attaining zen among taiwan's hot springs

photos courtesy of volando urai spring spa & resort 

his form-fitting t-shirt clings to luo sang xi rang’s muscled form like a second skin as he takes his place in front of the taiko drum placed poolside at volando urai spring spa & resort in wulai, an idyllic town 30 minutes by train from taipei.

the al fresco deck overlooks the nashi river, whose chameleonic waters transform as surely the seasons change, deepening in shade as temperatures dip. in the last days of autumn, it’s an inviting translucent emerald that complements the forested hill on the facing riverbank where amidst the dense greens, a white-washed bungalow rises solitarily as a sign of human inhabitance.

it’s the home of local artist wu zong-lin, whose specialty are the traditional copper gongs used at temple fairs across taiwan. two fine examples of his works can be viewed at volando’s lobby: eight gongs in varying sizes hang across a thick arched tree branch and an intricate sculpted lotus pond are the first things that guests see upon arrival.

wu lends more than just his aesthetics to volando; each day, at precisely 4pm, he participates in a unique ‘life ritual’ known as the valley cascade with luo, the resort’s art director.

poised at the drum, luo raises his arms, a pair of drumsticks firmly in his hands. as he rains rhythmic thumps onto the drum, the pounding sound reverberates through the misty air and for those in attendance, the vibrations hit at the heart like an emotional charge. more so when luo ups the tempo into a crescendo, his hands a blur of increasingly rapid movements that taper off into a gentle stop. just as the resonance fades into silence, a different wave of sound can be heard from wu’s house on the other side of the river. the artist is responding to luo’s drumming by hitting a giant gong, sending the chime across the valley.

the exchange, called valley cascade, is what luo describes as a conversational ritual, one that breathes spiritual and artistic elements into daily lives. it’s a manifestation of the concept on which volando was built: to celebrate all of one’s senses and the art of living while protecting the harmony of the land, the environment and its people. in the same breath, it embraces taiwan’s cultural arts as part of its dna.

valley cascade is one of four life rituals that luo conceived of to encapsulate all that, each with its own meaning and carried out at different spots around the resort at different hours. another gong-based routine is the cleansing retreat, held near the spa every morning as an energising wake-up call while in the evenings, velvet pool combines crystals and vibrations in a calming repertoire.

twice a day, the pool becomes the centre of attention for the tranquil meeting of the minds where two individuals sit facing each other on a floating raft and engage in a wordless ‘dialogue’ through chess play using musical stones. inspired by a chinese proverb that opines staying silent while watching people play chess makes one a true gentleman,  it represents a calming of the mind and taking the time to listen to one’s mind and soul.

the vibrations hit at the heart like an emotional charge, more so when luo ups the tempo into a crescendo
volando drum

general manager chun-lin chiang was instrumental in conceptualising this unique hospitality approach, one that emphasises human touch over thread counts. it was he who first heard the chime of wu’s gong echoing across the valley and initiated contact with the artist. the story goes that the latter was caught by surprise when chiang and luo turned up at his doorstep as he has lived in the mountains for years and never have strangers found their way there. the trio sat in silence over mugs of wood fire-roasted tea while wu pondered their appearance, and the ice was broken.

it has to be noted that for the resort, the rituals are not mere performances but an intrinsic way of life. they are carried out whether or not there are guests present – although tranquil is subject to the weather as it’s held outdoors – and are so important to volando that all employees are required to undergo artistic training to internalise those core values so that they can go about their jobs with calm minds and deliver sincere, personable hospitality.

as a guest, you feel, see and receive that warmth in many thoughtful, meaningful ways that tell of the keen attention that’s been levied on every detail. it begins en route to the resort, a 30-minute drive from xindian train station in their complimentary shuttle that can accommodate eight at a time and runs on a fixed schedule. the van winds uphill past small townships and swathes of forests, restful and bucolic settings that make wulai a well-visited side trip from the capital city.


inside the vehicle, the ambience is equally mellow, set by an instrumentalsoundtrack that was produced exclusively for volando by owen wang, an award-winning composer whose works for the movie jump ashin! has been nominated for both the golden horse and golden melody awards.

the soothing tracks lull you into a relaxed state so that by the time you step off the shuttle and into volando’s lobby, you feel right at home. natural light floods through floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out to nashi river, across the lounge that’s awash in earthy tones. continuing on the zen-like calmness, the air is scented with specially commissioned essential oils that capture the essence of each season. 

the soundtrack continues playing in the 23 rooms and suites, spacious sanctuaries that are tastefully appointed in modern luxuries and awash the natural colour palette that dresses much of the resort. the suites are always the first to be booked out as they come with a piece de resistance: en suite hot springs bath, framed by large windows that afford enjoyment of the river vista while you relax and rejuvenate in utmost privacy.

wulai is, after all, one of taiwan’s foremost hot springs destinations. holiday-makers flock here with the main purpose of soaking in its healing waters and then find time to explore the aboriginal culture of the atayal people. the name wulai itself derives from an atayal phrase that means ‘hot and poisonous’, a nod to the town’s heated water pools. free public baths welcome all visitors, who can also pay for better options at the town’s many hotels or as is the case with volando’s guests, make a complete escapade of it among the most luxurious of offerings.

day visitors can rent volando’s 10 individual baths, while staying guests can enjoy a host of facilities at the kurhaus bath house that include several large indoor hot and cold water baths, an outdoor bath surrounded by stunning landscaping, a hydrotherapy pool with submerged chaise lounges, steam rooms and saunas.

following in the tradition of japanese bath houses, the dress code is birthday suit and baths are separated into men’s and ladies’ areas. the recommended soaking time in each is no more than 15-20 minutes in each, but you can dip in and out as many times as you wish. in between, you can slip out to the adjoining dasha spa and surrender to further bliss with a massage based on the traditional five-element meridian that’s suited to your chi for the day and using bespoke aromatherapy oils.

the name wulai itself derives from an atayal phrase that means hot and poisonous

it’s a fine way to work up an appetite for hong kong-born chef bu qiu rong’s gourmet cuisine at the in-house restaurant whose moniker is a play on his surname. abu sits above the poolside deck with large french windows that open out to views of the river, creating an idyllic ambience for guests to savour their equally inspiring cuisine.

chef bu had completed stints at top restaurants in dubai and taipei before he was roped in to helm the kitchens here. his culinary style is unbounded by definitions, merging flavours, techniques and styles to bring out the best of each carefully-chosen ingredient.

what is a signature at abu is the delicate presentation of each element so that every meal begins as a feast for the eyes. their afternoon tea is a highlight, served at the deck level so that diners can witness the tranquil and valley rituals while tucking into an array of dainty bites. on a traditional chinese bamboo tray, small japanese plates are arranged neatly and each filled with a savoury or sweet delight of varying origins. parma ham and melon is plated next to a grilled cheese and ham sandwich, along with ma lat (szechuan pepper-coated) chicken wings and a waldorf salad. for desserts, bite into a delightfully zesty lemon macaron and sink your spoon into a bombe alaska.

their chinese breakfast set is also served platter-style, with every single dish cooked only upon order so you can expect a bit of a wait but it is well worth it. the silky pumpkin porridge, contrasted by crunchy dough fritters, pairs well with sautéed cabbage, steamed fish, preserved plumes and japanese-style hanjuku tamago (soft-boiled eggs). xiao long bao sit in a small bamboo steamer, and a tiny skewer of pan-fried radish cake completes the course.

no doubt, each meal is a work of art and for the full experience, you have to sit down for dinner and let chef bu demonstrate his versatility in a range of western-inspired dishes. the appetiser of duck liver pate sets the tone beautifully, served in a specially designed tin as one would caviar, garnished with edible flowers, crisped ginger strands, fresh grapes and grape jelly. it comes with a slice of lightly toasted croissant from a baker whose forte is the flaky french bread.

as the meal progresses, the chef’s perfectionism shines through as does his mastery of flavour pairings and techniques. the wild mushroom and truffle egg is a testament of that, a fluffy omelette enriched with aromatic fungi and topped with milk foam while the seafood bisque highlights a local specialty, the wonli crab.

mid-meal, an organic cranberry sorbet is served in a frosted blue bowl and garnished with the petals of a mini chrysanthemum from japan. it’s both a palate cleanser and eye candy before the indulging continues with the steamed truffle beef tenderloin with anchovy garlic sauce. the meat is meltingly tender and the sauce gives it an umami lift, further enhanced with a side condiment of fleur de sel (french sea salt) with grilled spices and pepper.

food aside, what truly makes a meal at abu is the impeccable service rendered by their attentive staff. on par with that of michelin-starred restaurants, they seem to have a sixth sense about what diners may want even before you realise it yourself. each course is explained in detail as it is served, and halfway through my dinner, a waiter asked if i would like to move to a just-vacated window table so as to take in the river vista, which is ethereal at night as soft lights shine over its greenish waters.

taking my leave at the end of the meal, a waiter escorts me down the stairs and asks if there’s anything they need to improve on. “none,” i tell him, “everything’s just perfect.” it’s no surprise that since 2012, volando has been in the esteemed relais & chateaux list of exquisite boutique properties that’s renowned for meeting the strictest standards according to these five c’s: character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine. it’s only the second hotel in taiwan to be accorded the honour after villa 32 in beitou, also a hot springs resort.

as the resort deigns, it is the human touch and the connection between hearts that matter above all else – what they call the soul of the innkeeper. later that evening, as i drift off into blissful slumber in the four-poster bed cocooned by netting, luo’s parting words at the end of the valley cascade ritual come back to me. “in the forests across this river, there’s a precious gift that awaits all. it’s always there. i hope you find it and take it with you...that gift is one of peace and calm.”


> volando urai spring spa & resort no 176 sec 5, xinwu road, wulai district, new taipei city, taiwan

this story first appeared in the malay mail online and crave in sunday mail