Before heading to Taiwan, a place I know little about, several friends let me in on some home truths. On this beguiling little island, a stone's throw from mainland China, I will encounter not only excellent food but friendly people. They were right: I've never eaten so many different types of mushroom and in so many different ways, along with other piquant and succulent delicacies in multi-course meals, while I find the people courteous and polite in an old-fashioned way that is neither gushing nor effusive. Just right.
But what I don't expect in Taipei, the capital city of 2.7 million people and plenty of high-rise, are dozens of hot springs and a culture of open-air bathing.
Beitou, the northernmost of Taipei's 12 districts located at the foot of Danfeng Mountain, is a volcanic crater called the Thermal Valley. Nicknamed "Hell Valley" by locals, this hotspot just 30 minutes from the city centre, has one of the largest concentrations of hot springs in the world.
I know nothing of this steamy wonderland when my small group of travellers sets off to the Gaia Hotel for what is billed as a "hot springs experience". I love a trip to a day spa more than anyone, but I am uncertain about the protocol. Will this be a naked outdoor immersion with other participants or does one require a swimsuit?
Taiwan's bathing culture dates to the Japanese occupation of the island, a 50-year period from 1895. The colonial rulers introduced their beloved onsen to Taiwan and in 1913 opened a Japanese-style public bathhouse in Beitou Park, a green space bordering the Thermal Valley. Today the historic bathhouse has become the Hot Springs Museum, however, a new six-pool public facility replaced it in 1991 and today there are some 40 spa hotels within walking distance of the park.
The Gaia Hotel, named for the Greek earth goddess, is exquisite. We are ushered into the hotel's four-storey atrium with walls lined with more than 4000 books. A stunning fibre-optic chandelier of 1134 crystal balls dangles from the ceiling. Called the Library, it's the hotel lobby, and despite the opulent light fitting, it has a rather Scandinavian minimalist design. It's a place I could easily linger, happily leafing through a few of the books.
But the spa hostesses appear, and the bathing mystery is soon revealed. The 10 of us is each escorted to an individual hot springs room. Although the Gaia's staff speak little English, we quickly get the idea that this is a very private soak (no swimsuit needed); a time to simply relax and do as we please. The attendant points to a phone in the spa room and indicates she'll ring me in 90 minutes.
What absolute bliss I think to loll about in a bath after several days of sightseeing where I caught bullet trains and ate far too much.
The deep tub, which is meant for two, takes a while to fill with the piping hot water from the sulphur-heated thermal valley. There's a wooden scoop for personal dousing, a bunch of soft towels, slippers and a hair dryer. There's nothing to do but wallow in my personal bathhouse, which is one of 20 available for hire by non-hotel guests. Time slips away but as it's a little too steamy, I am already dressed and drying my hair by the time the phone rings. Ninety minutes in that tub would give anyone prune skin and quite possibly, palpitations. An hour is just perfect.
Cathay Pacific flies to Taipei via Hong Kong daily. See cathypacific.com
China Airlines has direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne. See china-airlines.com/au/en
The Gaia Hotel, Beitou has 48 rooms, each with a private hot springs bath. Private baths for non-guests cost US$85 (A$123) for 90 minutes for two people. The hotel will pick up guests from the nearby Xinbeitou metro station. See thegaiahotel.com/en/
Caroline Gladstone travelled courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan.