Early on a Sunday morning in Taipei, the city’s cycling enthusiasts are already pedaling their way along a bike path that follows the gentle curve of the Shuangshi River. The Smile team – model, photo editor, editor, makeup artist and stylist – and I join them as Taipei begins to wake, cycling past locals waiting patiently on the grassy banks of Shuangshi Riverside Park, eyes glued to their fishing rods. Farther along, groups of senior citizens practice tai chi.
Although Taiwan has the largest concentration of high peaks in the world, with 286 mountains reaching more than 3,000m, Taipei lies in a triangular basin and is for the most part as flat as a pancake. In other words, it’s ideal for leisure cycling. Accompanied by Vicente Lu of Show Taiwan cycling tours, we soon head away from the Shuangshi River at its junction with the larger Keelung River. The Keelung later gives way to the even broader Tamsui River, which represents the last stretch of the journey toward our first destination, Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf, the spot where the river meets the sea.
Taiwan has long been at the forefront of a global movement to alter the image of cycling from cheap means of transport to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle choice. The significance of cycling to Taiwan’s capital is reflected in its city planning. Taipei has more than 200km of dedicated bike paths. YouBike, a bike share system run in partnership with aptly named bicycle manufacturer Giant, has been in operation in Taipei since 2009. The system provides bikes at NT$5 for the first 30 minutes, after which there’s a staggered rate starting at NT$10 per 30-minute portion of a four-hour block. Last year, YouBike’s more than 6,000 bikes were taken on more than 22 million trips. If Amsterdam is Europe’s most bike-friendly capital, then Taipei surely holds the title in Asia. “On top of all these dedicated bike paths, a bicycle highway will open soon. It will link more than 1,200km of paths all over Taiwan,” Vicente tells me as we cruise along on our state-of-the-art, 27-gear Merida Speedster 200 bikes. The air soon becomes more bracing as we round the last bend and arrive in the seaside district of Tamsui.
To my surprise, Vicente doesn’t bother to lock up our bikes when we dismount to try some local snacks. “There’s no need to,” he says with a shrug. This, along with dedicated bike lanes, marks a welcome change from my home in Shanghai, a city where many cyclists and motorists exhibit a casual attitude to self-preservation and bicycle theft is a daily reality.
A popular day-trip destination, Tamsui is home to a huge selection of snacks, from fried squid to spicy spiral snails to the polarizing and pungent stinky tofu. We shy away from purveyors of the latter and instead take a seat at Agei, a small restaurant on a corner near the ferry dock. Agei is named after a celebrated local dish. Our agei arrives in small bowls filled with thick tomato soup and green cellophane noodles. The dish’s centerpiece is a fist-sized dumpling filled with still more green cellophane noodles. After the 15km ride from the riverside, it hits the spot.
Also read: The best cheap eats in Taipei
The return ride with Vicente covers the same route we followed earlier. After 25km of southerly cycling, we arrive at Dadaocheng, a heritage-rich riverside district on the edge of downtown Taipei. Soon we’re strolling past and admiring the area’s distinctive East-meets-West, Ming Dynasty-era storefronts. Many of these shops specialize in the sale of ingredients used in the making of Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are thousands of goods to choose from, including precious (read: pricey) commodities such as ginseng, swallow’s nest and dried sea cucumber.
The next day, we swap the city for the rugged north-east coast. Making use of Taiwan’s cheap and convenient High Speed Rail (HSR) network, we travel little more than an hour from Taipei Main Station to Fulong in Taipei County. The trip costs just NT$128. As an added bonus, passengers can bring their bikes. For those who don’t tote along their own two-wheeler, there are plenty of bike-rental options in the area, including electric models.
An essential part of any Fulong bike tour is the Old Caoling Tunnel, less than 3km from the train station. Now disused, this 97-year-old railway tunnel is especially popular in the summer, when its 2,165m of smooth road offers cool respite from the heat and humidity outside. Apart from a cute horde of school kids, we have the tunnel to ourselves. The outline of the tracks, built by the Japanese during colonial times, remains and since the tunnel runs alongside an active railway line, we feel the ghostly rumble of a train in the adjacent tunnel.
Upon exiting, riders are greeted by a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and a long jagged basalt outcrop known as The Devil’s Washboard. After a quick tour of the hills that hug the coastline, we return to the station to grab a quick bite before boarding a train to Toucheng, the next stop on the HSR line. It’s about 30 minutes away. As we wait to board, we munch my way through Fulong lunchboxes — a local specialty consisting of a slice of pork, a slice of sweetly seasoned sausage, tofu, a soy-boiled egg and cabbage on a bed of steamed rice. It’s tasty, fast, simple fare and the boxes are widely available at restaurants facing the station.
Before long, we make our way without guides to Toucheng, where we plan to give up biking in favor of surfing. For the most part, we’re novices so we opt for the waves of Wai-ao Beach on nearby Wushi Harbour. Just as Taiwan is fast gaining a reputation as a premier cycling destination, its coast is starting to draw surf tourists from across the globe. Taiwan shares the same longitude as Hawaii and the warm waters of its West Pacific beaches are dotted with surf breaks. Although Fulong has its own 3km-long beach, Wushi Harbour is more suited to greenhorns. And it has the added allure of hot springs.
Later, with daylight fading and my body aching, we arrive at Hotel Royal Chiaoshi, a hot-spring resort, after a short cab ride into the hills. Taiwan boasts more than 100 hot springs and like the Old Caoling Tunnel, Taiwan’s hot-spring culture is a legacy of Japanese colonialism. As with Japan’s onsen, bathing in Taiwan’s mineral-rich hot springs is believed to offer a range of health benefits. These run the gamut from higher energy levels to the remedying of arthritis and skin complaints, depending on the minerals in each spring. Thanks to the presence of sodium bicarbonate, Jiaoxi’s waters are renowned for their success at beautifying the skin. One thing is for certain. A soak in Jiaoxi’s mineral waters in a slate-tiled tub is a well-earned reward after two days of heavy exertion in the city and on the coast. That’s the thing about biking in Taiwan — the bonuses are a big part of the pleasures of a great ride.
Also read: Taipei city guide
This cycling tour company offers both package and customized tours of Taipei and beyond for riders of all ability levels. Bike hire is also available, with the latest aluminum alloy models at TW$350 (US$11) per day and carbon fiber models from TW$700 (US$22) per day.
2/F, 125 Jhongcheng Rd, Section 1, Shihlin District; +886 952 796 818; show-taiwan.com
The best way to see the city? On two wheels, of course. Try YouBike, a bike-sharing system organized by the Taipei City Government along with Taiwanese bike maker Giant. To rent your ride (NT$5 for the first 30 minutes) at any of the more than 170 stations throughout the metro, you just need to purchase an Easy Card at an MRT station and provide a Taiwan mobile number. For more details, visit taipei.youbike.com.tw/en.
Hotel Royal Chiaoshi
This luxury hotel is home to an open-air hot springs complex where visitors can soak in a thermal hot spring in a unisex environment or in male and female nude areas. There’s also a family-friendly Children’s Mineral Springs and Aromatic Spring House with eight private rooms. For each, it’s NT$1,600 (US$52) for 90 minutes of relaxation.
69 Wufeng Rd, Jiaoxi Township, Yilan County; +886 3 988 6288; hotelroyal.com.tw
Mandarin Oriental Taipei
If you’re in the mood to spoil yourself, Taipei’s newest luxury hotel’s 256 guest rooms and 47 suites are the largest in the city, starting at 55m2. The Mandarin Oriental is centrally located on tree-lined Dunhua North Road and has a grand, Paris-inspired design. Rates from TW$16,500 (US$530).
158 Dunhua North Rd; +886 2715 6888; mandarinoriental.com
Amba Hotel Ximending
Occupying the upper floors of the Eslite department store in bustling Ximending, this hip, 160-room hotel announces its conservation credentials at its reception desk, which is made up of 2012 recycled plastic bottles. From TW$3,800 (US$120).
77 Wuchang St, Section 2; +886 2 2375 5111; amba-hotels.com
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Smile magazine.