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According to legend, somewhere in Asia lies a valley of endless happiness and smiling near-immortals, and it is called Shangri-La. James Hilton, the British novelist who invented the far-eastern utopia in Lost Horizon in the 1930s, says he made up Shangri-La after reading some National Geographic articles. Historians and documentary film crews inexplicably disagree with him though, and have identified a few actual towns and valleys in Tibet as the real Shangri-La.
Fools! The real Shangri-La – a land of permanent smiles, a refuge tucked away from the busy world – is labelled clearly on maps. It’s called the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. It’s in Taipei.
Taipei is small for a big city, and its well-connected metro and cheap taxis make getting around painless. The Shangri-La is in Da’an, one of the two main commercial districts, and predictably surrounded by malls (it’s in one), high-end boutiques and a half-dozen Starbucks. But the neighbourhood doesn’t lack for charm: quaint alleys drift off from the leafy boulevards, and two of Taipei’s night markets – Shida and Tonghua – are within easy walking distance.
Eat in or eat out?
Eat everything, everywhere. Taiwanese people love to eat, and the city is known for its food stalls and night markets offering deep-fried anything. The pork and leek buns at Shida night market, baked in a clay oven and handed to you in a paper bag that will burn you, are a must-devour. And no trip to Taipei would be complete without a stop at Din Tai Fung in the basement of Taipei 101 for xiaolongbao – sumptuous soup dumplings.
And explore the menu at the hotel’s Shanghai Pavillion on the 39th floor, where we sample some Taiwanese cuisine with a breathtaking view of Taipei 101. The restaurant’s favourite dish is called “Bill Clinton chicken,” a simple shredded chicken and pea concoction that Slick Willy famously ordered on back-to-back nights while staying in the hotel. Its best dish is the red bean desert pancake: crispy and sweet and unique to this part of the world. The hotel also has Italian, Cantonese and Japanese restaurants.
Whom you’ll meet
The hotel, and in particular its 36th-floor Horizon Lounge, is popular with international business travellers having breakfast meetings or taking advantage of the generous happy hour’s infinite wine policy. Our two evenings in the land of unending refills were highlighted by a Japanese businessman yelling, “Hey, young guy” at me from a nearby table and then refining his business English with a thorough examination of the difference between “worse,” “worst” and “worth.” Beyond the clientele, you’ll meet some of the friendliest and most helpful hotel staff in the world. This is no exaggeration. Taiwanese people start warm and kind, then their natural attributes are fine-tuned by the Shangri-La’s high expectations for service. Every door is held, every detail patiently explained, every bad joke laughed at.
The Qi Shiseido Salon and Spa on the 40th floor is exceptional, and well worth an entire afternoon of pampering, but the crowning jewel in the Shangri-La is its 43rd-floor, year-round outdoor heated pool and hot tub. It offers Taipei’s best view, day or night.
If I could change one thing
The fitness centre is excellent, but its location seems an afterthought. To get in or out, you need to walk beside the 6th-floor dining area where every hotel guest/mall worker/person in Taipei seems to be having breakfast or lunch, shielded only by a very low, very sparse line of bamboo trees. That’s fine going in to the gym, but a bit more awkward when you’ve been too lazy to bring a change of clothes or shower, and have to march stinkily past casual diners on the way back to the elevators. Note: It is not mandatory to skip a shower, which would easily resolve this awkwardness. Yet here we are.
Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, 201 Tun Hwa South Rd., Section 2, Taipei; shangri-la.com/taipei; 420 rooms from $350.
The writer was a guest of the hotel.