Sun Moon Lake sits at an altitude of 762m in the mountains of Nantou County, in central Taiwan. With good weather year-round, accessible sights and tons of outdoor activities to offer, it's not surprising it's one of Taiwan's most renowned tourist destinations.
Start your journey at Shuishe Village
Shuishe Village is where the bus station is located, so that's probably where your trip will begin. It's got a Starbucks, 7-Elevens, souvenir shops, a visitor center and a place to rent bikes. Minsheng Rd, a small pedestrian cobbled alley is packed with good restaurants. There's also a pier where people hang out day and night.
Sun Moon Lake is encircled by a 30km-long scenic road that gives unparalleled views on the lake and the surrounding mountains. Riding an electric scooter is the most convenient way to explore the area. Helio Rental charges NT$150/300/500 for 1/2/24 hours. Their shop is behind the visitor center in Shuishe Village. Riding a bicycle is also very enjoyable, as there are many cycling paths off the main road.
Row, row, row your boat...
Time to exercise those arms. Get yourself a rowing boat and try to make it to Lalu Island, in the middle of the lake. You can rent one at Shuishe and Itashao for around NT$200/hr. Don't be shy to bargain here. Boat tours can also be arranged; NT$300 for 45mins.
Mt. Maolan Trail is an easy walk that takes you to a weather observatory that was built by the Japanese in 1940. From the summit, at 1020m, you can see as far as Puli. The 3km trail (a paved road actually) winds through vast tea plantations. The trailhead is about 300m past Shuishe Village. 3hrs round-trip.
Mt. Shuishe Trail is a much more ambitious undertaking that can upset any city-weakened legs. It's steep all the way to the summit, at 2059m, from where you get unbeatable views of the lake. The trail starts at the stone monument that says "Thao" at the aboriginal settlement behind Itashao Village. 8hrs round-trip.
They say you can't swim, but...
If it's 32 degree Celsius and you've got decent underwear... go for it! I've swam in that lake a dozen times without ever encountering any problem apart from fish trying to bite my... toes. There are some quiet places where you won't be disturbed on the west side.
Chinese invasion of Itashao Village
Up to two or three years ago, Itashao still had a very rural feel. That was until Chinese tourists from the mainland started coming en masse. Now, Taiwanese officials seem to be fully committed to developing this side of the lake into an ugly tourist center. The village is on the eastern side of the lake, opposite Shuishe.
What do Thao think?
The area is the ancestral home to the Thao, Taiwan's smallest indigenous tribe. Once, a Thao lady told me: "Han people, from Taipei or China, only care about money, not the environment." The village is now eighty percent ethnic Han Chinese and they own most of the businesses.
Majestic Wenwu Temple
On your way to Itashao, you can't miss this imposing Daoist shrine, perched on the mountainside, overlooking the lake. Sunset is the best time to be here - the crowds have vanished and warm hues paint the lake below.
A pagoda for Mr. the dictator
Chiang Kai-shek had Tsen Pagoda erected in honor of his mother. The place is most quiet in late afternoon. It's about 3km past Itashao, up in the mountains. Last time I was there, I happily infuriated a group of tourist from Beijing when I asked them in mandarin: "which country are you from?"
There are lots of hotels and minsu (B&B) in Shuishe, Itashao and Yuchih. Teachers Hostel, in Shuishe is the cheapest at NT$500. Sun Moon Bay Campsite is another affordable option just by the Youth Activity Center. The campsite has clean bathrooms and showers. NT$500/site.
Shuishe and Itashao are packed with very good Chinese restaurants. One place that I keep going back to is the Min Hu Old Restaurant, at 15 Minsheng Rd, in Shuishe Village. Dishes from NT$150. Ask for the catch of the day.