Travel

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Taipei getaway


BY RIchard Pearson


Chiufen offers spectacular coastal scenery
and cultural delights

City dwellers all over the world seek refuge in coastal towns, where they can relax and unwind from the stress of daily life once the weekend comes. For Londoners it is the rocky coasts and lively night life of Brighton that attracts them 30 minutes south to the coast. For New Yorkers it is the beaches and fishing villages of Long Island that beckon weary workers.


Taipei has its own coastal getaway situated in the mountains overlooking Keelung and the Pacific. Chiufen, roughly an hour from downtown Taipei by public transportation, provides the clean air and spectacular views of the sea from nearly every street and restaurant in town. But it is also the tea houses which lures travelers.


Originally a gold mining town with a night life so rowdy that it earned the nickname "Little Shanghai" during the 1930s, but Chiufen became a quiet and relatively forgotten backwater once the gold ran dry. Only about a decade ago did the town begin its rebirth, this time as quaint tourist destination.


Chiufen today thrives on catering to the legions of visitors it welcomes on weekends. Most of the town is given over to tea shops, restaurants, curio shops and snack stands providing countless ways to blow a week's earnings. On nearly every one of the tiny town's narrow and winding streets can be found shops selling tea, sandals, fans and other assorted kitsch, or restaurants dishing out plates of mi fen, fish ball soup and an infinite number of candies and sweets.


What makes Chiufen unique and worth visiting is not so much the shops and goods on offer, but the unparalleled natural beauty in which the town is set. On a clear day, while eating on nearly any of the roof top balconies and dining areas in Chiufen's restaurants, visitors can look out at the green hills behind the town or at the Pacific Ocean and coastal towns below. It is a stark contrast to Taipei.


"You don't have that sense of being caged in by 20 story concrete buildings, there's just more of a sense of space than can be found in the city," said Henry Adams, who visited Chiufen recently. "That, and the quiet of the town make for a nice break," he added.


Slowly drinking tea in any of Chiufen's elegantly designated tea houses is probably the best way to spend an afternoon soaking in the surrounding area. The Ah Mei Jiu Guan, on the main stairway that cuts through the village, has excellent, if pricey, food and snacks along with tea. Each of its dining areas, whether indoors or out, is beautifully furnished.


Chiufen's beauty has not gone unnoticed by Taiwan's film and television producers as it is often featured in movies and commercials. Acclaimed Director Hou Hsiao-hsien probably brought the town its most fame when he filmed his 1989 masterpiece, City of Sadness, there.


The City of Sadness Restaurant stands as a tribute to that film and continues to serve traditional Taiwanese dishes. Other restaurants of note include the Old Chiufen Noodle Shop (Chiufen Lao Miandian), still going strong after 30 years and known for its distinctive beef noodle soup, and the Uncle Fish Ball Shop (Yu Wan Bozi), known for its variety of fish ball shops.


While Chiufen is an easy day trip from either Taipei of Keelung, spending the night there is worth considering. As most of the day trippers leave by roughly 5:00 p.m. Chiufen becomes pleasantly deserted in the evening while the streets and markets become quiet and calm. The evening is also particularly beautiful as the sun sets over the hills and the lights gradually illuminate the coastline settlements and the fishing boats come into or out of the small harbors below.


Advertisements for inns and small hotels are scattered throughout Chiufen. Many places offer rooms with spectacular views of the surrounding scenery. The Shan Hai Kwan Hotel on Ji Shan Jie on the outer edge of the village has large rooms with a balcony and good view for NT$1200 per night. The Chiu Chunt Dint Hotel in the center of Chiufen, at 29 Ji Shang Jie, has simpler rooms with no view for roughly the same price. But it also houses the decent Little Mountain Town Restaurant.

Getting to Chiufen
Chiufen is easily accessible from Taipei by bus and train. From Taipei Main Station, trains can be taken to either Keelung or Ruifang. Buses running on the Jin Gua Shi line can be taken from both of these cities to Chiufen. Buses can also be taken from Chung Lun Bus Depot in Taipei towards Jin Gua Shi (they also stop at Chiufen).


Chiufen can be reached by car by travelling from Taipei to Keelung on Highway 1 or Highway 5. From Keelung, take 102 east through Ruifang and into Chiufen. More interesting and scenic is to approach Chiufen from Fulung in the east on 102. It winds through steep, forested mountains devoid of settlements.