Taiwan is an island of contrasts. Its modern, bustling cityscapes often make up a visitor's first impression. But venture a little farther afield from its urban centers and you'll discover the world's greatest variety of natural springs. Hot springs, cold springs, mud springs and salt-water hot springs – whatever the season, Taiwan has the perfect natural spring for you.
Yangmingshan Hot Springs are located within the beautiful, mountainous Yangmingshan National Park. Just a 30-minute car ride from Taipei, they are a popular destination with the Taiwanese.
There are four main hot-spring areas in this volcanic vicinity: Yangmingshan Hot Spring Area, Coldwater Depression, Macao and Gengziping. Each has its own unique characteristics and therapeutic benefits. The water at Coldwater Depression is, you guessed it, not as hot as the hot springs in the other three areas. At around 104°F (40°C), it is milky white in color and said to be therapeutic for those with chronic arthritis, muscular aches and pain. Ladies flock to the Macao Hot Springs which are supposed to be good for treating feminine ailments.
After you're suitably soaked and relaxed, be sure to enjoy some of the healthy vegetables that grow in the area. Cabbage, sweet peppers and cucumbers thrive due to the combination of the high altitude of Yangmingshan and its hot-spring waters. These vegetables are key ingredients in many of the dishes sold here.
A visit to the hot springs is a great excuse to make a day of it and explore the surrounding national park, either on foot or by renting a bicycle. The park is made up of several peaks; so if you are feeling adventurous you can head to the top to enjoy the views, or content yourself with admiring the rivers and streams in the many valleys.
Cold mineral springs are rare and Su'ao is one of the few places in the world where you can find them. The waters are around 71.6°F (22°C), and they are completely clear and odorless. But what makes Su'ao unique is the high CO2 content of its waters. At 68ppm, it's so high that the water here was once used to make naturally carbonated soda.
The water is cooler than the human body, so expect a shock when you first climb in. But you'll soon acclimatize and it is possible to sit for some time to enjoy the sensation. When the option of a nearby hot spring presents itself, many visitors prefer to alternate between the cold and hot waters as this stimulates blood circulation.
The cold springs are less than 300ft (about 100m) from the train station, making Su'ao a great place to stop off for a few hours. If you have time, why not stay for lunch? Be sure to finish off your meal with some yokan – red-bean jelly made using the local waters.
For the ultimate skin treatment, try the mud springs at Guanziling. One of only three mud spring hotspots of this kind in the world, the mud here is of a rare cloudy type. Formed from mineral clay and packed with nutrients, it is believed to alleviate skin allergies and exhaustion, and is said to have a beautifying effect on the skin.
To enjoy a mud spring, rub the mud all over your body, then relax as you let it dry naturally. Then, scrub off the dried mud, which leaves your skin feeling wonderfully smooth. The sight of dozens of people covered from head to toe in thick grey mud can take some getting used to, but it all adds to the richness of the experience.
At some spas you will also find mud infused with apple, tea and other plant extracts to further enhance the therapeutic effects.
While you're in the area, be sure to visit the nearby Fire and Water Spring. Here, fire and water curiously coexist as natural gas and hot spring water escape the rocky walls – although legend would have you believe that a fiery dragon and a water tiger once fought here a long time ago before they called it a truce and decided to join together as fire and water.
The Taiwanese love traditional health treatments and leisure activities to go with their natural springs. So what better way to enjoy the experience than to do as the Taiwanese do? You could, for example, bike from hot spring to hot spring and catch magnificent views of the peaks of Yangmingshan. Yangmingshan National Park is known for more than its hot springs. The Taiwanese gravitate towards it for its mountainous scenery as well. Biking trails feature prominently here, and they make for a great way to explore the mountains, hot springs, and all the park has to offer.
For a more leisurely itinerary, you could also opt for acupuncture to follow your soak in the springs. Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, from pain to anxiety. By inserting very thin needles into specific parts of the body, acupuncture helps balance the energy flow within you. Wherever you are in Taiwan, it is a good bet that you won't have to go far to find an acupuncture center.
Chinese naprapathy (deep tissue massage) and foot massages are also wildly popular, which means they tend to be competitively priced. Expect to see a room full of people, where therapists work their magic on tired limbs and sore backs.
No trip to Taiwan's natural springs is complete without a nourishing dose of healthy "medicinal foods". It is believed that such foods have the ability to improve a person's physical wellbeing, and they are an integral part of the Taiwanese diet. Comfort foods such as Herbal Sparerib Soup and Ginger Duck are, in fact, popular features of the traditional "medicinal" cuisine – and a great way to end a healthful excursion to the natural therapeutic springs of Taiwan.