Despite all of the Yilan government's efforts to celebrate human creativity through a year-round series of festivals, nature remains the key attraction of this northeastern county.
So it's only fitting that when the upscale Hotel Royal Group decided to set up shop in the hot-spring mecca of Yilan's Jiaosi, nature took center stage in the design. The resulting 198-room resort hotel - which opened in May - stands today as one of the few architectural joys in a region where surprisingly few of the buildings convey any sense of leisure and recreation that Yilan has become known for.
In fact, from the outside at least, most of Jiaosi's hot-spring "resorts" are drab, concrete edifices crammed into the city center. If you're looking for a more aesthetically pleasing ambiance that reflects local geography to enjoy hot springs this winter, and don't mind paying for it, Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi offers a tempting alternative.
Featuring a design based on Zen concepts with an Yilan touch, the hotel pushes the idea that it's perfectly fine to enjoy doing nothing.
"In Taiwan, most people are still into sightseeing when they go out. They don't really take trips to relax," says the hotel's general manager, Winston Shen.
So after guests check in, for example, hotel staffers escort them to their rooms and perform a tea ceremony to help them slow down.
"People who rarely relax in their daily lives get a different feeling, and realize they don't have to worry so much wondering what they're supposed to do," Shen says.
The hotel's design contributes to the sense of pure relaxation, especially Japanese designer Tou Ito's focus on bringing nature in and seamlessly blurring the boundaries between outside and inside.
Case in point: When you enter the hotel, you walk into a massive main lobby, sparingly furnished with wide-open floor space and lit primarily with natural light. Soon after, you enter another sizable lobby to check in.
To some, that first lobby seems like a monumental waste of space, but it clearly has a purpose.
"I asked the designer, isn't this just like outdoors, and he said 'yes that's the point.' You get the feeling that it's not really indoors but it's also not the outdoors. It's in between," Shen says.
To further accentuate this subtle transition, window and structural fixtures extend from the outside of the building to the inside, and the two worlds are linked by the generous use of glass and natural lighting.
Bringing in elements from Yilan's environment gives the hotel a more "authentic" feel that enhances any trip to the area. Large scrolls depicting local Yilan scenes decorate walkways. The inspiration for the hotel's outdoor Zen-style rock gardens comes from the rugged coastlines in the northern part of the county dotted by metamorphic rock formations jutting out into the ocean.
Green slate from the county lines the walls of guest room bathrooms and the outdoor swimming pool area, the rich, nuanced color lending elegance to the facilities. Even the terraced pool area is patterned on the nearby Wufengchi waterfall, which has two distinct levels.
More subtly, fine cuttings of grass were incorporated into the paint used to coat guest room walls, a small detail that softens the feel of the rooms.
"The base colors - green, wood colors, dirt colors, earthen colors - are all very common in the area surrounding the hotel," Shen said. "Also, the contemporary Japanese elements - steel and glass - are too hard, so we've added a lot of pictures of Yilan on the walls to lighten the mood and help guests enjoy Yilan's culture and scenery."
Reflecting nature's beauty
None of this emphasis on Yilan is a coincidence. The designer spent a month in the county observing the climate and scenery, and chose to minimize the outer appearance of the hotel out of respect for the area's natural beauty.
The hotel, situated about two kilometers inland from the city, is a collection of L-shaped and block structures tightly arranged to leave a limited profile against the backdrop of the Hsuehshan mountain range. "From the outside, our hotel doesn't look very big, but looking at it from the pool area, you can really see it's a large facility," Shen said. "The designer didn't want the hotel to have a big impact on the environment. Putting a huge hotel in a beautiful place like this creates an oppressive feeling."
The hotel's respect for nature, however, is not without challenges, especially considering the aversion that some in Taiwan have to the great outdoors.
"Two months ago there were a bunch of caterpillars on the grounds. If they fell from trees or ended up landing on guests, that wasn't a good thing," Shen said with an embarrassed smile. "But we didn't want to do away with them because after a short time they became butterflies. So we think next year we'll put nets under the trees.
Lap of luxury
The luxurious setting does not come cheaply. The least expensive room is well over NT$8,000, with weekend stays costing nearly NT$11,000 a night, a price point Shen said placed the Hotel Royal between the most expensive resorts in Taiwan, like the Lalu in Sun Moon Lake, and other more upscale hotels that go for NT$4,000 to NT$6,000 a night.
The price includes a dinner and breakfast for two, a must Shen asserted, if a local resort hotel is to provide top-notch food services.
"In Taiwan, a lot of resorts, no matter how good they are, have trouble with their food services. The guests don't support the in-house restaurants. Many Taiwanese are willing to spend a lot of money on a hotel stay, like NT$15,000 or more at Lalu, but they still want to go to a roadside stand to eat. That's just the way they like it," Shen laments.
"We felt we had to have our guests use our restaurants for them to be self-supporting. Now, they can stay here and enjoy the hot springs, pool, spa and other facilities rather than worrying where they'll have dinner."
The price point is not for everyone and many travelers are less discerning of their accommodations when on vacation than when traveling on business. But considering the lack of elegantly designed resorts in Yilan, not to mention Taiwan, the 198-room Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi brings a welcome touch of man-made elegance to an area where nature still reigns.