Near Taroko Gorge National Park is a coffee farm cross homestay, boasting the crème de la crème of good-natured hospitality — plus a shot of music, and a few spoonfuls of unexpected cultural insights.
If ever there were a metric for gauging the hospitality of a homestay host, I’d propose that the number of photos, cards and letters of gratitude on display from previous guests serves as a good indication.
In which case, the Sialin Coffee Farm, a homestay near Taroko Gorge National Park, is a sure winner in the hospitality stakes.
Run by husband-and-wife team Lisa and Boya, this homestay is unlike anywhere else in the world. 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, of all places, Taiwan — a country famed for bubble tea — the coffee culture here is both stronger and older than you’d expect. It dates back to the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company introduced the crop here, envisioning this island as an ideal coffee plantation. Today many count Taiwan’s café culture and local brews among East Asia’s best.
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 beautiful or impressive lodging I’ve ever called home for a night — that would have to be the Palermo palace or Irish castle. But without doubt it’s the one that most quickly and deeply came to feel like a second home. So much so, in fact, that despite being on a tight timeframe 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 a strange sense of instant calm.
Stepping up to the verandah, we passed large bowls of coffee beans 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 upon learning of my partner’s injured 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, there was the offer of either borrowing bikes or being ferried 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 (#hardcoretravelleralert), we were in 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 seeds, like little marbles albeit in earthy, natural colours. The local indigenous Truku people 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 told me I have to eat more!
A serenade with a story
On our final night, our hosts casually informed us they were doing a show. Seated at the dining table, we watched as they 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. We sat back, enjoyed and tried to figure out, with little success, the appropriate facial expressions to assume during a private performance sung in an entirely foreign language. (#stillnoidea)
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 worked in a local government office here in the Taroko region after graduating from uni. Boya worked in an office 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 style ballad as, she explained with a smile, “my birthday gift”.
The lyrics, translated from Mandarin by a previous guest, seemed quite cheesy and ‘Chinglish’ to an English speaker, with mentions of a ‘sweet smile’, ‘charming figure’ and what I can only assume were idioms relating to waves and colours. But I blame the fact that the English language seems to have a far finer line between sentimental expression and soppy mawkishness than other languages. And I’m sure that the original lyrics were as beautiful as the melody, in Mandarin at least.
I’m certainly no expert on the homestay owners slash performers niche — provision of accommodation and singing talent aren’t exactly, as far as I’m aware, a common Venn diagram overlap here 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.
Overall it was entertaining, super endearing and even kind of touching — like they were opening up a part of their lives through song.
Aboriginal Taiwan: Truku culture in Taroko Gorge National Park
But perhaps most precious of all were the insights the couple shared into the Truku culture and its place in contemporary Taiwan. We’d initially been confused, having noticed that Boya referred to the 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: a cross-cultural romance, opposed by both Lisa’s Han Chinese family and Boya’s Aboriginal one.
Hence the reason for their previous, temporary split; Lisa’s family worried about her marrying Boya, citing the poor education and work opportunities available to Aboriginals in Taiwan at the time. But life has since improved somewhat for Aboriginal people, explained Lisa, with government scholarships opening up more educational opportunities.
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 culture in Taroko Gorge National Park itself (the Barowan area, for the record). 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.
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.