The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: Guidebook for Taiwan by National Geographic

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jul• 18•11

Whenever we’re in a foreign country, we here at WoWasis always travel with a guidebook: they’re easier to use and markup than online guides, and we always end up running across stuff by accident that we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Our local bookshop only carried one guidebook for Taiwan, and that’s how we acquired (and soon began using) veteran Asia writer Phil Macdonald’s National Geographic Traveler: Taiwan (2011, ISBN 9781426207174). We don’t like panning books (we don’t like dwelling on the negative), but we’ve used this book, and we have some concerns about its usefulness. There are some good points to the book, but there some caveats, too, and they’re important.

Taiwan’s a fascinating place that has great museums in Taipei, coral reef scuba diving and snorkeling in the south, the magnificent Toroko Gorge, the spectacular Jiji railway, and tons of beautiful vistas along the coast. The guidebook is easily divided into 5 color-coded sections, each for a different area of the country. The territorial area maps are good (though city maps are almost non-existent), superior venues highlighted, and Macdonald provides interesting commentary and historical items throughout. The guidebook is in its 3rd edition, but doesn’t differ very much from the 2nd edition, which is the one we use. One of the best elements of the book is its sturdy plastic-coated cardboard cover, with flaps front and rear that are easily used for bookmarking while on the road. This book can take a beating. At 270 pages, it’s compact, and useful. We would have liked a couple of blank notes pages at the end, because we’re inveterate note-takers, but we carry a small notebook anyway for that sort of thing, so it’s not even a minor annoyance. Our feeling is that the dearth of city maps and lack of blank notes pages was the publisher’s call, not the writer’s.

Perhaps the strongest caveat to the book was our feeling that perhaps the author hadn’t really visited all those places he was writing about. The ferry to Green Island would be one example. The Fugang harbor signage was poor or non-existent to the ferry port, the ferry doesn’t hold cars (we had a rented car), you can stay at a hotel on the island, and you can park your car near the ferry terminal on the mainland. None of this important stuff was in the book, so when we found that the last ferry was at 4:30 pm (that wasn’t in the book either), we really didn’t have the time to quickly pack overnight gear and head off to the island. But we actually had to drive there ourselves to find all this stuff out, which is why you’re reading it here in the WoWasis blog. If we could have written about it, so could have Macdonald. That’s what a guidebook is for, isn’t it?

Another example: In Beitou (p. 102), he refers the reader to a place called “Hell Valley.” That’s not how it’s signed (it’s “Thermal Velley”). After mis-naming it, he doen’t say that the sign is fairly well hidden on the left-hand size of the road. Has he ever been there?

During the time we’ve used this book, we’ve taken wild goose chases (poor directions) enough that we’ve burned a lot of time. 

We also would have loved it if the author had been a bit more critical of the crass commercialism at some spots that most travelers, we’d imagine, would find as annoying as we did. There’s no longer free parking at Basian caves, due to the fact that the area that could have been used for parking was taken up by a series of t-shirt, sunglasses, and trinket shops. So now you have to pay for parking to have the privilege of walking past the junk stores on the way to the caves. This sort of obnoxious behavior will always propagate if no one’s willing to call attention to it. short in actual fireld tests.  

We originally recommeded this book for a number of reasons, but have since found that it comes up short in actual field tests. Too many wild goose chases, too much time lost with this one.

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