscernible behind the facade of a separate and much gaudier establishment, leads into a lush courtyard and a hall that feels like a ski lodge, replete with fireplace and well-stocked wine cellar.
The spacious private rooms are impeccable and the baths can be filled with hot or cold spring water.
For an excursion that feels more remote, but is still within the capital district, Yangmingshan is a green mountain dotted with hot springs, many with stunning views of Taipei 101.
Despite the wilderness setting, the main hot springs area on Yangmingshan is only about 40 minutes northeast of central Taipei and is easily accessible via metro and bus.
The best-known spots are clustered off Xingyi Road, a winding path that can feel a bit labyrinthine to newcomers, especially after dark.
However, well-lit signs guide the way, first past Tang Lai, a quaint, Japanese-style place featuring private rooms and larger public bathing areas separated by gender.