礁溪 Jiao Xi, Taiwan

jiaoxiJiaoxi is the hottest hot spring [温泉 wen chuan] destination in Taiwan. It is located in Yilan [宜蘭], about an hour drive from Taipei. While it’s doable as a day trip, I highly recommend staying overnight at Jiaoxi for at least a night to fully enjoy bathing in all the wonderful hot springs! My mom loves staying at the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi [礁溪老爺酒店]. I don’t blame her. The facilities, the service, the meal plans, the environment…everything is just what the doctor ordered for a relaxing getaway. The hotel is mostly an open-space environment, with tall glass walls to let in ample sunshine.

jiaoxi3If you’re lucky enough, you may snag one of the ocean view rooms; both times my mom took me to Jiaoxi, we could only manage to get a mountain view room. Still a beautiful view: palm trees, lush rainforest, birds flying overhead.

The rooms themselves are a work of art. Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi is modeled after traditional Japanese hot spring hotels, complete with tatami beds, a tea room, and little  [cha dian], or dim sum treats. When I went in 2008, they even brought in fresh fruits to your room, daily! You’re also provided with a set of yukata [浴衣 yu yi in Chinese], and sandals to wear around the hotel and to the hot springs. They used to let you bring the sandals–which are really comfy–home, but not anymore.

jiaoxi2The central baths are wonderful too. There are outdoor [露天風呂 lu tian feng lu] and indoor baths, ranging from boiling hot water to near-freezing temperatures. My favorite thing to do is to jump from the hottest pool into the absolute coldest. It’s absolutely cathartic when you feel the heat dissipating from your body–like being bandaged in Icy Hot all over (except you’re hot first then cold). Showering facilities are meticulously clean, with wonderful-smelling shampoos, creams, and body washes. The ones by the pool come with small wooden buckets to pour over yourself.

jiaoxi4If japanese hot springs aren’t your thing (as you have to bathe in the nude), the swimming facilities are amazing. Giant infinity pool and hot tubs and whirpools galore! Essentially an outside water-based playground. They even have pools of the doctor fish, which are these tiny goldfish that nibble away at your callouses. I don’t know if my feet were more beautiful after wading in the doctor fish pool, but it was a ton of fun to see how long I could keep my feet underwater; the nibbles tickle a lot!

jiaoxi5Beyond that, there’s a games room with pool and ping pong tables, as well as a computer lab if you want to spend your hot spring vacation surfing the internet (…why?). When I first went in 2008, the hotel offered a lot of outdoor excursions: the most memorable being crab catching at night. It cost about $25 per person–a small price to pay for a priceless experience. You’re put on a shuttle bus to this serene and isolated beach somewhere in Jiaoxi (neither my mom nor I remember), given lanterns, a net, and a bucket to put the crabs in. There’s a contest to see who can catch the most crabs; I forget the prize.

And no, the crabs were not for eating. We all set them back into the ocean once we tallied who had the most crabs. It was a blast! There was such diversity in the crabs we caught; tiny ones the size of my thumb to bigger ones that could cause a painful pinch. Red ones, blue ones, brown ones, gray ones. I’d never seen so many! Once we all set the crabs free, our guide ordered us to all shut off our flashlights. We were surrounded in complete darkness; no streetlights or any illumination for miles. With no buildings or mountains to obstruct our view, the sky encircled us in a snowglobe of twinkling celestial bodies. I have never seen anything as stunning or divine since that night.

wufengqiwufengqi2There’s plenty to do outside of the hotel too; I love climbing the Wufengqi Waterfall [五峰旗瀑布] and exploring downtown Jiaoxi for a lot of good snack [ xiao chi] booths. Wufengqi is about a 90-minute to 2-hour hike, and totally worth it even on the muggiest day. The falls are split into 3 tiers, with the final fall being the largest and the harder one to get to.

The trail is well-maintained, albeit wet from all the spray. After a rock slide in 2009, the last section to the upper falls was closed and is yet to be reopened. When my mom and I went this past summer (2014), we jumped the railing and found that the trail was perfectly in-tact and walkable. Still, I’d recommend using common sense if it’s a rainy or stormy day out.

jiaoxi6Downtown Jiaoxi is incredibly small, but cute and full of tasty treats. Jiaoxi is famous for high-quality preserved duck eggs [蛋 xian dan], scallions/green onions [蔥 cong], hot-spring tomatoes [番茄 fan qie], hot-spring mochi [麻糬 mua ji], and dried kumquats [金棗 jin zao]. Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi, however, already has an astounding selection of good eats for its lunch and breakfast buffet, as well as a beautiful kaiseki meal for dinner. All of this is already incorporated into your stay when you pay for the hotel, too!

jiaoxi7

Mushroom soup with morels and truffles, taro balls, fresh bamboo shoots, sauteed asparagus, rose and ginger vinegar, 10-grain fried rice, and sushi rolls for dinner.

jiaoxi8

So much delicousness in one breakfast!

National Palace Museum & Tamsui, Taiwan, 2008

grandregentSince two of our close family friends were visiting Taiwan for the first time, my mom had an exciting itinerary laid out for all of us; most were sights that I had not even had the chance to see yet! We began our trip with two luxurious nights at the Grand Formosa Regent, 台北晶華酒店 ['tai bei jing hua jiu dian'], one of the high-end hotels in the center of Taipei. (Traveler tip: 酒店 means ‘hotel’). The rooms were so big! Two queen-sized beds for my mom and I each. :)

kyohoegg

Not entirely related, but look at the size of those Kyoho grapes! They’re almost comparable to the size of tea eggs

While the hotel had many comforts to enjoy, it was too beautiful of a day to stay inside. So, we group of four decided to spend most of the day at the National Palace Museum, 台北故宮 ['tai bei gu gong']. gugong(故宮 means ‘ancient palace’). The National Palace Museum is one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks: spanning 10,000 years of Chinese history! Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day after sleeping in and the museum was closed. Still, the grounds were as grand as you would imagine a place with the title “National Palace Museum” would be.

This was not too much of a setback for us; we took a taxi into the city and then the MRT subway out all the way to Tamsui (淡水 read as ‘dan shui’). Nothing but a short, 45-minute ride. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Tamsui is the 漁人碼頭 ['yu ren ma tou'], translating quite literally as “Fisherman’s Wharf”. Lots of great food vendors, shops, and beautiful sunsets to be had here.

danshui

I could not have been more excited about the grilled stinky tofu! I do admit it’s an acquired taste, but when you love it, you looove it. There is no more magical pairing than deep fried, grilled tofu, still tender on the inside, and paired with cold, pickled and crunchy Taiwanese cabbage.

danshuifood

Our evening was spent feasting with our eyes, noses, and ears on all the deliciousness Taiwan has to offer. And although my mom and I could not taste the famous seafood our family friends ordered for dinner, it was equally satisfying seeing their faces in ecstasy from sucking on freshly-steamed mussels.

Shin Yeh, Taipei 101

Mom, ever so wonderful, booked a restaurant located on the 85th floor of Taipei 101. Restaurant on a high floor in a super tall building = $$$$. But hey, we flew almost 7,000 miles to get to Taiwan, so might as well make it worth it! I don’t know why it is that fancy restaurants are always dimly lit, but they are. To be romantic or something silly like that, I guess. Makes it hard to feel your way around the restaurant though.

hsinye4

The views from 欣葉 Shin Yeh are as stellar as you would expect being about 1200 feet high to be. It was a rainy day in Taipei, so we couldn’t see as far. Nevertheless, it was beautiful being among the clouds and watching the rain fall below. Shin Yeh’s decor is quite modern, with lighted walking paths, soft, red mood-lighting,  and black, lacy curtains. Friendly and attentive service too.

shinyehMy mom first discovered Shin Yeh when she was invited to dinner there by one of her college friends. She loved it. Finding vegetarian food is usually hard enough, but finding good vegetarian food in a swanky restaurant is even harder. Yet, she found it in Shin Yeh! Shin Yeh serves very typical Taiwanese cuisine in the highest culinary fashion.

When my mom and I eat in Taiwan, our motto is “go big or go home”. If there’s anywhere we shouldn’t care about gaining weight, it’s when we’re out traveling. So we decided that 9 dishes for 2 people was entirely acceptable.

Starters were some pickled vegetables paired with a passionfruit iced tea. Then came a bowl of warm rice porridge sweetened with chunks of kabocha (japanese pumpkin). I could write a love song about kabocha, if I had the talent. The meat is always so sweet and fine; not stringy like American pumpkins. My mom also ordered a dish that I was not very familiar with at the time, called 菜脯煎蛋 [cai bu jian dan]. In Taiwanese, it’s pronounced as “cai bo neng”. Cai Bo Neng is a thick omelette scrambled with preserved turnip, so that you have this golden, crispy egg with tiny shots of salt and crunch from the turnip. So tasty.

hsinye

A four-course tasting dish was then served: honey-roasted cashews; mashed kabocha topped with sliced oyster mushrooms, a dollop of mayonnaise, and a kuromame (japanese sweet black bean); steamed okra with some delicate plum sauce; and braised shiitake with stewed daikon.

Fifth dish was a bird’s nest with deep fried tasty things–I can’t remember what it was anymore. Deep fried foods are inarguably delicious though.

hsinye2For a boost of fiber, we had a plate of stir-fried asparagus, 百合 [bai he] or lily bulbs, gingko nuts, and watermelon (?!). Pretty interesting combination. There was also broccoli with incredibly convincing sea cucumber imitation. Having been vegetarian all my life and having never touched meat, it looked real enough that I couldn’t really stomach it.

hsinye3

At this point, we were appropriately stuffed. Yet there was still more! A delicious plate of vegetable fried rice with crispy string beans, vegetarian ham, and red and yellow bell peppers. You know you have good fried rice in your bowl when each grain glistens with a bit of oil and each slightly springy when you chew. Taiwanese are all about that QQ texture. I think the closest English translation is “toothsome”?

We topped off this feast with almond milk tea, peanut mochi, and a plate of fresh fruit. Just perfect. Would go again.

 

Info if you’re interested:

欣葉國際餐飲集團
Shin Yeh Taipei 101
85F-1, No. 7, Sec. 5, Xinyi Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City (Taipei 101)

Let me know how Shin Yeh works out for you! :)

Ice Monster 冰館

icemonsterFor the past 7 years in a row I’ve been traveling to Taiwan, one of my must-stop eateries is Ice Monster. It wasn’t until about 3 years ago (??) that Ice Monster moved from the crowded 永康街 Yongkang Street–best known for being the flagship location of infamous dumpling house 鼎泰豐 Ding Tai Fung–to a larger and more spacious location on 忠孝東路四段 Zhongxiao East Road, 4th Section.

The move was due in large part to the divorce of the couple who started the shop together. Both of them now own competing mango shaved ice stores: one still in the old location on Yongkang Street and the other in the new location on Zhongxiao East Road.

icemonster1I hate to say it, but the division has resulted in a dip in quality of the mango shaved ice. The popularity of Ice Monster has continued to skyrocket over the years, resulting in 1-2 hour waits just to get a seat in the Zhongxiao location. CNN has even done a piece on it (they’re #5 on the slide)!

Ice Monster used to be this tiny booth on the corner of the street with no more than 2 counters, and at most 15 stools. People flocked to it then, but my mom and I never had to wait more than 20 minutes for some space to open up. It was this old Ice Monster that we both had the most amazing mango shaved ice of our lives.

The key to amazing mango shaved ice is really the quality of the mangoes. Taiwan’s most popular type of mango is the 愛文芒果 [ai wen man guo], or Aiwen mango. They have beautiful skin painted like the sunset and this delicate, tender, honey-colored flesh that bursts with sweet mango juice when you bite into it.

icemonster2

The old Ice Monster shaved ice that jump-started my addiction to mangoes.

Ice Monster uses high-quality 愛文, chops them up, pours the chunks over a light bed of snow, drizzles about a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk, and serves you this delectable concoction with a scoop of creamy mango gelato on top of it all. Like 75% mango, 25% ice/condensed milk/gelato. It’s glorious.

Recently, Ice Monster has tweaked the recipe. Now the ice is shaved into thin, sheet-like layers and there is significantly fewer mango chunks. There is now also the addition of this strange almond tofu thing, which is simply not the same mango shaved ice I’ve always looked forward to eating.

icemonster

The new Ice Monster with fancy new seating.

Moreover, the service is a lot slower now. The last two times I went to Ice Monster, I felt like our server had completely forgotten about us. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the major increase in price though. A serving of mango shaved ice at the old Ice Monster on Yongkang Street used to be about 100-120 NTD (~$3-4), and now it is more than double that price.

Overall, still pretty solid mango shaved ice, but a little too expensive for my tastes and too long of a wait to get a table. But if it’s a humid 95-degrees out and you’re a walking waterfall of sweat, it’s worth checking out. :) To find Ice Monster, this address will come in handy:

Ice Monster
Taipei City, Daan District, Zhongxiao Rd. Section 4, Number 297
台北市大安區忠孝東路四段297號

Nürnberg: Day 6, 2009

This was quite common to see for the time we were in Germany.

This was quite common to see for the time we were in Germany.

It was Monday, which is the worst day of the week because typically for me it indicates the start of something academically productive. Yet I actually found the prospect of attending my Gastschwester’s (host sister’s) classes exciting. First period was with Clara’s Englisch class; it was probably too early still, as I don’t remember a single thing about it.

2nd period was Greek–what an awesome class. I learned how to write my name and about the development of Greek and Latin languages. Particularly interesting to me was the word “Kairos” καιρός: an ancient Greek word that means the right or opportune moment. It’s a rhetorical device that’s understood as knowing what to say at the right moment.

During break time, we all met at the Schwarze Box (black box) with Herr Reindl, who would be chaperoning our trip to München the next day. We were given loads of maps and tour brochures, as well as our second allowance of the program so far. There were only two of us ones who had to wait for our Gastgeschwister (host siblings) to finish their classes after the meeting, so we played a few rounds of foosball. I was terrible.

My Gastvater (host father) told me he’d make Pfilzgoulasch (mushroom goulash) for me for lunch. Buuuuuut…I really wanted to explore the city after school. While I felt guilty, I still told Clara to go home first without me and to tell Gastvater. Seven of us went sightseeing in the old town, but split up in groups of 2-3 for lunch. Cory and I ate at a Döner place. No vegetarian food. Ended up getting Panda Express. Should’ve stuck with the Pfilzgoulasch.

IMG_2072We all then met up at a department store chain called Karstadt, which was insanely expensive. Since none of us were particularly interested in window shopping, we set off to discover the wonder that is Spaghetti Eis (spaghetti ice cream). Cost me €6, but what the hell–it was delicious. Spaghetti Eis is ice cream put through a noodle maker so it looks like spaghetti. Then some sort of berry jam or reduction is poured over it, along with chopped nuts, white chocolate chips, and an unhealthy serving of whipped cream. A waffle cookie tops off the masterpiece. One of the guys suggested visiting a Barockgarten (baroque-styled garden); it was nice. Well-manicured, small, and private. The most fun part about the garden was playing with this marbled, black and orange kitty making its rounds through the hedges. It must have been funny to see a group of 7 teenagers coddling and taking pictures of a cat. The second Barockgarten we visited was large in comparison and behind a Biergarten (!! the most mind-boggling idea I had come across at that age and time). People just sit outside and…drink beer?? What? The coolest part of the garden was this giant clock that the hedges formed.

barockgarten IMG_2095

IMG_2096

Our last tourist stop of the day was Johannis Friedhof (cemetery), to visit Albrecht Dürer’s grave. Dürer was one of the Renaissance men of his day, literally during the Northern Renaissance.  His most famous portrait is a self-portrait of him at age 28. That aside, German cemeteries are really beautiful. They’re unusually, colorfully decorated with flowers (by American standards). One of my friends and I rode the S-Bahn back to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) together. I discovered there how byzantine the Fahrplan (timetable) is. Luckily, I double-checked with the conductor the direction of the train I thought was heading towards Roßtal to find that it was going to Dresden. Oh. Good catch. Took the train home alone for the first time; I felt so independent!

IMG_2097 And I still got my Pfilzgoulasch at the end of the day. Die beste Gastvater in der Welt. :)

Nürnberg: Day 5, 2009

It was a slow day–I slept until 9am and stuffed myself with bread and Nutella. This was back in the days before Nutella saw widespread popularity in U.S. supermarkets, so I wanted to get my fill of it–or maybe I had just never noticed it before? I asked my Gastmutter where Neuschwanstein, the castle built by Konig Ludwig that was the source of inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, was. Apparently quite far from Nürnberg! So disappointing. It’s definitely one of the things on my Germany bucket list of things to see.

IMG_2058

Strawberry cream pie…?

My Gastfamilie took me to a Gemeindefest: a potluck for the church community. There were 10 different kinds of Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), each a grandmother’s secret recipe. They looked so delicious! Alas, none of them were vegetarian-friendly. I’d stick with my Gastmutter’s potato salad anyway ;) hers is still the best I’ve had to this day. What’s your favorite Kartoffelsalat Rezept (recipe)?

Inside the church was essentially a dessert buffet of cakes, tarts, and other baked goods. While I desperately wanted to try them all, I didn’t want to be that person who eats everything in sight.

IMG_2062

City hall (I think)

When we were back home, I had to force myself to read Grapes of Wrath for my AP Literature class. So glad those days are over now! After about an hour or two, I went out for a small walk around Roßtal.

It was gorgeous and sunny, crystal clear skies stretched endlessly. Definitely got a few stares, but I guess it’s because you don’t see a small Asian girl walking around town every day. I walked all the way out to city hall and found that it overlooked another little town lying in the valley.

IMG_2064

Here have a butterfly instead.

I continued to roam around and found some solace in a patch of lavender–or some kind of pretty purple flower.  Then I spotted the strangest animal I’d ever seen. Was it a bee? A hummingbird? A butterfly? A moth?

It was amazingly hard to catch a picture of, and once I was back in the States, the first thing I did was Google “hummingbird bee moth thing”. What I saw was a hummingbird hawk-moth. It’s typically found only in the warmer climates of southern Europe, North Africa, and the East. Who knew such a thing existed?!

rosstal

cherries from our backyard

After 15 minutes of stalking it, I gave up and turned to corner to find a local band practicing swing and jazz. It was wonderful. Boy did I miss swing dancing–I had even dreamt about it that night. I think I was having too much fun in my dream, though, since I ended up hitting my head against the wall.

Weimar: Day 4, 2009

Quick aside: I learned at breakfast that Germans slice their rolls through the middle (hamburger-style), rather than straight down it (hot dog style). Then they take like an 1/8” thick slice of butter and sandwich it as filling. But maybe it’s just my host family…? Anyone else notice this?

My Gastfamilie (host family) took me to Weimar my 4th day in Germany: the birthplace of famed writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. It was a long drive from Nürnberg–about 4 hours. I kept falling asleep in the car. But for the moments I was awake, I saw some of the most beautifully delicate scenery. We drove past fields of wildflowers and dense forests, as well as this wonderfully tranquil lake. There was an island of pines, fog resting gently on the surface of the water, and a lonely swan gliding across. It was so peaceful.

weimarWe first stopped at the Anna Amalia Bibliothek, which is the library of Duchess Anna Amalia. It houses over 1 million books, 10,000 volumes of Shakespeare, and even an expansive 13,000 volume music collection. The library is in a beautiful Rococo-style. Unfortunately, only 200 tickets are sold per day, so by the time we arrived, it was sold out. Have any of you managed to snag a ticket to the library?

We went instead to Goethe’s birth house. It was surprisingly large, with statues everywhere. It was definitely the house of a relatively wealthy man. No pictures were allowed inside the house, but I did snap some of the garden.

weimar2Before this trip to Weimar, I had never seen horse-drawn carriages and flipped out when I did see one. I felt like I was living a fairytale until I noticed the giant poop sack hanging between horse in carriage. Such a smart idea; keeps the poop off the streets!

weimar3We first lunched at this random cafe, where I ordered some warm vegetable soup and Clara ordered Apfelstrudel with vanilla ice cream. There was this really neat art exhibit upstairs called “Fehlerkunst/Kunstfehler”, which essentially means “Failed Art”. Most of it was strange contemporary art. The art painted onto the walls on the stairwell were really cool though.

After lunch, we proceeded to Goethe’s summer house, where he basically wrote all his poems and literary works. The river Im runs through the land and makes for very pretty scenery with the fields, small hills and what not. Because Goethe loved flowers, his summer house had a wonderful garden. Original manuscripts were on displace in glass cases. It was particularly exciting to see “Der Erlkönig”: a rather depressing piece we read in German class and the only piece of Goethe’s that I’m thoroughly familiar with.

His summer house wasn’t nearly as luxurious as his actual house even though he spent more time in the summer home. But I guess you don’t need many luxuries when you have creative thoughts to entertain you. :)

weimar4My Gastmutter (host mother) and Gastvater (host father) wanted to take me to Schiller’s house, but they were closed! Sad. My Gastvater told me this random fact about Schiller: he could only write when there was a rotten apple in his desk. Genius is strange. We ended up going to a Bauhaus store. And what is Bauhaus exactly? Some style of art and music that started in Weimar. That’s the extent of my understanding. There was an animated time line of Germany in the 1900’s up to the 1990’s. There were also comic-styled illustrations satirizing the Nazi era and stuff.

When we finally arrived back home, it was past 10pm; yet somehow, it was barely twilight. The stars could barely sparkle with how bright the sky was.