Though I pass through South Korea on nearly every Round-the-World trip thanks to Korean Air’s membership in the Skyteam Alliance, I’d technically only visited once, on Round-the–World #1. Since it was January on that trip, Seoul was bitter cold and I was fashionably ill-equipped to survive outside my hotel for more than an hour or two at a time. Needless, to say, I didn’t see much of Seoul and I’ve always wanted to go back.
And with this trip falling over the summer months, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for further exploration of South Korea. Dave had spent a year of his military career based just outside of Seoul so he was also excited to return and see more of the country than just the area around his army base.
We planned for a whole week in South Korea. A few days in Seoul was an obvious choice but we were also dying to get out to some of the islands that the Korean peninsula is famous for. After a bit of research, we chose Jeju Island because of its reputation as Korea’s most popular honeymoon spot. We were, after all, on our honeymoon!
Lots to do on Jeju
Known as the “Island of the Gods” and often considered South Korea’s answer to Hawaii, Jeju Island is Korea’s largest island and its only self-governing province. And yes, that means it counts as another country according to the Traveler’s Century Club – for those of you keeping score at home, my current country count is 166. Mostly due to its relative isolation, Jeju island has developed a distinct culture and language from mainland Korea.
The hotel selection process for Jeju was a tricky one. With thoughts of Hawaii in my head, I’d envisioned a beachfront hotel but in-depth research revealed alarmingly few (affordable) options in the beachfront category. So we decided to base in Jeju City and make use of the local bus system to get out and see the island.
After exhaustive searching on Booking.com we finally settled on the Hotel Leo, a brand new art-themed hotel near plenty of shopping and dining in Jeju City. It turned out to be a great choice – the room was spacious and comfortable, the front desk staff were extremely helpful and even spoke passable English (a rare find in Jeju)…all for well under $100 per night.
It was early evening by the time we reached the hotel after a long travel day from India (via Guangzhou and Seoul). We settled into our comfy room and then headed out to explore the neighborhood and find some dinner. There were tons of options in the neighborhood but after a week in India we were craving something simple. So when we spotted a restaurant that said simply “Chicken and Beer” on the sign, we were sold.
Jeju Love Land
The next day we really, really needed to sleep in. So we did. Jetlag is not a pretty thing but generally one night of good sleep can help right the ship. With three nights in Jeju we decided to keep things simple for our first day and check out one of the island’s dozens of kitschy theme parks.
Jeju is well-known for its wide variety of quirky museums and unusual theme parks. For example, there’s a Hello Kitty Museum, a Teddy Bear Museum, a Chocolate Museum, Jeju Mini-Mini Land (featuring miniature versions of the world’s great monuments), as well as museums for paper dolls and trick arts. You get the idea.
Though not exactly a museum, Jeju Love Land is a themed sculpture park dedicated to love around the world. It seemed like the perfect choice for a couple of honeymooners like us and, though it was a bit on the risqué side at times, all in all it was a fun afternoon. And it definitely beat the Hello Kitty museum. But possibly not the Chocolate Museum.
Out and about on Jeju
For Day #3 on Jeju it was time to get out and explore a bit more of the island. We were dying to see Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak and we’d seen pictures of a couple of beautiful waterfalls down in the southern town of Seogwipo. Online reviews said it was fairly simple to navigate the local bus system so with a little direction from the front desk clerk we set off for a full day of Korean adventure.
After a bus change at Jeju’s central station, we headed due south and arrived in Seogwipo a little after noon. Our first stop was the Cheonjiyeon waterfall, easily reached along a landscaped trail through a beautiful garden. It was an incredibly hot day but the shaded walk to view the waterfall was a nice respite from the heat.
From there, we grabbed a taxi a few miles down the road to the Jeongbang Waterfall and this one was truly spectacular. It’s the only place in South Korea where you can see water cascade straight into the sea. The mist from the giant waterfall was the perfect way to cool off after a long descent to its base. After leaving Jeongbang we wandered aimlessly for a while in the afternoon sun before finally finding the eastbound bus that would take us up to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak.
Also known as “Sunrise Peak,” Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak is a huge crater that formed when an underwater volcano erupted in the sea nearly 100,000 years ago. It is a symbol of Jeju and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
We took a walk along the coast in Seongsan with a view of the crater jutting out into the sea. There are hiking trails to the top but unfortunately it was already nearing closing time when we arrived so we had no choice but to catch yet another bus for the hour-long ride back to Jeju City.
After a full day on the bus exploring the far reaches of Jeju in 98 degree weather, we were exhausted by the time we returned to the air-conditioned comfort of the Hotel Leo. Yet we somehow managed to rally and make it out for a quick dinner before collapsing into bed.
Jeju to Seoul
The next day we took a short, 45-minute flight back to Seoul to begin a 4-night stay in South Korea’s bustling capital city. Roughly half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the metropolitan area of Seoul. It is a massive city to be sure, but it’s also an easily navigable city thanks to its impressive rail service.
For our 4 nights in Seoul we went the apartment route through Airbnb.com and it turned out to be a terrific choice. Our apartment was in a modern high rise literally right above one of the major metro stations, which made it ideal for getting around the city. The apartment was small but certainly bigger than a hotel room and had all the comforts of home including a washing machine which we desperately needed at this point. And like the Hotel Leo in Jeju, it was well under $100 per night.
By mid afternoon we’d settled into the apartment and decided to head out to explore. It was Friday and the weather was overcast but the forecast threatened rain over the weekend so we figured it might be our only chance to see the city and stay dry. On my previous visit to Seoul, I’d visited Gyeonbokgung Palace but it was too cold to stay for long. I’d always wanted to go back so we decided to start there and see where the night took us.
The palace was just as stunning as I remembered it but unfortunately it was closing just as we arrived so we had to settle for a walk around the courtyard before the gates closed. We wandered across the street to Gwanghwamun Square and discovered a night market in full swing. Merchandise tents lined the square and local musicians provided a soundtrack for a nice evening in the city. We strolled the entire length of the market and ended up near Seoul’s City Hall and the Deoksugung Palace, which was still open and free to enter so we detoured around its beautiful grounds.
From there, we found our way to the Namdaemun Night Market and stopped in the food hall for an authentic taste of Korean cuisine for dinner. A quick ride on the subway later, we were back to the apartment for the night.
A walk down memory lane…
For our second day in Seoul, Dave wanted to visit the area where he was stationed for a year back in the 90’s. The army base was Camp Hovey and it’s located in a town called Dongducheon. A quick check of the subway map revealed that it was easily accessible from the heart of the city on the train, about a 45 minute ride.
We arrived in Dongducheon around lunchtime and quickly found Camp Casey (next to Hovey) and the “Little America” town that surrounds the bases and caters primarily to soldiers from both camps. Western-style fast food, all signs in English, a neon-sign-lined nightclub area and an alarming number of pawn shops (for those who spend too much time in the nightclubs, my husband explained).
We wandered the streets for a bit while Dave reminisced about his year in Korea and then stopped for lunch. After lunch we took advantage of the abundance of English-speaking services and Dave got a haircut while I got a mani-pedi.
On the train ride back we tried to make some plans for our next two days in Seoul. The other thing we really wanted to do was a trip up to the DMZ. To visit the DMZ you have to be part of an organized tour so we thought Monday would be a perfect time to do that.
Unfortunately, when we started researching tours, we quickly realized that Monday is the only day the DMZ is closed to tours. Uh-oh. Fearing we might have another “Taj Mahal” incident on our hands, we scrambled to find a tour company with a Sunday tour that we could join the following day. Since it was already nearing 5pm on Saturday night, we were afraid we were doomed.
Luckily, we e-mailed a company called VIP Tours and they got back to us within the hour and confirmed our pick-up for 8am the next morning. Whew! Crisis averted.
A Trip to the DMZ
Sunday morning we were up early to grab breakfast across the street before meeting our car at 8:00am. The car took us to meet up with about 30 others on the motor coach we’d be taking up to the DMZ for the day. By 8:45am, we were loaded up and headed north.
When you visit the DMZ, there are basically two tour options. The first is the full-day JSA (Joint Security Area) Tour which includes the truce village of Panmunjeom. This tour is as close as you can get to North Korean soldiers without getting shot and includes a visit to the heavily-guarded premises of the JSA conference room, the place where North and South Korea come together for talks. It’s also the location of the only road between the two countries. This tour also includes all of the stops on Tour Option #2.
Unfortunately, the JSA tour is closed on Sundays and Mondays so we had to settle for the 2nd option, the basic DMZ tour. This half-day tour visits the 3rd Tunnel, the Dora Observatory, the DMZ exhibition hall, the Dorasan Station and the Unification Village.
Slashing across the Korean peninsula for 150 miles, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 2 ½ mile-wide buffer that separates North and South. Despite its name, it’s the most heavily militarized border in the world. Established at the end of the Korean War in 1953 the DMZ is a de facto border running in the vicinity of the 38th parallel. Large numbers of troops are stationed along both sides of the line, each guarding against any potential aggression from the other side. The only way to visit this heavily restricted area is by organized tour.
Our first stop for the day was the third tunnel. Since 1974, South Korea has discovered 4 tunnels dug by the North that cross the DMZ. The tunnels are believed to be part of a military invasion plan. The Third Tunnel was discovered on October 17, 1978. It is considered more threatening than the first two tunnels due to its location, just 30 miles from Seoul. As many as 30,000 armed soldiers could pass through the tunnel per hour, exiting on the southern end at three different locations.
Before entering the tunnel, our guide instructed us to put all of our belongings (including cameras) in a locker and put on hardhats provided. We were allowed to keep phones in our pockets and our guide (I won’t name him for obvious reasons) was also kind enough to mention where there were parts of the tunnel that were not monitored by CCTV (so we did get a couple of pictures).
The tunnel was long and cold but really fascinating to imagine that it goes nearly all the way to Seoul. After emerging from the tunnel and retrieving our belongings, we headed next door to the Exhibition Hall where we watched a interesting movie about the Korean War and the creation of the DMZ and then visited the displays in the exhibition.
From there, we got our first glimpse into North Korea from the Dora observatory. It was a hazy day so the visibility wasn’t great but thanks to binoculars we were able to get a pretty clear view of the North Korean flag atop the world’s 4th-tallest flag pole and the town nearest the border. And thanks to my zoom lens I was able to get a somewhat decent picture. Our guide explained the distinct differences in the landscape across the border. While South Korea is lush and green, North Korea has been so heavily deforested that hardly any trees remain.
Next, we visited what I thought was one of the most interesting stops of the day, the Dorasan Rail Station. On June 15, 2000, the South-North Joint Declaration signed by both Koreas called for the completion of the Gyeongui rail line broken during the Korean War. The mines and barbed wire were removed and Dorasan Station opened April 11, 2002. The South and North connected the rail line on June 14, 2003 at the Military Demarcation Line in the DMZ.
For a short time, limited freight flowed between the two countries but rising tensions brought a quick end to that. Today the gleaming station sits empty except for a ticket counter where for less than a dollar you can buy a souvenir ticket to see the train sitting passenger-less on the tracks. Today, the immaculately-maintained station sits idly, ready to re-open if the divide between North and South should ever subside.
The station’s only current function is as an interesting stop on the DMZ tour route where tourists take photographs of the trains theoretically scheduled for Pyongyang. The station is gorgeous and you’d never know it was built 13 years ago. Its $40 million dollar price tag was an investment in hope for peace but so far that investment hasn’t paid off. Here’s hoping it will someday.
It was an absolutely fascinating tour and when we got back to Seoul at the conclusion of our tour, our guide announced that he was heading to his favorite local restaurant for lunch and guaranteed a great Korean BBQ experience for anyone who wanted to join. Since we weren’t super familiar with the nuances of Korean BBQ but really wanted to try it, we decided to tag along.
He was right, it was a terrific meal. So terrific, in fact, that we didn’t even need dinner later that night. After lunch we wandered around the downtown area a bit and then headed back to the apartment for the night.
Last day in Korea
On our last day in Seoul, we decided to take it easy. We slept in and then headed over to the Itaewon area for lunch and a little shopping. Thanks to its proximity to the main U.S. Army base, this expat-friendly neighborhood felt almost like a US city – all the major US fast food and restaurant chains were well-represented.
For our final South Korean date-night we ventured out into our own neighborhood for one final Korean BBQ experience and it did not disappoint. It’s been an amazing week exploring Jeju Island and Seoul and I’d love to come back and see even more of South Korea someday.
But now it’s time to head Down Under for the next part of our honeymoon journey…next stop, Sydney!