August 28, 2011
Michelin Green Guide offers up best of Taiwan

Producing travel guides is a tricky business. Readers of these publications are the most demanding of creatures, requiring content, photographs, maps, design and functionality to be without peer. Fail in one area, and the book is devalued, almost worthless as a sum. Succeed in only a few, and the result is still the same.

Fortunately, the good folk at Michelin are more than familiar with this maxim, successfully navigating their way around most potential pitfalls en route to publishing the praiseworthy English version of the "Michelin Green Guide Taiwan." This 388-page veritable fountain of knowledge, which includes 15 easy-to-use color maps and a hefty assortment of eye-catching photographs and illustrations, stands as a lesson in how to do it right when tackling a project of this magnitude.

An invaluable tool for travelers both before and during their trip, the guide is divided into three parts: blue for Planning Your Trip, orange for Introduction and green for Discovering. In addition, the green advice boxes are overflowing with practical tips and handy information relevant to the attractions featured in Discovering.

In Planning Your Trip, the book suggests four itineraries for driving tours that permit travelers to discover Taiwan's unique scenery. These include tea plantations, temples and Taiwan's many hot springs. Other suggestions extend to hikes for walkers of all levels, as well as opportunities for swimming and cycling.

The guide also features activities for families and a schedule of popular events such as the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, Yanshui Fireworks Festival and Dajia Mazu pilgrimage. This section also contains a smorgasbord of information travelers should know before they go, including useful words and phrases in Mandarin.

The second section-Introduction to Taiwan-contains an overview of local society, habits and customs, and traditional hospitality, with a focus on the island's diverse culinary heritage that mixes elements of traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking. This section also helps readers understand the fascinating history of the island, which was long known as Formosa.

Discovering Taiwan-the third section of the guide-provides more detailed information on the sites to visit. It is divided into six regions extending from Taipei, the island's modern, cosmopolitan capital, to the picturesque East Coast, where the beauty of Taiwan's environment has to be seen to be believed. The map on the cover flap enables readers to see in a glance the island's important sites and their ratings. These sites are then covered in detail, along with suggested lodging accommodations and restaurants with an eye toward all budgets.

The fact that Michelin has hit a home run with this book should hardly come as a surprise. The company has made a nice little earner out of creating world-class guides and detailed maps to direct travelers on their way. Today, Michelin sells more than 10 million maps and guides each year.

But perhaps the firm's greatest contribution to global travel is its fondness for classifying a destination's attractions. As controversial French author Michel Houellebecq wrote in his novella "Lanzarote," this is the company that "perfected the famous 'Guide Michelin,' whose ingenious system of star ratings for the first time made it possible for the world to be systematically categorized according to its potential pleasures."

It is a good thing then that the pleasures of Taiwan are many. The guide lists 38 towns and regions across the island as three-star highlyrecommended, 142 as two-star recommended and 138 as one-star interesting.

Regardless of the guide or destination, stars are always awarded according to the same Michelin criteria: the impression made on the visitor upon arrival, the site's renown, cultural heritage, convenience and visitor-friendliness, authenticity and charm, the quality of the reception, and other factors.

Highly recommended destinations include Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Danshui Township, Longshan Temple, National Palace Museum, Tainan City, Taipei 101 and Kenting National Park. Recommended ratings are given to destinations such as Hsinchu City, Jade Mountain, Kaohsiung City, Orchid Island, Penghu County and Sun Moon Lake.

Describing Taiwan as a place more complex than California's Silicon Valley, the book claims that "As soon as you arrive in Taipei you will be bowled over by Taipei 101, a skyscraper symbolizing the economic strength of this modern metropolis. And as you take a closer look, though, you will also get a glimpse of ancient Formosa in the teahouses, magnificent temples packed with visitors, and sumptuous religious processions."

According to the guide, Taiwanese society fuses Eastern and Western cultures, oozing a special ambience that combines tradition and modernity. This unique quality, in addition to the comfort and convenience of traveling in country, makes the island a top destination for people from all walks of life.

An example of this old world travel experience, the book states, is illustrated by Taiwan's taxi drivers, many of whom speak basic English and provide excellent service without expecting tips. In addition, visitors can find clean restrooms at Mass Rapid Transit stations in Taipei and Kaohsiung, round-the-clock convenience stores everywhere, and free wireless Internet access in public places.

The guide was launched worldwide with much fanfare at Taiwan's New York representative office Feb. 17 in conjunction with the annual 13-day Lantern Festival in Miaoli County, commonly regarded as one of the most important and romantic national celebrations in Taiwan. Invited guests, including ROC government officials, representatives of Michelin and major U.S. media organizations such as ABC, CBS, CNN and The New York Times, discussed the book's many merits while nibbling on a sumptuous selection of glutinous rice dumplings and other traditional Taiwanese delicacies.

By event's end, the general consensus was that the latest addition to the Green Guide series, compiled by 10 foreign writers over three years, did a bang-up job of promoting a unique side of Taiwan and making visitors want to plan return trips. The dozens of visits to Taiwan by Florent Bonnefoy, travel guide manager of Michelin Maps and Guides: Greater China, who doubled as project manager when compiling the book, obviously paid dividends.

Since the English version of the book was released April 1, it has sold well and is proving popular in the European and U.S. markets. Taiwan is the fourth country in Asia to be covered by Michelin, after Japan, Singapore and Thailand, with the publisher reportedly considering the merits of commencing a revised version.

The timing of the guide could not be better as Taiwan's tourism industry looks set for big things in 2011. Last year, the island welcomed an all-time high of 5.57 million visitors and is poised to exceed the goal of six million by year-end. As of April, 1.92 million visitors had arrived in Taiwan-a year-on-year increase of 9.48 percent and in line with Tourism Bureau projections.

Michelin is also working on releasing a simplified Chinese version of the book, which makes perfect sense given that Taiwan's new independent travel program is set to bring hundreds of thousands of tourists from mainland China to the island every year.

Since Taiwan further opened to mainland Chinese tour groups three years ago, more than 3.3 million visitors have travelled to its shores, generating NT$195.8 billion (US$6.57 billion) in tourism revenue. These tourists are expected to create business worth between NT$9 billion and NT$15 billion annually, making this a valuable and growing segment of Taiwan's international tourism market.

Taiwan's array of scenic and cultural assets are major draws for middle-class tourists from the West and more affluent parts of the East seeking special wanderlust experiences without too much risk or inconvenience. Top-notch travel guides play an integral role in unlocking such destinations, so for those looking to acquire useful knowledge of Taiwan before setting out on their journeys, the "Michelin Green Guide Taiwan" is mandatory reading.

John Wren is a freelance writer based in Keelung. Copyright 2011 by John Wren

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