Near Taroko Gorge National Park is a coffee farm cross homestay, boasting the crème de la crème of good-natured hospitality — plus dollops of unexpected cultural insights and even a shot of music.
You know you’ve picked the right B&B/homestay when, as soon as you walk in, you find yourself surrounded by photos, cards and letters of gratitude on display from previous guests.
This is my thesis. My theorem, if you will.
Ground-breaking stuff, I know.*
This little epiphany of sorts struck me, as you may have gathered from the title, as soon as I set foot in the Sialin Coffee Farm, a homestay near Taroko Gorge National Park.
The online reviews had been glowing, but it was when I saw this praise in hard copy that I knew then we were in for something special. To have the bother to write a hand-written note is one thing; but to have the bother to fork out money to have it sent internationally, via post, in the 21st century???** What better metric could there possibly be for gauging the warmth of a lodging’s hospitality than this?
And, as you may also have gathered from sheer common sense, my hypothesis did not let me down.
This humble coffee farm come homestay, run by husband-and-wife team Boya and Lisa, is unlike anywhere else in the world. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker. Here’s why.
Beyond the bubble tea: Taiwan’s frothing coffee culture
The Sialin Coffee Farm is home to some 2000 coffee plants. Lisa and Boya also roast the beans themselves on site — talk about paddock-to-mug(?) dining. Admittedly, I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t actually drink coffee, so this selling point was wasted on me by default. But if unlike me you are a normal Western adult, and fresh, tasty, locally sourced coffee is your cup of — ahem — tea, this is the place for you. (Last dodgy beverage-related pun, I swear.)
Though a coffee farm may seem kinda random in Taiwan of all places — a country famed for bubble tea — the coffee culture here is both stronger and older than you’d expect. Tracing the backstory of how unexpected foods, crops and, yes, beverages reached countries far from their source origin in the pre-globalisation era never fails to unravel a story with a strong geopolitical undercurrent. And Taiwanese coffee is no exception. It dates back to the 1600s when the Dutch East India Company introduced the crop here, envisioning this island as an ideal coffee plantation.***
If you didn’t know that the Dutch colonised Taiwan, I don’t blame you — the Spanish and Portuguese had a crack too, albeit with less success —and all up none of the European outposts on the island lasted beyond a generation.
More importantly, many visitors here don’t know that Taiwan is home to a diverse range of Aboriginal peoples. Numbering around 2% of the country’s population today, Indigenous Taiwanese people predate others on the island by a good 5,000 years at least and likely more. And research in fields as far removed as linguistics and, more recently, DNA testing suggests some of Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples have strong, ancient ties to the northern Philippines, Polynesia and Micronesia; some theorise that Taiwan may have even been something of an origin place. It’s fascinating.****
In the wake of the Dutch colonial period, it was the Chinese empire that emerged as the dominant power on Taiwan. As for those coffee plantations? Even in the most successful coffee-growing regions there was a lapse:
Coffee growing there then went by the wayside, and it’s said that the only use for the red bean was as a form of decoration by Aboriginals.
While coffee has fallen in and out of favour in Taiwan over the centuries, seemingly leapfrogging its more traditional rival, tea, today many count its café culture and local brews among East Asia’s best. In other words, your cuppa is in safe hands here.
With that whirlwind coffee-centric cultural history lesson out of the way, let’s get back to the homestay.
Home sweet home
Come for the coffee (or not, in my case); stay for the hospitality. The Sialin Coffee Farm may not have been the most jaw-dropping or historical lodging I’ve ever called home for a night.***** But without doubt it’s the one that most quickly and deeply came to feel like a second home. So much so that despite being on a tight timeframe, with just 10 days total in Taiwan, the one night we’d booked seemed to naturally, organically, become two.
As soon as we entered the grounds and took in the greenery, framed by the mountains of Taroko Gorge National Park, we felt, weirdly, a sense of instant calm.
Stepping up to the verandah, we passed large bowls of coffee beans (what else?) spread out to dry. Inside, the open kitchen and dining room was an airy yet homely communal space.
A sparse, elegant, East Asian minimalism appears to have been the guiding principle behind the guestrooms’ appointment. A downstairs family guestroom was particularly spacious; Lisa promptly moved us here on our second night when she found out my partner had injured his ankle so that he didn’t have to contend with the stairs. Because she’s lovely like that.
Bikes and bracelets
Yeah, the countless photographs, postcards, gifts (of coffee beans, naturally), and handwritten notes from prior guests did not lie. Sheer can’t-do-enough-for-you hospitality is truly the lifeblood of this homestay.
For starters, it actually started before we even got there. Lisa offered to help us buy our train tickets to get there and back from Taipei, which was a pretty big life-saver given we cannot read Mandarin. When we arrived, they showed us the bikes they loan out to visitors. And also offered to ferry us about in a minibus just about everywhere we wanted to go, both for free. As my cycling abilities never progressed beyond the training wheel stage,****** we were down for the minibus option.
And getting to Taroko Gorge National Park couldn’t have been easier. Boya kindly gave us a bus timetable and a lift to the Xincheng train station; from there we could take a local bus not only to but within the national park itself and around its various trailheads. One day he even drove us and fellow guests directly to the Taroko Gorge National Park visitor centre 15 or so minutes away.
Come dinnertime, he took us around to several eatery options. And, unlike your average tourism industry worker, Boya started with his own local favourites rather than opting for the more expensive, tourist-friendly option off the bat. Win. Come morning, Lisa served breakfast that was traditional, tasty, and filling.*******
What’s more, they gave us a little piece of Taiwan to take home. To our surprise and delight, Lisa presented us with homemade bracelets crafted from beautiful local seeds, like little marbles in earthy, natural colours. They explained that the local indigenous Truku people here in the Taroko area commonly used this type of jewellery as a proposal gift.
As she slipped it onto my wrist for final adjustments, Lisa gave me a flash of same-same-but-different déjà vu: unknowingly echoing my Sicilian nonna, she grasped my wrist and told me I have to eat more!
A serenade with a story
On our final night, our hosts casually informed us they were putting on a show. Seated at the dining table, we watched as they took to the proverbial stage and performed two ballads, both written by Boya (he’s penned nine songs in total).
He sang one himself, hampered in some sections by a cold, while Lisa stood beside him holding a mic to his mouth. Having never been treated to a private concert before, much less in someone’s dining room, we sat back, enjoyed and tried to figure out, with mixed success, the appropriate facial expression to assume during a performance sung in an entirely foreign language.*******
Lisa sang the other ballad, her voice sweet and soulful, to Boya’s piano accompaniment. He wrote this song for her 30 years ago — after the pair had broken up.
Later they shared the story. Originally from the city, Lisa moved here to the Taroko area for work. Boya worked nearby and eventually the two started seeing each other.
But their families didn’t approve and in time she told him they had to “separate”. In response he wrote her this lilting, vaguely ’70s ballad as, she explained with a smile, “my birthday gift”. Thankfully, for these star-crossed lovers the ending was clearly a happy one.
I’m certainly no expert on the homestay owners slash performers niche — provision of accommodation and musical talent aren’t exactly, as far as I’m aware, a common Venn diagram overlap back home in Australia. But that made it all the more special. And it was no amateur effort, either; Lisa in particular had a beautiful voice and owned that (figurative) stage. The whole thing was endearing and even kind of touching, cheesy as it may sound — like they were opening up not only their home but a part of their lives and story through song.
Aboriginal Taiwan: Truku culture in Taroko Gorge National Park
But most precious of all were the insights the couple shared into the local Truku culture, and the place of Indigenous people in contemporary Taiwan. We’d initially been confused, having noticed that Boya referred to Taiwanese Aboriginals as ‘my people’, while Lisa’s references were in the neutral third person.
After the show, as we settled in for a chat, we learnt there was an entirely logical explanation: our hosts had had a cross-cultural romance. Lisa is Taiwanese of Chinese ethnicity, while Boya is Indigenous Taiwanese.
The perfect hosts, Lisa and Boya answered our questions, explained local traditions, and advised us on where to go to find out more about Truku life and culture in Taroko Gorge National Park itself — the Buluowan Recreation Area, for the record (Buluowan means ‘echo’, Lisa explained, a fitting name for this part of the national park, surrounded as it is by the towering cliffs of the canyon).
And so, following their advice, at the national park the next day we got to learn more about the Truku people and their way of life. The Buluowan Recreation Area is located on a hilltop terrace, on the site of a former Truku village which has been inhabited since at least the Neolithic period. At Buluowan, a hotel set in wooden cabins, a restaurant serving fusion Western and Taiwanese Aboriginal cuisine, and a souvenir store selling handmade gifts all help boost employment for local Truku people. We took in the beautiful canyon scenery, walked through a nearby bamboo grove, and checked out a visitor centre with information about the local area and Truku culture. A scenic and informative stop all round, and a must-see — just as Boya and Lisa said — for learning about the people after whom the famous Taroko Gorge and the national park were named.
One insight that particularly stood out for us was learning about the strong role that music plays within the Truku community. It’s not hard to see where Boya got his flair for song-writing.
Handmade gifts, lilting performances, unparalleled hospitality and little tidbits of life in Taiwan (and Aboriginal Taiwan) made this one of the most memorable yet strangely home-like places I’ve ever stayed.
Next time I’m in Taiwan — or, in Lisa’s words, “mini China” — I’ll be back to hear the rest of their musical repertoire. And if you ever go yourself, see if you spot my own little thankful tribute on display.
*If only it had any kind of utility before arriving on the premises / booking it to begin with…… 😀
**I mean, HOW DO ALL THE STAMPS WORK FOR INTERNATIONAL POSTAGE I would not know where to start.
***Didn’t those European colonists always have just the grandest visions for other people’s land. And labour. And wealth. And cultures. And lives.
If you want to learn more about that fateful period in Taiwanese history that saw the island go from a sparsely inhabited, multicultural island of many Indigenous peoples to (brief) Dutch and Spanish colonies to a prefecture of the Chinese Empire all in the space of one century, How Taiwan Became Chinese by academic Tonio Andrade (available free online) is a good starting point. The author puts forward a model called ‘co-colonisation’.
****In the 400 years since the Dutch first occupied Taiwan, the Indigenous people here have faced dispossession, assimilation and marginalisation — not to mention straight up violence — under the successive occupying powers that took the helm. They mounted an incredible resistance against the colonists, the Japanese in particular, right through to the 20th century. In recent decades, they have seen a cultural renaissance in recent decades and notable campaigns for land rights, self-determination and revival of their languages. Learn more at Taiwan First Nations.
That would have to be a tie between the Palermo palace, Sri Lankan treehouse, or Irish castle.
*****What can I say, I’m a real hardcore traveller *adjusts glasses*
******Please do not ask me what it was (other than the banana — that I can ID). I am not a foodie and have no idea, but I can confirm that it tasted good.
*******Smile encouragingly? Does that come across as patronising? And what about for the sad, serious break-up song?! Thankfully a previous guest had translated some of the lyrics from Mandarin, so we had at least some idea of the song topic. But argh, we may have been the most awkwardly unresponsive audience ever, I shudder to think.