Taiwan, having been ruled by the Japanese for several decades and being home to many mountains, has a prolific hot spring culture, although customs are slightly different. Unlike Japanese onsen, most Taiwanese hot spring places require you to wear swimming gear (and an ugly bathing cap), as bathing areas are not separated by gender.
We had originally planned to visit Beitou, the nearest hot spring resort to Taipei, but couldn't bring ourselves to go in the oppressive heat. A week later, in Tainan, we had somewhat acclimatised to Taiwan's humid, tropical weather. So we decided to visit Guanziling, which is about 40 km from Tainan city and also home to a few other attractions (which you can only reach by bus during the weekend, when a shuttle runs, or on your own transport, so we didn't make it this time).
It's a bit difficult to find information on visiting Guanziling in English, but it's definitely doable. Unlike Beitou, Guanziling is a resort area and we didn't find any public hot spring facilities. Instead, we chose to visit the much recommended King's Garden Villa Spa and Resort (www.myspa.co.tw). Many people point out online how this place is virtually impossible to visit for the non Mandarin speaker, but my girlfriend's attempt to speak to the reception in Mandarin was countered by perfect English - they also have a nifty English brochure (I some snapshots at the end of this post, as you are not allowed to use your camera inside). Just make sure to write the Chinese name down for the taxi drivers - they all know the place, but not under the English name, as the Chinese one means something completely different.
I think this might have been my favourite spa/hot spring so far! It was very different from onsen, bathhouses and jimjilbang I have visited in Korea and Japan and also different from Middle Eastern hamams. We paid the NT$ 350 entry fee at the reception (450 on weekends) and were shown to go to the end of the resort complex. There, we left our shoes outside (no lockers) and were handed a big towel and ugly bathing cap each. The caps sadly are compulsory in Taiwan, but I have to say it really kept my hair dry. There are lockers for your bags, but you want to head for the shower area first, as you need to get changed there. Yes you heard right, no changing into your birthday suit in front of a hundred grannies. Perfect for those afraid of other East Asian baths because you're insecure about the hanging out naked bit. King's Garden villa had big, lockable shower cubicles, some of which are inside and combined with toilets, others are even bigger and outside. They are a bit basic but do the job: Hose down, put on your swimwear and shower cap. Then lock your other stuff away (you can take the towel if you like) and head for the outdoor area.
This is where I really warmed up to the place - there are several spa pools in a fake-natural setting, and none of them were over 43 degrees Celsius - unlike Japanese ones which can easily scorch you. The cold pools also had temperate North Sea like temperatures which reminded me of childhood holidays in Northern Germany, but we're still a bit too chilly for my HK-born girlfriend.
Guanziling is famous for its mud hot spring (you can see the river in the area carrying the same grayish water, it's natural, not polluted). So among the herbal spa pool (my favourite), there was also a carbon enriched bath as well as a mud bath and also a small area with free mud which you could rub all over your body, then let dry and rinse off. It definitely makes your skin very smooth and it was hilarious seeing everybody trying to airdry themselves in the outdoor lounge area. The temperature in Guanziling was great, around 23 degrees, so none of the pools gave you a big temperature shock, but it was fine to hang around outside, too.
From the pool area, you could head outside for even more fun - there was a room which provided three DIY face masks, funky excecise machines, massage contraptions and a small library of magazines and manga. We had a lot of fun trying all the machines! Another level up was a UV-foot spa and foot bath.
The spa also includes two saunas (dry and humid with essential oils) and adjoining indoor cold plunge baths, a swimming pool and naked bathing area for those who like on the upper floors. We are not adverse to naked bathing fun but didn't actually realise this area existed until we checked out. Naked areas are of course separated by gender. The swimming pool was being cleaned during our stay, but the saunas were nice if a little bit too cool at only around 45 degrees (I turned into a hardcore sauna fan in Finland this summer).
Overall, there are 16 pools plus all the extras like sauna, mud masks and excercise stuff. The place was very clean and a total bargain for £7 with unlimited stay. We visited on a Monday and it wasn't too busy. There were a few other foreigners there during our stay and I didn't feel like anybody got odd looks - it all felt very relaxed and fun and I actually wished we had booked a night's stay to use the great facilities again!
After 2.5 hours of getting pruny... I mean beautiful and relaxed, we walked a few minutes down the road in search of food. Guanziling is famous for teapot chicken, chicken that is roasted in giant clay pots. Mountain vegetables and bamboo shoots are also very good here.
We had lunch at the Bamboo Fragrant Restaurant, which came recommended by several Taiwanese blogs. We went for half a chicken, stir fried bamboo shoots, stir fried fiddleheads (called dragon's moustache in Chinese :))
I have to admit that none of the restaurants seemed to have an English menu - I was with someone who can read Chinese easily, so ordering was fine. From my experience in Taiwan, people should be happy to help you out though. Staff here was fairly young and should be able to manage some English. If in doubt, ask some of the other guests :)
After our meal, we had to wait a while for the next bus, but the wait was sweetened by the many friendly puppies in the are - not strays, just very independent dogs that belong to locals and roam freely.
In short: I haven't been to any other hot spring place in Taiwan, but Guanziling and Kings Garden Villa get a big thumbs up. Do consider spending an extra day in Tainan to visit!
How to get there:
From Tainan station, take a train to Xinying (also written Sinying, 新營區), which is about 20-30 minutes away, depending on the train you take - most northbound trains from Tainan seem to stop there, so you shouldn't have to wait more than 20 minutes. The ticket price also depends on the train, we paid around 70 NT$ (around 2 USD/£1.50). From here, you have three options: Take the super cheap hourly bus, which requires you to make an easy change. There is a tiny but very helpful tourist information box outside Sinying station that can give you a current schedule. The other option is to negotiate a price with one of the taxi drivers outside who will drive you up to Guanziling (it's about half an hour for the direct trip, the bus takes quite a bit longer) and then hang around so you can call them for pickup once you are all spa'd out. Chinese blogs agree that around NT$ 1200 is a good round trip price (taxis are very sparse once you are up in Guanziling). We decided to take a taxi one way to save time, and then took the bus back. We paid NT$ 550 one way, but did ignore the first driver who was very assertive and asked for more. Overall we took less than an hour to get to the spa from Tainan with train and taxi. The bus option (don't worry about the change, the connecting bus stops right behind where you are dropped of) added an hour to the return trip but obviously was NT$ 450 cheaper than taking another taxi (if you can catch one back at all). Local bus rides in Taiwan just cost a few cents (you can also use the EasyCard).
If you aren't fluent in Mandarin, I guess the way we did it is the easiest. Just make sure - as always in a Chinese speaking area - to have all your destinations written down in Chinese. You are unlikely to be ripped off in Taiwan but I've never come across an English speaking taxi driver there.