Fresh from their defeat on the mainland at the hands of China's Communists, the nationalist Kuomintang army set about conquering the treacherous cliffs and impenetrable mountains of central Taiwan in the 1950s by building the Central Cross-Island Highway. Running from Hualien on the east coast to Taichung on the west, the 122-mile road is an engineering and scenic marvel. On its way to 9,100 feet above sea level, the highway runs through marble-walled tunnels into the Taroko Gorge, one of the natural wonders of Asia.

The wild area is now more accessible than ever, thanks to the recent opening of the Grand Formosa Taroko, a sister to Taipei's luxurious Grand Formosa Regent. Located in Tienhsiang, at the upper end of the gorge, the hotel is the ideal spot to mix hiking with a bit of history. In this homeland of the Atayal, one of Taiwan's nine aboriginal peoples, you'll see why the early Portuguese explorers called Taiwan Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island.

Getting there is painless. The $73 roundtrip flight between Taipei and Hualien takes just 30 minutes each way. The hotel will pick you up in a bus for the hour-long ride through the gorge to Tienhsiang, a small tourist stop where two gorges meet.

The brick-and-glass Formosa hotel sits in the fork of two streams. The rooms, at $153 a night for a single or double including breakfast, are spacious and comfortable. Some have balconies overlooking one of the rivers. The hotel has two swimming pools, a tennis court, and squash courts, a sauna, and a small fitness center. The staff is friendly and eager, but still learning the ropes, and the Western buffet-style restaurant has a long way to go. Try the Chinese restaurant instead.

The hotel offers bus tours of the area that can get you to starting points for walks. But for information about hikes and the area in general, ask at the Taroko National Park visitors' center across the road. Staffers speak and have maps in English.

Views of mountain peaks and lush jungle are everywhere, so you don't have to go far to enjoy the scenery. A suspension footbridge crosses the Tatzuchili River to a Buddhist temple directly opposite the hotel. Walks to Baiyang Waterfall and a lookout pavilion up a steep trail take under two hours round-trip. For a soothing soak, walk up the road to Wenshan Hot Springs.

SWITCHBACK. For a longer day hike, head up the valley to Meiyuan (Plum Garden) and Chutsun (Bamboo Village). The villages were settled by retired soldiers who received land from the government after the highway was completed in 1961. Many used their saved army wages to purchase local aborigine women as brides.

To get there, take a 10-minute bus ride up the main road to the trailhead at the 180-degree switchback. It's a flattish walk you can do in sneakers that brings you deep into the heart of an unspoiled canyon. Allow five to six hours at a comfortable pace for the 11-mile hike up to Chutsun and back to the road. Meiyuan on the same trail is 2.3 miles closer.

At one time, more than 100 retired soldiers lived in Chutsun. Now just 10 subsistence farmers remain. One is Bi Hsiu-yi, 88, who has been living here since 1962. Bi fought against the Japanese in his native province of Shandong and against the Communists near Beijing, settling in the village after he was decommissioned. He hasn't been to Taipei since 1962. ''It's not a good place for an old man to go,'' he says. ''I have a good place here. The clean air, the water, the environment--it keeps me young.''

For another easy canyon hike, take the hotel bus to Shenmiku (Mysterious Valley). The three-hour walk begins from the toll booth at the national park entrance. The jungle terrain looks more like the setting from Jurassic Park than the mountainous Chutsun walk. Be sure to take a dip in the clear pools.

If you have the time and desire, real mountain hikes are accessible from the highway at Hohuanshan (Harmonious Happiness Mountain) and Hsuehshan (Snow Mountain). Farther south is Taiwan's most famous peak, Yushan (Jade Mountain), which at 12,844 feet is the tallest in East Asia outside the Himalayas. Taiwan's wild interior is a short hop, but a long way from crowded and polluted Taipei.

By Jonathan Moore


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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