Travel

Touring Taipei? Dig deeper into Da'an

If you have visited Taipei before, try zooming in to a particular district for an in-depth look

I have lost count of the number of times - around 50 is my guess - that I have been to Taipei.

Work first took me there, and I have been hooked on the Taiwanese capital since.

It is a juxtaposition of modern and traditional, where a bustling commercial city flourishes amid lush forests and verdant mountains, where skyscrapers and mega malls coexist with centuries-old temples and night markets.

Plus, good food abounds.

This time, instead of trying to see as much as possible while in Taipei, I zoomed in on a particular district and explored, unearthing gems along the way.

With wide, tree-lined boulevards, good restaurants, kooky and cool bars, upmarket lifestyle stores, and also its proximity to special art zones, Da'an is one place worth discovering.

Da'an is in the east of Taipei, and is bordered by Xinyi, another district with similar residential demographics and lifestyle offerings.

When in need of refreshments, head for Cha Cha The on Fuxing South Road.

I could not think of a better place to extend my afternoon of cultural pursuits than at the elegant teahouse owned by local fashion designer Shiatzy Chen.

The understated interiors with lots of wood and linear forms were co-designed by the late Jaya Ibrahim, who was well-known for designing spiritual luxury resort Amanjiwo in Borobudur, Indonesia.

Ten minutes away on foot is the Taiwanese outpost (and first overseas one, followed by Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong) of L'Officine Universelle Buly, a 19th-century French apothecary's outlet restored by the founder of cult candle brand Cire Trudon. It is not yet available in Singapore, and therefore a must-visit for me.

I love Cire Trudon for its use of natural ingredients and romantic packaging that looks straight out of 19th-century Paris.

For some local immersion, I dropped by Da'an Forest Park, the largest park in Taipei, and the city's answer to New York's Central Park.

There are 11 entrances to the 26 ha space, so there is much ground to cover and it is perfect for people-watching. My favourite part of the park is the pond at the northern end, home to fish, turtles and birds.

If you like a slice of Taipei's famous night markets, yet do not want to deal with crowds, the smallish Tonghua Night Market is less touristy than its famous counterparts Raohe and Shilin.

Night markets and street food are so much a part of local life, you should not be surprised to see celebrities queuing at the famous Taiwanese fried chicken popcorn stall at the crossroads of Linjiang and Tonghua streets.

If you like juicy pan-fried pork buns, go to the end of the market where Keelung is - they are out within three hours of opening at 9pm.

Most of the stalls close by 2am, but Taipei is so safe that I have never worried about returning to my hotel in the wee hours of the morning by taxi.

My top picks for sleeps in Da'an are Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel on Dunhua South Road and Hotel Proverbs on Da'an Road - each very different from the other.

Still fresh from a US$20 million (S$27 million) renovation two years ago, the Shangri-La wears an updated Oriental look, with Chinese artwork by local artists and latticed woodwork in the rooms inspired by Song Dynasty window frames.

It has 420 rooms and suites, plus a wide range of restaurants and bars featuring Shanghainese, Cantonese, Italian and Japanese cuisine.

On the other hand, Hotel Proverbs is a boutique design hotel. Taiwanese designer Ray Chen was inspired by the 19th-century Proverbios prints by Spanish painter Francisco Goya to create a dark, surreal environment by using copper-plated finishing amd sombre lighting.

Accents of dark metals and leather add to a masculine feel.

It has just 42 rooms and suites, but there is a steak and chophouse, a bakery and an award-winning bar.

And do not worry about going hungry if none of these strike your fancy.

The hotel commands prime location - in the middle of a hot and happening stretch in the district, and within walking distance of plenty of shopping, food and recreation options.

TOURISM & TRAVEL