When Portuguese sailors first set eyes on the island of Taiwan in 1544, they uttered, "Ilha formosa", which in Portuguese means 'beautiful island'. It was called Formosa from then on until 1949 when mainland Chinese fled to this island after the Communist Revolution and changed its name to Taiwan.
Today, typical first impressions of the island may not be as enthusiastic as that of the Portuguese sailors, but if you explore beyond the big cities, you may see something of the 'beautiful' in this island country after all. Wulai, for example, has forested mountains full of streams and lakes; Penghu has rare basalt cliffs; and Taroko Gorge contains a network of excellent hiking trails. Most interesting of all is the fact that the very best hot springs in the world are scattered across Taiwan, especially the Taian Hot Springs.
Not many people include Taiwan on their must-see lists, which is a shame. Many young Westerners come to Taiwan to teach English and find themselves happily surprised with how much they enjoy the friendly people, the varied landscape, and the cosmopolitan modern feel of Taipei. Others who happen across Taiwan are spiritual seekers interested in learning about Buddhism, and even foodies trying to hunt down Taiwanese secret recipes or special ingredients found only in the country's famous night markets. Also a common sight here are computer techies trying to get hold of the latest computer and technical gadgets.
For those who want to get away from mainland Taiwan, a visit to the islands of Penghu, also called the Pescadores, is just the ticket. Penghu has miles of white sand beaches, golden temples, traditional wooden homes with walls made of coral, and best of all, glorious weather in the summer. The winter is a different story, however. This group of islands receives incredibly strong winds, some of the highest in all of the northern hemisphere. This is great for the throngs of windsurfers who come here every winter, but maybe not for regular tourists who want to enjoy the beach without getting blown away. To get to Penghu, you can either take a three hour boat ride or a half-hour flight from mainland Taiwan.
Another get-away highlight that's not well-traveled by tourists is a journey up and down the east coast. And while there, be sure to visit Taroko Gorge, an area full of deep canyons, waterfalls and rocky pools ideal for swimming.