Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Taroko National Park in Taiwan.
"Many Americans think of complicated politics, not mountain trails, when they hear the word 'Taiwan,'" said Christopher Reynolds at the Los Angeles Times. Before my own visit to the island nation, I pictured densely populated Taipei and night markets packed with mysterious foods. But beyond the capital, most of Taiwan is green mountains. One of the island's lushest wildernesses, Taroko National Park, is only a three-hour drive from Taipei. A tangle of jungles, waterfalls, and gorges, the preserve is "Taiwan's tropical answer to Yosemite." The clouds parted just as I reached the Qingshui Cliffs, where the park begins. Mist-veiled peaks loomed overhead; below, the sea sparkled with "a shade of milky turquoise you would expect in the Bahamas."
"I should confess that I failed my first Taiwanese test of fortitude." While hiking a 5.4-mile route alongside the Shakadang River, I struggled with the humidity, which made the temperature feel far hotter than its actual 85 degrees. "Red-faced and sweat-soaked," I had to ask my guide, Steven Chang of MyTaiwanTour, "How much farther?" But I trudged on, occasionally dodging 5-inch spiders that dangled at face level. We passed the Eternal Spring Shrine, which spans a waterfall and honors some 200 workers who died building a nearby highway, and rang the bell overlooking the Buddhist Changguang Temple. "The deeper we ventured, the more the jungle resembled a Chinese landscape painting — clear river, striated rocks, creeping mist."
The next day, I faced a greater challenge: the Zhuilu Old Trail, part of which is carved into a cliff face 1,600 feet above the rushing Liwu River. To reach that vertigo-inducing path, we had to cross a swaying suspension bridge, then climb hundreds of rough-hewn steps while rock monkeys howled in the distance. The trail eventually narrowed to 3 feet wide, running 500 yards along a chiseled ledge. "On our right, somebody had bolted a metal cable to the stone every 20 feet. On our left, we had damp air and that long drop." We would survive that test and celebrate at the Hualien Night Market by feasting on peppery sausages and rice caked with duck blood. But at the moment we actually summited, I felt slightly sad: "The hard part was over."