By Tho Xin Yi
I adore the idea of communing with nature, but I must admit I was sceptical when offered a trip to several leisure farms in Taiwan.
I kept picturing a muddy place with chickens and ducks all about, and me in a straw hat hard at work with a hoe. But I needn't have worried. You don't have to become a farmer in these places, because, after all, they are leisure farms.
The experience is relaxing and, on top of the fresh air and beautiful scenery, visitors get to make full use of the recreational facilities at the farms. Our stay in Taiwan had us spending a night each at three leisure farms.
It was love at first sight when I entered the grounds of the first, Tai-Yi Ecological Education Leisure Farm in Puli, Nantou County in Tai Chung (Central Taiwan). Various shades of green lined the roads as we drove up, and flowers sprouted everywhere on the farm -around tables and even on roof tops.
Tai-Yi's sightseeing director Xu Jia Xiang said that apart from being pleasant-looking, the flowering plants on the roof served as a heat shield. In addition, the flowers are used to decorate most of the dishes they serve.
Among other things, we tried their Puli Bihun, Vegetable Hand Roll, Roasted Pork Rib, Yam Paste in Tomatoes, Fish Roll and Lotus Leaf Wrapped Glutinous Rice. Most of the dishes were served with edible flowers, like rose petals.
The farm also had a butterfly house, a bird park and a camping area.
Despite being miles away from home, I had a really good night's sleep at Tai-Yi's water chalet, lulled to slumberland by the occasional cries of the resident swans. The wooden chalet on a lake exuded simplicity and comfort. I was wowed next morning by the breathtaking views of the mountains that ringed the farm.
I was reluctant to leave but also eager to find out what awaited us at the next farm.
Dakeng Leisure Farm, in Sinhua Township, Tainan (southern Taiwan), is an 8ha property surrounded by mountains. We arrived just as the sun was setting and was led by owner Chai Peng Wen on a hike through the plantation to a hilltop.
Chai appeared shy at first, but as we moved along, he warmed up to us and started to point out the many plants, encouraging us to pluck and smell the herbs.
"I used to be a chicken farmer. When I ventured into leisure farming, I reserved a piece of land to keep the birds," he said, gesturing at a cage where he kept the poultry.
At the peak of the hill, Chai had built a wooden pavilion for visitors to take in the views of Tainan and the outlying cities. Next day, my three friends and I struggled to wake up at 5.30am to climb up the hill again to catch the rising sun, but it was well worth the effort.
The mountains were veiled in clouds, but they slowly revealed themselves, layer by layer, and soon enough, the orange sun pushed through the clouds and made its radiant presence felt.
There is a rope bridge at Dakeng Leisure Farm and it is not for the faint-hearted.
When we had had our fill of the morning sun and scenery, we decided to challenge ourselves by taking on the rope bridge, flying fox and other exciting games the farm had to offer. After that, we enjoyed an open-air spa session dipping in the farm's pools of hot, warm and cold water.
As the bus ferried us away, I vowed to return to this lovely farm to relive the experience.
Moving southwest, we arrived at the foot of Alishan (Mt Ali) in Chiayi County. An hour's bus ride then took us to Long Yun Holiday Farm, 1,500m above sea level. The road up to the farm was winding and steep but the drive was enjoyable, thanks to the beautiful scenery.
When we finally alighted, we were greeted by crisp cold air. At a glance, the unassuming farm we had arrived at appeared to have only basic amenities and was not quite as impressive as the other two we had visited.
It did not have a fancy lobby or a sophisticated souvenir shop; why, even the office looked as if it had been converted from a living room! But the farm possessed its own special charm all right, and this was its herb-infused food.
Their double-boiled chicken, deep-fried shrimps, stir-fried pork, fried egg and other dishes may look ordinary but they were so good that we savoured each spoonful.
Long Yun's owner, Teng Ya-yuan, told us the farm had nearly 1,000 types of herbs. They included lion's mane mushroom, ashitaba, lemon balm, to name a few, and it was these that lent special flavours to their dishes.
When night fell, we followed Teng on a stroll down a slope in the chilled air, searching for fireflies.
We were hesitant at first to wander in the dark with only the moon casting its pale light over us, but the fear soon evaporated when we spotted twinkling lights here and there ahead of us. I held out my hand and a firefly came and rested on my palm.
This put a big grin on my face.
Next morning, we discovered another of Long Yun's treasures - a picturesque bamboo forest located at the back of the farm. I loved the view of the sky from here and seeing how the thin, long bamboo stems sifted the sunlight.
Farm owner Teng Ya-yuan with freshly harvested bamboo shoots.
There are so many leisure farms in Taiwan that it's impossible to see them all in one trip. Apart from the three farms we visited, we also dropped in at a few others to see for ourselves their individual charm.
Tou Cheng Leisure Farm in Tou Cheng, Ilan, northeastern Taiwan, for example, is geared towards educational holidays. It allows visitors a glimpse of how people used to live in the olden days.
Visitors get to try their hands at operating rustic tools like stone mills used for grinding grains and weaving machines for making cloth. The 100ha farm also rears animals like turkeys, pigs, geese, goats and fish. People are encouraged to touch and feed the animals.
An urbanite, I was excited to be able to feed the goats and see them greedily gobble up the leaves I offered.
For something unusual, try the Charcoal Farm in Zaociao, Miali in western Taiwan. This farm promotes the various health benefits of charcoal as a food ingredient. The dishes served here are all suitably but off-puttingly black in colour, from their Garlic Prawn Charcoal Noodles, to the Charcoal Sandwiches, to the Charcoal Bihun and so on.
We hesitated at first, repelled by the colour. But once we started eating, we couldn't stop. The charcoal may have made the food black, but it didn't affect the aroma or taste of the dishes.
The dishes served at Charcoal Museum are enhanced with charcoal.
Curious as to what sort of beverage they served, we asked for beer, thinking surely the farm couldn't possible serve Charcoal Beer. But how wrong were we! The waiter whipped out a jug, placed a chunk of charcoal in it before pouring cans of chilled beer into the jug!
Charcoal Farm operator Sylvia Liao said, "Charcoal emits minerals and far infrared, which is good for health. It is also a good filtering agent."
Meanwhile history freaks may like Shi Nan Chun Resort Fishing Village in Qigu, Tainan county (southern Taiwan) for its extensive collection of antiques. Among the items we saw were old-styled irons, lotus shoes (for Chinese women of the past generations who bound their feet), antique vases, plates and beds.
Wu Sheng Xiong, 68, who runs the place with his family, says, "My brother is an avid antiques collector and some items actually came from our family."
Photos by The Star
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