Traveling in Taiwan is not complete without a visit to a tea house. One of my favorites is located an hour's drive from Taipei in a small mountainous town called Jiuofen. Once an old gold mining town has now been transformed into a fabulous tourist destination. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean the exquisite architecture is comparable to the coastal region of Santorini in Greece, where the cubical buildings are neatly stacked on top of each other, hugging the steep slopes of the mountains.
To make your way to the famous tea house you need to navigate through jammed packed alleys, up narrow streets which on weekends gridlock with bus loads of tourist from Taipei. Settling in with the rhythm of the crowd, the labyrinth of alleys are flanked with restaurants, gift and souvenir shops and hundreds of food stalls specializing in Xiaochi, literally "small eats" which are substantial snacks similar to Spanish tapas. These irresistible delights such as sweet soybean pudding, "bouncy" textured fish ball soup, steam filled hot buns of all sorts, sweet fatty pork sausages, tender charcoal grilled squid and of course the deliciously distinctive stinky tofu are just a few to fill up on before reaching the summit where the magical tea house is located.
Stepping out from the hustle and bustle into the tranquil tea wonder land, we are graciously greeted by the lovely tea maidens of the establishment. "Niho", as they welcome us to explore the various artistic creations tucked away downstairs, which you might miss if you are quickly passing through. Over 100 years old, the timber preserves a sense of the building's history, but also brings a touch of intimacy and charm to the surreal atmosphere. Like a kid in a candy store I am overwhelmed by it treasures. As my excited eyes wonder, my feet dance from one room to another trying to absorb the handcrafted tea inspired creations. Immersed and captivated, it's time to calm down, it's time for tea.
Scoping out the whole place poses yet another challenge of where to sit. Tempted by fresh air and mountainous views on the large terrace or choosing one of the Japanese style raised booths or will it be a cosy little room, upstairs downstairs "arrhhh" its all too much. Unable to decide I allow my hosts to choose a comfortable booth just inside from the terrace, in a quite little corner of the building. Embedded in the centre of the table is a small pit filled with a specific odourless charcoal, ideal for brewing tea. Mesmerised by the steaming hand crafted kettle, a beautiful tea maiden then hands us the menu featuring Taiwan's classics which come paired with specific artisan tea wares. My favourite tops the menu, Shan ling Xi so we decide upon something different; the rare Dong Fang Mei Ren or white tipped oolong. Before I can setup my camera, the hostess is back with a fine white hand crafted, porcelain gong fu set and begins to elegantly demonstrate and prepare the first cup. She then disappears, leaving detailed instructions regarding infusion times and water temperatures for us to continue and explore this "oriental beauty". Notes of flowery rose and stewed plum fruitfully waft from the delicate cups. Amber in colour, the liquor tastes of sweet fruit, strong notes of velvety rose, is persistently woody with absolutely no bitterness.
Four rounds latter Un-rushed, time stood still and we emerge from the tea experience 3hours latter. Greeted by the setting sun the town lights up in vibrant reds and tones of gold from the lanterns which line the roof tops of the building. The crowded streets seem more relaxed and armed with an appetite its time for more yummy food. Again we are spoilt for choice but we find our way to a small stall specialising in rice and dumplings to soak up the tea.
Encompassing fulfilment, my palette has been sweetened, my thirst quenched and my belly is full. As a traveler the town of Jioufen has deeply satisfied my quest for adventure. A memorable experience that I shall not forget and already looking forward to my next visit.
To dodge the fun crowds, avoid visiting on weekends and to get the most out of the experience, I recommend to stay overnight in one of many b&bs on offer to really soak in this incredible town.