In the midst of its modernity, Taiwan is reviving and improving its culture of volcanic hot springs and creating world-class spas as part of the process. Gareth Powell, SpaChina’s Wellness Editor, reveals the details of the latest and greatest spas in East Asia
Taipei is a marvel – a modern city with volcanic hot springs right next door. Now that is civilized! And amazingly, it is still largely unknown to the outside world, which means getting to know it makes you an explorer.
Just north of Taipei city, on the volcanic mountain of Yangmingshan are hot springs that feed of the seismic activity taking place just beneath the surface, pushing hot water and steam up through the crack in the landscape. They were carefully shepherded in hot spring resorts and chalets in the early 20th century, when Taiwan was a Japanese colony and the Japanese residents were homesick for the ones back home.
The whole area has undergone a re-birth in the past decade or so, with the re-modeling of hot spring places using the best of 21st technology and tastes to create the best experience for the most discerning spa-goers. The Japanese flavor of the design and the quality of the service, however, has largely been retained.
Some people call it the Hot Spring Renaissance. It is aimed at families, at business people looking to relax, to lovers wanting some quality time together, to anyone looking to offset the stresses of modern life with the most exquisite experiences known. The top venues offer all the expected services, including hot oil massages and aromatherapy treatments, along with the finest of fine dining.
And it is not just Beitou. Taipei is surrounded by mountains and hot springs can be found everywhere. Two other areas worth checking out are Wu Lai and Jin Shan. All areas are now easily accessible thanks to Taipei mass transit rail system.
They fall into three basic categories:
- Basic spas and hot springs.
- Hotels equipped with natural spa and hot springs
- Major spas in the modern sense with every luxury including hot springs.
The unifying factor is the hot spring. The springs in the Taipei area are known for having a very high sulphuric content, and the water that pumps naturally out of the earth has a very distinctive odor. It takes a little while to get used to, and it can be overwhelming. But it is also enormously soothing.
First, let’s get our bearings. Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, and is situated near the northern tip of the island. It is a large, modern and well-ordered city with over two and a half million residents and is part of what has become the Taipei-Keelung metropolitan area with a total population just short of seven million.
Taipei is the political, economic, and cultural center of Taiwan. It has wonderful transportation with railways, high-speed rail, highways, airports, and bus lines connecting Taipei with all parts of the island. The city is served by two airports – Taipei Songshan and TaiwayTaoyuan.
The absolute top destination for spa-goers in the Taipei area is Beitou, as mentioned above, and to get there, take the rail system, the MRT, to New Peitou stop. Right across from the station is the Hot Spring Museum, which is a beautifully restored Japanese colonial-era bathhouse. Once you have the history under control, it’s time for some pampering.
Many of the best of the Beitou spas are found on the road which runs around the museum and then up into the foothills beyond. You can easily see signs of the Japanese influence on these establishments, and there are a wide range of choices of different kinds of establishments, depending on requirements and budgets.
A must-visit place is the Millennium Hot Spring bathhouse, which is run by the government. The bathouse consists of a series of pools of differing water temperatures, and be warned that for those unused to hot spring spas,the hottest of these pools is well-nigh unbearable. But the experience at the Millennium is available at an incredibly low cost. Please note that it is best to go to this place on weekdays as it can get very busy on the weekends. Also note that the area is strictly controlled to ensure all guests are wearing bathing suits in public areas.
In the second style of establishment – modified traditional – we have the Yitsun Hotel. This hotel dates back to 1901 which in spa terms a long, long time ago. Today, the Yitsun is an elegant and beautifully-preserved wood-paneled collection of rooms built on different levels, set within a garden ring of bonsai trees and centered round an ornate goldfish pond.
The baths here are, in the Japanese tradition, of the communal type, one for men and one for women. They are set in grey slate stone and the water is clouded and has a top temperature of 60 degrees celsius, which is very, very hot. Remember to try splashing your feet into the water and lower your legs in slowly first until you got used to it.
This as discrete and low-key place. There are none of the usual commercial elements of neon signs and garish fairy lights, and if you half close your eyes, you might even think it was a private home. And in fact it was for several decades a private guest house for Japanese military officers. But other guests were sometimes allowed, and one of them was the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen (the current name of the hotel, Yitsun, is an homage to Mr Sun). Today, for a reasonable price, you can relax in the milky sulphur waters in the hotel’s pools and have a full massage guaranteed to relax you completely. The food offered at this spa is excellent and to retain harmony with the surroundings, you could do worse that match your meal with a bottle of Taiwan Beer.
There are two other establishments from the Japanese era that are worth investigating. One is a simple bathhouse named Longnaitang (泷乃汤), which was opened in 1907 and is still in business beside the Beitoupark. It has separate male and female pools, and today requires swimwear. The other, further up the valley, is a lovely wood-built establishment named Whispering Pine Inn (吟松阁), which was built in 1934.
Further away from the station, we come eventually to the third type of hot spring spa on our list, that is the new-style hot spring offering everything in a package. We recommend Spring City Resort which is similar to in its approach to a Club Med spa. It has the full range of attractions to make you clean, de-stressed, well-toned, and generally all-round copacetic. The resort also features extensive grounds which include cafes and warm sulphur paddling ponds, children’s play areas, swimming pools and fountains.There is a health club with all the trappings, and all rooms of course come with en suite hot spring baths.
In the same class as the Spring City Resort with with another style is the amusingly named 69-room Sweetme Hotspring Resort. This is a more modern, contemporary and streamlined establishment with still a very Japanese feel. Each room also features a hot spring pool as well as tatami futons.
In a way, the Japanese are back. There is the Radium Kagaya, which has only been in Beitou a few years and is traditional Japanese designed on the inside, and the Japanese media group, Dafeng, has opened a hot-spring resort in Beitou in what used to be thePacific Wellness Spa & Club. The new hotel has opened as the Gaia Hotel Taipei and has eight rooms, 20 hot-spring cabanas and three restaurants.
Beitou has it all, and it is without a doubt one of the most spectacular spa areas in the world. At the moment, amazingly, it seems to be a secret almost confined to Taiwan. That will no doubt change in the future, so make your trip as soon as you can.
Leaving Beitou for a moment, here are a couple of suggestions in the other two districts mentioned – Wu Lai and Jin Shan.
In Wu Lai, highly recommended is the Guo Chi Yen Hot Spring, which very much provides a communal experience, perfect for families with kids. Just down the road is the Tungfung Hot Spring Lodge, where you can while away a whole day as a visitor just soaking in the sulphur pool.
The Jinshan hot spring area is on the northern side of Yangmingshan and is about one hour’s drive from central Taipei. A top resort option there is the Tien Lai, which features open-air pools that drop-off dramatically against a background of sweeping mountain scenery. There are sulphur showers and fountains, and a special area designated for hard-boiling your eggs.
Meanwhile, Taipei city has some great spas also well worth checking out.
One is the Miramar Spa, on the second floor of the Miramar Garden Hotel. The spa is located in the hotel’s Vigor Health Club, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and specialises in facial treatments and in detoxifying the executive body in (almost) every way imaginable. The menu also includes lymphatic drainage, collagen treatments and sculpting using Dead Sea Salts.
And another is the Japanese-style spa in the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. The Shiseido Salon and Spa is on the 40th floor, which features an interesting mix of Japanese, Chinese and Western treatments, as well as nail treatments.
One way or another, Taipei has everything you could ask for in terms of quality and unique spa options. It’s worth a trip too the city for that alone.