Personally, I've been to Hualien before and also to Taroko Gorge, but Qiuhan hadn't thus we decided to make a trip there since it was on the way down to Kenting and she had heard amazing things about it (MUST-GO!! said her colleague). For me i'd say give it a miss if you've been before.
How to go: Upon reaching Taipei Main station, take the TRA to Hualien. It's connected to the TMS metro via an underground pass, very straightforward and easy to find, if unsure just as the friendly local staff. A couple of photos below of the journey on the TRA for your reference:
We left Taipei rather early (before 10) and reached just in time for late lunch. Exiting the Hualien TRA, there's a taxi stand just further down where you can hail a cab to your minsu/hotel. We had booked Manado hostel for 2 nights, a family-run minsu a short cab ride (10-15min) away from the train station. Minsu review can be found at the end of this post.
By the time we reached the hostel we were famished! Luckily the minsu owner (Anuty Qiuliang) was about to head out for some errands and offered to drop us at a good sushi place just round the corner (10-15min walk).
waiting for the rest of the sushi
We hadn't had anything planned for the rest of the day yet (we intended to head for Taroko the next day), so we booked a half-day tour with the minsu staff. It cost about 1800NTD for the 2 of us. Our driver, a kindly middle-aged man, was very soft-spoken and friendly. The first place he dropped us off was Jian ChinXiu 吉安慶修院, an old japanese-style buddhist temple.
Upon entering the temple we made our way to the side to wash our hands before paying respects to the buddha statues. Had a bit of fun, water very cool and calming :)
The guide explained that in Japan, some devout followers have the habit of going on a pilgrimage to 88 of the shrines or temples throughout the whole of japan. When these followers came to taiwan during the occupation, to follow through with this tradition, 88 statues of buddha were erected here.
The temple has a picturesque landscape garden, a small store selling knick-knacks and souvenirs, as well as an area you can pay a token to write a wish or blessing to dedicate to hang at the temple.
some pretty windchimes
Following this, along the route to the next destination, we had some really yummy yam with ice. They have a variety of combination toppings e.g. grass jelly, red bean etc to go with the yam and yam balls. I can't recall the shop name now but it seems famous as there were a couple of people who did self-drive there just for it.
Next he brought us to Li Yu Tan 鲤鱼墰, a beautiful lake that offers a variety of activities including paddle-boating. It was raining on the day we visited and we weren't feeling particularly adventurous so we gave it a miss but our drive told us it's fairly popular in summer when the weather is kinder.
Following this the guide took us to a special place ;)
Very few people, mostly tourists there, it was really beautiful and extremely intimate!
If you're going to hualien and would like to know where this is, leave me a comment and i'll get back to you privately! Don't want too many people to find out about it and for it to become a mainstream attraction :(
On day 2, we woke up to an early start and made our way to the world famous Taroko National Park, home to the Taroko Gorge (read: number 1 destination in taiwan for china tourists, according to our guide/driver) For first-timers to Hualien it is the top must-go. Just be prepared to walk a fair bit and also compete with hoards of China tourists from tour buses.
It's impossible to complete all trails in the park within a day so allocate 2 days if you're a nature buff, but to me having gone prior (and having been to china 4677429863651 times and seen so much of similar things) one day was enough. Try to book a day trip with a driver as it's much more convenient.
If you go by the 台湾好行 bus it's also possible but note that intervals between buses could be 1-2 hours so you waste a lot of precious time waiting or walking in the tunnels (there are loads of them).
I shan't elaborate about the sights as they are fairly standard and most tour guides would certainly do a better job of explaining them than me, so some photos for your viewing:
At Ching-Shui Cliff.
our travel companions, friendly pair of girls from china :)
in the trail area and out enjoying the breeze
bats in the tunnel!
exiting the tunnel
Next we headed to Chishingtan Beach 七星墰, which although touristy, is really worth a visit. Just sitting there, with loads of other locals and tourists (more locals than tourists though!), enjoying the seabreeze against your temples, trying to find interesting looking stones can be really relaxing.
a photo to remember, don't bring them back!
For evening activities, as our guide mentioned, there isn't really a proper night market in Hualien-proper in the sense it totally can't compare in terms of quality nor quantity of stalls to Taipei/taichung, but there are a few good eats, like the 卤味 and 棺材板 from the night market.
There are 2 stalls famous for 棺材板 but the more traditional one was closed the night we went. We queued for the french-style one, took about 20 minutes and the queue was getting longer as we left.
staff busy at work
Aside from the night market, during the 2nd night we also explored the shopping district and town area, which has it's fair share of small stores and quirky buys.
There are a couple of nice eats in town, such as Dai's dumping or Mr goose but having tried these i feel that they weren't particularly amazing. Have a try yourself and let me know if you disagree!
Last but not least i leave you with this picture: 曾记蔴糬 - must buy in Hualien. Well, there's some debate to whether it's the best; there's 阿美 and another 曾brand but they're essentially rather similar, so just buy whichever you please. quite convenient as they have stores near the city centre and also on the way back from Taroko gorge.
The freshly made one is a must buy really! If you hate lugging stuff back then maybe not this because it's not packaged in such a nice way (not convenient to put in luggage, takes up loads of space). you can also get the individually wrapped single ones, perfect for giving colleagues and people you're not close to but am obliged to give gifts to, ha.
Accomodation: There are loads of minsu for you to choose from within hualien but we picked Manado hostel , a 3 storey homely minsu based on it's sparkling reviews. It cost us about $80 a night for 2 of us including breakfast. Pros are the lovely decor, comfortable environment, helpful staff and owner, comfy rooms and the really tasty breakfast.
The biggest con is the location- it's really out of town, about a 15 min ride via cab, which though not expensive, did irk us a little. Aside from that we had a 3rd floor room, which was ok with us but might be a problem with those who don't pack light.
dining room area
counter and living room area
near the first floor washroom
comfy beds and comforter
yummy sandwiches, soy milk and potato salad :)