When to Visit Alishan
As mentioned above, Alishan is usually about 10 degrees colder than lower altitudes in Taiwan. Therefore, summers can be pleasantly warm but chilly at night, so you still need to bring proper clothing, especially for sunrise viewing. Summer is also the most popular time, so it can be busiest and hotel prices are usually higher. Don’t travel to Alishan during (or shortly after) a typhoon or heavy rain, when landslides are common.
Like everywhere else in Taiwan, fall and spring are probably the best time to visit, but can get quite chilly at Alishan. If you visit Alishan in winter, you have the highest chance of seeing the “sea of clouds” phenomenon at sunrise, but it can be freezing, especially when you are standing and waiting for sunrise.
Where to Stay in Alishan
Alishan hotels are not cheap. The Catholic Church has dorms and private rooms and used to accept reservations, making it the only budget option in town. If you are a budget traveler, you could take a chance and try, but if you can’t get a bed you’ll have to try one of the regular hotels in town and hope they have vacant rooms. Most of Alishan’s hotels are found on a curved road behind the tourist village parking lot. Just about all of them are similar, overpriced, rundown establishments starting around NT2500 for the crappiest of the lot (they can go down to around 1500 out of season).
Where to Eat in Alishan
Most restaurants are found around the parking lot in the tourist village. Here you can find hot pot and several places serving fairly similar meals. The pick of the bunch seems to be 999 Restaurant (九九九餐廳) on the second floor, and nearly identical Xin Xingguang (新星光餐廳) next door. A new addition is the covered arcade of local food stalls across the parking lot (search for 娜若瑪菲美食街 on GoogleMaps). Come here for cheap, local food stall meals, best if you’re on a budget or traveling alone. Many of the hotels give breakfast vouchers for local style buffet breakfasts served from restaurants in the tourist village.
You can buy tea leaves in many shops in the tourist village, but one shop that stood out was Mt. Ali tea #35 (茶田35號), with creative package designs that break away from the usual Alishan trains and sunrises motifs. You can usually taste tea brewed on the spot before buying. Coffee is also grown on Alishan and sold in many of the shops.
Fenqihu is also one of a handful of places in Taiwan famous for their lunchboxes, so you will see them being sold from train-shaped stalls as soon as you get off the train. You should try the famous Fenqihu lunchbox from the original famous spot, Fenqihu Hotel, on your way up to Alishan.
Alishan Cherry Blossoms
Alishan cherry blossoms are one of the most long-awaited annual events of Alishan. Every year from March through April, a variety of cherry blossoms will showcase their beauty in a dazzling, picturesque display that wows both local and international visitors. There are more than 19,000 cherry trees in the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. Out of 19,000 beautiful cherry trees, about 18,000 of them are white blossomed Yoshino cherry trees which makes Alishan the only and the largest area of Yoshino cherry tree coverage in Taiwan. The best spots to view fascinating cherry blossoms are the Alishan Police Station, Alishan House, Alishan Work Station and Zhaoping Park.
Fenqihu's Bamboo Forest and Bento
The tiny mountain village of Fenqihu is currently the terminal station of the Alishan Forest Railway line from Chiayi. If you are only interested in visiting Fenqihu, you can go there on this maple viewing and tea tasting tour, which is best in autumn. This 4 to 5-hour hike passes through incredible bamboo forests that you will have entirely to yourself. The trail begins in Ruili (瑞里) and ends in Taihe (太和), a village near Fenqihu. Fenqihu itself is also surrounded by bamboo forests, and there are shorter hikes around town. In spring you can see fireflies here at night, and there is also a mini train museum with original Alishan trains on display.
Fenqihu still sells the traditional railway bentos and Fenqihu is famous for railway bento boxes because back when the Alishan Forest Train was being constructed, it was during the Japanese Occupation & Fenqihu was the only big stopping place before Alishan where the Japanese workers would stop to get a bento lunch box for lunch. A bento box is a lunch box and in Taiwan, railway bento boxes are really famous. The bento boxes are usually in a paper container and it will generally consist of rice, some Taiwanese cabbage, a chicken or pork chop (or in this case, both), and maybe a marinated egg.
Tea Fields in Shizhuo
Everybody knows that Taiwan’s most famous tea, Alishan High Mountain Oolong Tea, comes from the Alishan area, but surprisingly few people know about Shizhuo, a picturesque tea village on highway up to Alishan, or a 10-minute drive south from Fenqihu Train Station.
The hills above the highway that runs through Shizhuo are covered with terraced tea fields, and there is a network of hiking trails through them, with names like Mist Trail, Sunset Trail, Tea Trail, Cloud Trail, and Sakura Trail. Staying on this tea farm, drinking tea with the farmer, seeing the sunset over the plantation, and hiking through the tea fields was one of the best Taiwan experiences.
The Alishan Forest Railway
This is the preferred and most popular option. The railway was constructed in 1912 and was originally constructed for logging. It’s a very scenic ride and it goes from Fenqihu to Alishan and back. It’s got a running English commentary throughout the 3 hour duration, and you will pass through 50 tunnels, 77 wooden bridges and even has unique Z-shaped switchbacks.
The Alishan Forest Recreational Area
There is a bigger Alishan National Scenic Area and then a smaller Alishan Forest Recreational Area which is within the National Scenic Area. The main “Alishan” area where all the Forest trails are are within the Alishan Forest Recreational Area.
There are plenty of forest trails to explore within the Alishan Forest Recreational Area and it is very clearly marked with sign posts. The map that you will receive either at your hotel or at the entrance of the Alishan Forest Recreational Area will be very handy. Some of the most famous sights were the Sister Pond(s) – they’re called Sister Pond because there is a bigger pond and a smaller pond akin to a bigger and younger sister, the trees that were shaped into funny shapes, and also the 3 Generation Tree, which is a tree that grew on top of a tree on top of a tree.
The Sunrise and Sunset in Alishan
When staying within the park, you simply need to get yourself to the Alishan Forest Railway Station, from where the train ride takes about 25 minutes to Zhushan - the classic viewpoint for the famous Alishan sunrise over a sea of clouds, where you can expect a mass of noisy people shivering in the dark while they wait for what is often not even a good or visible sunrise. You need luck here. You should check the weather forecast upon arrival at your hotel, then you can decide to see the sunrise the following day or not. It’s also important that you buy your ticket for the sunrise the day before. Odds are better in winter, but it can also be bitterly cold waiting for the sun to come up. Winter clothing is needed, even in summer. You can buy hats, jackets, and more at inflated prices in the tourist village if you didn’t bring them.
Here’s the good news: there are other options. From Zhushan, most visitors don’t know that you can walk up only 10 more minutes to reach Mt. Ogasawara (2488m), an octagonal viewing platform that has an even better view and fewer people.
With all the Alishan sunrise hype, a lot of people don’t realize you can also see gorgeous sunsets from Alishan. One decent spot is from Ciyun Temple near Shenmu station, with views of Datashan, the highest peak in Alishan. A more convenient option is from the 2nd or 3rd floors of the Alishan Train Station, or from the road around the entrance gate to Alishan.