Sun Moon Lake revisited:
New technology meets an old tourist favorite
By Karen Sims
Photos provided by Douglas Habecker and The Tourism Bureau, Ministry of Transportation
and Communication: Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Ita Thao Management Station
Translated by Anna Yang
A visit to central Taiwan would be incomplete without a trip to the island's largest fresh-water body, Sun Moon Lake. Fortunately, in an effort to encourage easier travel for independent travelers, Sun Moon Lake attractions can now be accessed by scanning a special version of the EasyCard created by the Industrial Technology Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes a shift of Taiwan's economy toward high-tech industries.
Transportation and meals can all be purchased beforehand and credited on the card, allowing for convenient, prearranged travel without the restrictions of a giant tour bus and group. Simply buy an eTicket online at i3travel.welcometw.com or through Cingjing Travel Agency and choose from a variety of packages, or customize your own package, then pick up the eTicket at Taichung's High Speed Rail or Taiwan Railway stations. The eTicket can also be purchased directly at these stations, but with fewer options and without meals. Easy and affordable, the eTicket platform allows individuals or small groups of travelers to enjoy Sun Moon Lake's long-time attractions with a new high-tech itinerary that fits comfortably in their pockets.
Getting to the lake's Zhongxing station
Once you pick up your eTicket at the HSR or railway station, you can catch a Nantou Tour Bus that will take you to the lake. The eTicket not only includes transportation from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake's Zhongxing Parking/Delight Mall/Shuishe Visitor Center stop, but also rides on the electric shuttle buses that circle the lake. Certain Nantou Tour buses also make a stop at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village. Frequency to major destinations is every 20-30 minutes, and timetables can be found in brochures at the tourist centers. Visitors can get on and off as they please and easily access the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway (cable car), ferries, lakeside walkways, or bike paths (and bike rentals), which can also be added to visitors' eTicket packages. Besides excellent perspectives of the lake from the sky, the ropeway also transports visitors from the lake (near Ita Thao Pier) to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village Station.
Exploring the lake by bike
Bicycle companies like Giant have rental stations at the Zhongxing Parking stop, Xiangshang Visitor Center, and Ita Thao Pier. Much of the bike path is flat, comfortable and follows the lake's circumference. Using the eTicket, visitors can rent bikes from Giant prior to their visit. These include a bottle of water and a bike with a basket (electric bikes are also available). The trails are not difficult and are suitable for families, providing great views and numerous photo opportunities along the way.
Ita Thao Pier
On Thursdays, the scenic Ita Thao Pier hosts aboriginal performances and, even during other days of the week, there are some shops and food stalls here selling indigenous snacks, souvenirs and Sun Moon Lake delicacies such as black tea or tea eggs. The spacious, well-maintained pier is a great place to view the lake and offers pleasant strolls down its boardwalks. Ferry tickets to Xuanguang Temple or Shuishe Pier can be purchased here at a cruise ship-shaped building or purchased beforehand via an eTicket as part of your travel package. Currently, you need to scan your eTicket at the ticket counter in exchange for a physical ferry ticket but, in the future, you'll be able to scan your card directly on the ferry.
From Ita Thao, visitors can take a scenic ferry ride over to Xuanguang Temple, which also has a shuttle bus station. According to legend, this temple is a final resting place for an artifact of Master Xuanzang from "Journey to the West". From the pier, the short shaded walk up to the temple includes a couple fruit stalls and religious entities hoping for donations, and the temple itself is a compact, simply-built structure with a fine overlooking view of the lake. However, the biggest tourist attraction here seems to be the famous "Grandma's Tea Eggs", made with a special recipe that includes mushrooms. Supposedly, these eggs have been sold for over five decades and sales often surpass a thousand tea eggs a day.
Aboriginal set lunch at Shuishe Pier
Catching another ferry from Xuanguang Temple, visitors can cross the lake to Shuishe Pier, where certain restaurants offer special meals with the eTicket. Choose a restaurant online beforehand and add it to a customized eTicket package to avoid waiting for seats or fumbling for cash at the eatery. Harbour Resort's restaurant is right off the pier and offers an unforgettable Thao set meal that is an option with the eTicket. Customers scan their cards, then choose either Pig Knuckle, Three-Cup Chicken, or Roasted Pork as a main entree. The aboriginal-style meals come with veggies, side dishes, soup, dessert, and a drink (black tea or millet wine) and are served on traditional woven baskets with wooden tableware, including an impressive hand-carved drinking goblet.
Besides lunch, Shuishe Pier is also a great place to grab some souvenirs or relax at Meihe Garden. The raised plaza has a sprawling, romantic view of the lake during the day and becomes a bustling hangout/bar in the evenings. It is also where the Hanbi Hiking Trail begins. Next to Shuishe Pier is the Delight Mall visitor center/Zhongxing Parking, so transportation by tour bus, bike, shuttle or ferry are all available here with a simple swipe of your card..
Xiangshan Visitor Center
The easiest way to get to the architecturally-striking Xiangshan Visitor Center is by bus, although taking the bike trail from Shuishe is definitely a fun and popular option. The visitor center not only has an administrative function, but is also a popular location for wedding photos because of its unique appearance and impressive views of the lake. Besides restrooms, a prayer area, gift shop and cafe, Xiangshan Visitor Center also has a small, but free, gallery that hosts interesting cultural, historical or geographical exhibitions. Other than coffee, tea, desserts and meals, the cafe also sells refreshing tea jelly made with local tea and, of course, Sun Moon Lake's famed mushroom-infused tea eggs. An afternoon tea set is available as an eTicket option that includes a tea egg, tea jelly, and hot or cold coffee. The center's lighting also give it a distinct look and feel at night, and its location by a stop for Nantou Tour Buses heading back to Taichung makes it a convenient place to conclude an easy, eTicket day-trip to a distinctly less touristy, more personalized, Sun Moon Lake.