Taiwan has more in common with New Zealand than you may think. It is, for instance, a tiny scrap of land that lives in the shadow of a much, much, much bigger sister to its left (in more ways than one): as we do.
And tiny Taiwan's 23 million inhabitants are preparing to peer out from under the bulk of their neighbour to take their own place on the world stage. It is taking a new "southbound" approach to attract visitors from outside the traditional tourist catchment of China — and that's us.
So here are 14 great reasons to visit Taiwan...
1. THE FOOD
Take a dumpling, those soft pillowy little morsels of mince and/or vegetable goodness.
Ditch the mince and/or vegetable goodness and add chocolate — that's right! Add chocolate. Why have we not thought of until now? The Din Tai Fung dumpling house in central Taipei is world famous for its dumplings and the 30-minute wait time for a table said why.
It does do the mince and vegetable variety of dumpling — along with a cornucopia of flavours that leave you wondering why you feel so full — and you've only had a mouthful of each (of 10-plus) course.
2. THE DRINK
If you like whiskey, have a competitive streak and an unlimited mountain of cash at your disposal there is only one thing to do: build your own distillery. That is what Tien-Tsai Lee did. The Kavalan distillery south of Taipei uses local water but imported ingredients, barrels and equipment.
Meanwhile, in Taichung, they invented a marvellous concoction called bubble tea, which you can mix yourself and then sup through a straw. It's essentially tapioca balls in iced tea but it's deliciously textural. Making the bubble tea is a ritual all in itself.
Meanwhile, in Taichung, they have invented a marvellous concoction called bubble tea, which you can mix yourself and then sup through a straw. It's essentially tapioca balls in iced tea but it's deliciously textural. Making the bubble tea is a ritual all in itself.
Madam Chiang Soong Mei-Ling (the wife of Chiang Kai Shek) had the Grand Hotel in Taipei built between 1953 and 1973 after the nationalists fled China's civil war to set up a government in Taiwan.
The first five-star hotel in Taiwan, it's a marvel of marble and dragons and red — lots of red — that dominates a small rise in Taipei, offering city views across the capital's skyscrapers and the Songshang Airport.
The imposing lobby usually features a musician of some description: be it a violinist, as accompanied our cross-lobby walk on several occasions, or a small orchestra playing traditional Chinese instruments.
But the best bit is in the basement.
A secret tunnel extending from the hotel was an escape route for up to 10,000 people. It leads to a local park (not mainland China as some of us remain convinced) but that isn't even the best bit. The best bit is that you can enter these tunnels via a slide.
It is built for petite Asian bottoms rather than well-rounded Kiwi ones but it would make fleeing for your life much more fun.
4. SHEK OUT
Chiang Kai Shek was an important fellow in these parts and is still spoken of with reverence.
His memory is kept alive in the imperialistic memorial in downtown Taipei (as seen from the 89th floor of the 101). He seems to have been a happy chappie, portrayed in his statuary with a big smile.
Soldiers do a highly synchronised changing of the guard routine in the great hall that involves much swinging of legs and clicking of heels.
5. REDS IN THE BED
Once upon a time Taiwan was a trading point for the Spanish, who built the Fort San Domingo in Taipei's Tamsui District in 1629.
The Dutch East India Company took it over in 1642.
The fort is now a mix of elegant Spanish arches, and statuary sitting on park benches and standing in court yards looking like Dutch burghers of old.
Apparently the fort got its name because, in the eyes of the black-haired Asians, the Dutch had red hair. The English moved in in 1868, adding completely impractical fireplaces when the fort became a consulate, and painting the previously white building red. After the English came the tourists. Their mark can be seen in the gift shop selling keyrings and mugs.
The Tamsui Bridge has become the hotspot for lovers. Why? Because construction finished on Valentine's Day. It is a pretty white arch across the Tamsui River and apparently it is also popular as a place to view the sunset. Unfortunately, a sea fog rolled in and our view was decidedly more moody than romantic.
7. CABBAGES AND MINGS
Taiwan, although an important outpost for the Spanish, Dutch and British empires, was thrust on to the world stage when Chiang Kai Shek fled here after the Chinese civil war.
With him, he brought nearly 3000 shipments of priceless art treasures originally rescued from Beijing's Forbidden City and representing the best art of the imperial dynasties.
China has not yet demanded them back so the treasures are now in the National Palace Museum of Taipei.
Here you can see the playthings of child emperors, the art of the wealthy and the greatest treasure of all: the Jade Cabbage.
I must admit when they said we were going to see a cabbage, I thought they really meant to say "carriage". But no, it's definitely a cabbage. Carved out of jade. Because, well, why not?
8. ARCHITECTURE 101
The 101 building in Taipei, famous for once being the tallest building in the world, offers an ear-poppingly speedy rush to the 89th floor where slightly cantilevered windows let you scare your inner acrophobiac and lean out to peer at the cars miniaturised by distance so far below.
One corner even has a glass floor you can stand on — if your inner acrophobiac has more spine than you thought.
A short video lets you see the construction of the 101, supposedly inspired by a bamboo stalk. To me, it actually looked like a stack of take-out boxes. Sorry.
9. ARCHITECTURE 2
Taichung is a city about an hour and a half south of Taipei by high-speed train, and home to the national theatre. Designed by Japan's Toyo Ito, who has a thing against straight lines — a plastic model reveals a building that looks more like a deformed bodily organ — it's a series of curved tunnels connecting rounded rooms and balconies. It's a marvel of design that almost inspires you to burst into song — and you'd be in the right place, as it's the national opera house.
10. ARCHITECTURE 3
The Cloud Gate Theatre. Built on the site of an old military installation in Taipei, the Cloud Theatre is the home of the national dance group. The theatre was built after their original digs were destroyed in a terrible fire in 2008 - they are remembered in the burned and twisted shipping container that has been dragged up here. I particularly loved the statues of shoppers and tea-drinkers outside.
The fact that at least two of Taiwan's iconic edifices are theatres, will have given you a clue that the Taiwanese are proud of their rich culture. Certainly, their dance troupe is world-renowned, touring hundreds of shows to hundreds of countries.
And there is an ulterior motive in these tours: they are a stepping stone for Taiwan to conquer the world. The hope is that audiences will be so thrilled with the spellbinding action on stage they will immediately pack their bags to see where such enchantment came from.
11. LEAVING ON A JET TRAIN
For such a populated city, Taipei's traffic is surprisingly easy to navigate. At no time were we caught in lengthy traffic jams on the extensive motorways, which our guide assured us was due to the efficiency of public transport.
We took the high speed train to Taichung and were impressed with its efficiency and cleanliness.
A fellow traveller who left his phone on the train was, however, less impressed when his phone was nowhere to be found despite his sprinting back to the platform even as the train was pulling out and notifying staff that a fatherless phone was onboard.
It was never seen again.
12. LET'S TALK ABOUT SAX
Chang Lien-Chen was the son of peasant farmers who inexplicably fell totally in love with the saxophone. And he fell hard.
He managed to form a band that included the country's sole saxophone - it was worth about as much as half a hectare of land - but then it was virtually destroyed by fire.
Undeterred, Chen painstakingly took the instrument apart and recreated it, building each individual piece from scratch. Even being partially blinded when a piece of metal got in his eye couldn't kill his dream.
Now, his grandchildren produce about 6000 saxophones a year and pretty much make up Taiwan's entire saxophone industry. You can see Lien-Chen's legacy at a surprisingly interesting museum in Taichung. The local English teacher is dragged from the nearby school to explain Lien-Chen's history and show us all the sax parts lined up in dazzling rows, and to see a sax being built. We then formed into a ragtime band, successfully coaxing "so, la, me" from our saxes.
13. MARY LEU
She is the Michelangelo of wood, producing unbelievably lifelike sculptures from single logs: think hairs on a plant stem. Your mind will be blown as you struggle to conceive how it is even possible to extract a praying mantis out of wood. You need to see it for yourself.
14. PHOTO OP
Taiwan is the land of the selfie. I'm the kind of polite person who tries not to walk in front of someone with a camera but here, you're more likely to photobomb a stranger's memory if you walk behind them. And moulded plastic statues are just about everywhere, adding colour to a dull selfie.
flies from Auckland to Taipei, via Sydney, with return Economy Class flights starting from $1182.23 (for departures until July 7 and from July 24-September 29 and from October 1-December 17).
Further information: See eng.taiwan.net.tw.