Sunday, December 28, 2008

Day 3: Wuliao in Wulai Part I

This was the day for our first side trip, to Wulai, an aboriginal village whose claim to fame lies in its hot springs. Wulai has a less than stellar reputation. Ugly overdeveloped village, dubious bathhouses with heated tap water masquerading as hot spring water, no decent value-for-money accommodation option - these were some of the comments I had read about Wulai. And no one, no local apparently, ever stays overnight, or so I was told, which doesn't account for the fact that there are a million and one guesthouses in Wulai! But we were going anyway, for the reputedly beautiful scenery AROUND the village, for its distinctive spring water (colourless and odourless), and for the excellent birding opportunities. And we were going to take the bull by its horns by staying at the most luxurious hotel in the area, one so expensive it would be detrimental to its reputation to be caught passing tap water off as spring water. So there.

Our journey to Wulai started with a 30-minute ride on the MRT to the southernmost station, Xindian.

a view of Xindian from the MRT station

From there, we could have taken a public bus to Wulai, but since the good people from Spring Park Urai, our chosen hotel, provided a pick-up service from the station, we were spared the 40-minute bus ride.

We arrived at a low-slung fairly nondescript building 20 minutes later. The first impression: granite and water, lots of it. Someone was certainly trying for a minimalist look, at least outside the rooms.

the foyer

Inside the rooms, it was determinedly romantic.

of course, a four-poster bed

a place to sit and enjoy...

... these.

Or one could admire the view (bug on glass not included).

A love letter was not out of the question.

Every little detail had been thought of.

on this counter, we found...


Let's not forget why we paid S$700* for a Grand View Room at Spring Park Urai: the room came with an inroom bath, one with piped-in hot spring water and a view.

* inclusive of breakfast and dinner for two

for long thorough scrubbing sessions

a bath with a view

The bathroom was to die for. It was a little early for a soak though, so we decided to venture into Wulai Village for a spot of lunch and a walkabout.

on the road to the village

It was a hot day out and, under the sun, at least 20 degrees celsius.

a brilliant turqoise

From the vantage point of the hillside road, we could view the Nanshi River in its full glory. The area was certainly picturesque.

The village of Wulai was, as forewarned, not much to look at. It did however boast of a Lao Jie (Old Street).

tourist-friendly pedestrian-only street

ok, cyclists too

there were tourist traps, of course

But there were restaurants serving aboriginal cuisine, Atayal cuisine in particular, we presumed, since the area was Atayal. We settled on a restaurant that looked busy enough and had everything displayed out front for us newbies.

"Wu Lai Small Eats"

meatballs and more

fresh veggies

let's see, bee hoon (left), simmered bamboo shoot (right) and....?

deepfried shrimp (left) and deepfried shishamo fish (right)

wild boar teppanyaki with spring onions and chilli

roast wild boar (literally, mountain pig) belly

glazed sweet potatoes, choice of honey or malt sugar glaze

We would have liked to try everything, but we didn't have the capacity. In the end, we went with:

sticky rice cooked in bamboo, like a zhang - HM couldn't get enough of this

meatball soup with a Wulai specialty, mushrooms - sort of like a bakwan kepiting

simmered bamboo shoot - fresh ones are the best!

stirfried fern tips - amazingly tender and sweet

deepfried shrimp and fish - crunchy and munchy but a little hard on the palate

wild boar teppanyaki - certainly not inferior to pork

At NT$560 (S$28), it wasn't too pricey an introduction to aboriginal food. And, although the style of cooking wasn't very different from Chinese cuisine, the local ingredients, particularly the bamboo shoots, the fern tips and the wild boar, gave the meal its distinctive flavours.

After lunch, we walked up and down Lao Jie.

lots of shops selling local produce

such as Wulai mushrooms

millet, a staple food for the tribes

When we weren't busy being amused by...

... entertaining sights like this...

peek a boo!

... we were busy drooling.

wild boar sausages!

we witnessed dog and kid sharing some

Incredibly, in the middle of nowhere, there was...

"Indian" tea - masala or tarik, we had no idea

By this time, a little dessert was in order.

this stall caught our eye

We bought a millet cake coated with honey. It was like a mochi on a stick, but gooey-er, like cheese. The honey was really flavourful too. Delish!

rice wine made with millet and glutinous rice

HM couldn't resist this either and bought a bottle for NT$200 (S$10).

At the end of the Lao Jie, we turned and walked across the bridge.

Nanshi River again

The river was indeed a beauty, in sharp contrast with the less than aesthetic sprawl of guesthouses and bath-houses lining its banks and the resultant haphazard tangle of pipes. We tried our best to ignore the mess, as did some locals.

ah, a local hotspot

women only?

ok not a pleasant sight but at least it's "natural"

spot the irony

It was a pity the tram ride to the Wulai Scenic Area was not operational.

oh dear, under repair apparently

No biggie, since we had our lovely room to look forward to. Back in our room, we found this:

complimentary fruit

We helped ourselves to some fruit and then realised, almost belatedly, that we also had a complimentary tea waiting for us at the hotel's Siliq cafe.

a choice of four types of oolong tea

Fortunately, the tea was light and pleasant, consisting of a pot of tea for two (we chose the gao shan oolong - amazingly fragrant!) and a sampling of Taiwanese snacks.

(left) sesame, peanut and green tea flavoured mochi, (right) regular and coffee-flavoured preserved fruit and (centre) wen quan dan aka hot spring egg cooked in hot spring water

After tea, we retired to our room. I lolled around while HM checked out Spring Park Urai's public bath. She came back coo-ing about the beautifully landscaped outdoor bath.

Then it was time for dinner. The hotel had touted its "French gourmet dinners" in its publicity. French food must be relatively uncommon in Taiwan, we thought, for it to be such a big deal. There were two set menus that night, so we had one each.

amuse bouche of parma ham, caviar, pom noisette

foie gras with banana and pineapple

king crab with honey mustard sauce

lobster bisque with shrimp

chicken consommé with quail’s eggs

French lamb

Hokkaido cod with wasabi sauce

petit fours

crème catalan with fruit

We had mixed feelings about the dinner. It was difficult to say what was wrong exactly. It's not like we didn't enjoy it at all. It just wasn't quite the French gourmet dinner we had been given to expect. Let's just say that the decor and the ambience of the hotel as a whole had been so spot-on that we were primed for something spectacular. It was a little disappointing but fortunately not sufficiently so to mar our stay. (On hindsight, we have had more authentic European cuisine in Bali and Phuket, at less swanky and certainly infinitely less pricey eateries. The fact that Bali and Phuket have many more tourists from Western countries and consequently many more eateries serving Western cuisine competing for business must have something to do with it.)

After dinner, we luxuriated in the (indeed) colourless and odourless spring water, in the privacy of our room, before going to bed. It had been a most relaxing day.

a little over the top, no?

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