Seoul-Mates in South Korea: From the Beauty of Jeju Island to the DMZ
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Inside: How to spend a honeymoon in South Korea, from Seoul to Jeju Island to a tour of the DMZ.
Today, the Round-the-World Honeymoon continues…next stop, South Korea!
Thanks to Korean Air’s membership in the Skyteam Alliance, I have passed through Seoul, South Korea on all 9 previous Round-the-World trips. Yet I’ve technically only visited the city once, on Round-the–World #1.
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Like all of my RTW trips, it was in January and Seoul was bitter cold. Think single digits. Fahrenheit.
And let’s just say I was fashionably ill-equipped to survive outside my hotel for more than an hour or two at a time. So, sadly, I didn’t see much of Seoul and I’ve always wanted to go back.
So with our honeymoon visit falling over the summer months, it’s the perfect opportunity for further exploration of South Korea.
My husband, Dave, spent a year of his military career based just outside of Seoul. So he’s also excited to return and see more of the country than just the area around his army base.
The plan for our South Korea visit
We have one week of our RTW itinerary to devote to South Korea. A few days in Seoul is an obvious choice. But we’re also dying to visit some of the islands that the Korean peninsula is famous for.
After a bit of research, we decide on Jeju Island. Mainly because of its reputation as Korea’s most popular honeymoon spot. We are, after all, on our honeymoon.
And today, we’re kicking off the South Korea honeymoon stop on the island of Jeju!
Jeju Island, Korea
Known as the “Island of the Gods” Jeju island is often considered South Korea’s answer to Hawaii.
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Jeju 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.
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Mostly due to its relative isolation, Jeju island has developed a distinct culture and language from mainland Korea.
Where to stay on Jeju Island
The hotel selection process for Jeju is a tricky one.
With thoughts of Hawaii in my head, I envision a beachfront hotel like the Lotte Hotel Jeju or the Haevichi Hotel & Resort. But in-depth research reveals an alarmingly few (affordable) options in the beachfront category.
So instead we opt 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 settle on the Hotel Leo. It’s a modern art-themed hotel near plenty of shopping and dining in Jeju City.
It turns out to be a great choice. The room is spacious and comfortable and the front desk staff are extremely helpful and even speak passable English (a rare find in Jeju). And all this for well under $100 per night.
It’s early evening by the time we reach the hotel. It’s been a seriously long travel day from our last stop in India (via Guangzhou and Seoul).
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We settle into our comfy room and then head out to explore the neighborhood and find some dinner. There are tons of options in the neighborhood but after a week in India, we’re craving something simple.
So when we spot a restaurant that simply says “Chicken and Beer” on the sign, we’re sold.
Lots to do on Jeju
The next day we really, really need to sleep in. Jetlag is not a pretty thing. But generally, one night of good sleep will help right the ship.
With three nights in Jeju, we keep things simple for our first day. We head out to 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 LoveLand, 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 LoveLand is a themed sculpture park dedicated to love around the world.
It seems like the perfect choice for a couple of honeymooners like us. Jeju LoveLand turns out to be a bit on the risqué side at times. But, all in all, it’s a fun afternoon.
And it definitely beats the Hello Kitty museum. But possibly not the Chocolate Museum.
Out and about on Jeju Island
For Day #3 on Jeju Island it’s time to get out and explore a bit more of the island.
We’re dying to see Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. And we’ve seen pictures of a couple of beautiful waterfalls down in the southern town of Seogwipo.
Online reviews say it’s 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 head due south and arrive in Seogwipo a little after noon.
Our first stop is the Cheonjiyeon waterfall. The waterfall is easily reached along a landscaped trail through a beautiful garden. It’s an incredibly hot day but the shaded walk to view the waterfall is a nice respite from the heat.
From there, we grab a taxi a few miles down the road to the Jeongbang Waterfall. And this one is 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 is the perfect way to cool off after a long descent to its base.
After leaving the Jeongbang waterfall, we wander aimlessly for a while in the afternoon sun. Finally, we find the eastbound bus that will take us up to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak.
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’s a symbol of Jeju Island and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
We take 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’s already nearing closing time when we arrive. So we have no choice but to catch yet another bus for the hour-long ride back to Jeju City.
It’s been a full day on the bus exploring the far reaches of Jeju in 98-degree weather. We’re exhausted by the time we return to the air-conditioned comfort of the lovely Hotel Leo. Yet we manage to rally and make it out for a quick dinner before collapsing into bed.
From Jeju back to Seoul
The next day we take 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.
The perfect apartment rental in Seoul
For our 4 nights in Seoul, we go the apartment route this time. But again, through Booking.com.
It turns out to be another terrific choice. Our Lotto World Lake View Loft Apartment is in a modern high rise near one of the major metro stations, which makes it ideal for getting around the city.
The loft apartment is small but certainly bigger than a hotel room and has all the comforts of home. Including a washing machine which we desperately need at this point. And like the Hotel Leo in Jeju, it’s well under $100 per night.
By mid-afternoon, we’ve settled into the apartment and decide to head out to explore. It’s Friday and the weather is overcast but the forecast calls for rain over the weekend. So we figure this might be our only chance to see the city and stay dry.
On my previous visit to Seoul, I visited Gyeonbokgung Palace. But it was too cold to stay for long. I’ve always wanted to go back so we decide to start there and see where the night takes us.
The palace is just as stunning as I remember it. But unfortunately, it’s closing just as we arrive. So we have to settle for a walk around the courtyard before the gates close.
We wander across the street to Gwanghwamun Square and discover a night market in full swing. Merchandise tents line the square and local musicians provide a soundtrack for a nice evening stroll through the city.
We wander the entire length of the market and end up near Seoul’s City Hall and the Deoksugung Palace. It’s still open and free to enter so we take a detour around its beautiful grounds.
From there, we find our way to the Namdaemun Night Market and stop in the food hall for an authentic taste of Korean cuisine for dinner. A quick ride on the subway later, we’re back to the apartment for the night.
A walk down memory lane…
For our second day in Seoul, Dave wants to visit the area where he was stationed for a year back in the 90’s.
The army base is Camp Hovey and it’s located in a town called Dongducheon. A quick check of the subway map reveals it’s easily accessible from the heart of the city on the train, about a 45-minute ride.
We arrive in Dongducheon around lunchtime and quickly found Camp Casey (next to Hovey). The “Little America” town that surrounds the bases caters primarily to soldiers from both camps.
There’s Western-style fast food and all the signs are in English. There’s also a neon-sign-lined nightclub area and an alarming number of pawn shops (for those who spend too much time in the nightclubs, Dave helpfully explains).
We wandered the streets for a bit so Dave can reminisce about his year in Korea and then we stop for lunch.
On the train ride back we make some plans for our last two days in Seoul.
Tours to the DMZ
The other thing we really want to do is a trip up to the DMZ. To visit the DMZ you have to be part of an organized tour. It’s Saturday now and we thought Monday would be the perfect time to do that.
Unfortunately, when we start researching tours, we quickly discover Mondays are the only day the DMZ is closed to tours.
Uh-oh. I feared we might have another “Taj Mahal” incident on our hands.
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We scramble to find a tour company with a Sunday tour we can join tomorrow. It’s already nearing 5pm and we’re afraid we’re doomed.
Luckily, we e-mailed a company called VIP Tours and they respond within the hour and confirm our pick-up for 8am tomororw morning.
Whew! DMZ crisis averted.
A Trip to the DMZ
Sunday morning we’re up early to grab breakfast before meeting our car at 8:00am. The car takes us to meet up with about 30 others on the motorcoach we’ll be taking up to the DMZ.
By 8:45am, we’re loaded up and headed north.
When you visit the DMZ, there are basically two tour options:
DMZ Tour Option #1 – Joint Security Area (JSA)
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.
It 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.
Option #2 – The Basic DMZ Tour
So we 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.
What is the DMZ?
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.
First Stop – The Third Tunnel
Our first stop for the day is 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 we enter the tunnel, our guide instructs us to put all of our belongings (including cameras) in a locker and put on the hardhats provided.
We are allowed to keep phones in our pockets and our guide (I won’t name him for obvious reasons) is kind enough to mention where there are parts of the tunnel that are not monitored by CCTV. So we do get a couple of pictures.
The tunnel is long and cold but it’s really fascinating to imagine that it goes nearly all the way to Seoul.
Eventually, we emerge from the tunnel and retrieve our belongings. Then we head next door to the Exhibition Hall. There, we watch an interesting movie about the Korean War and the creation of the DMZ and then visit the displays in the exhibition.
A view of North Korea from the Dora Observatory
From there, we get our first glimpse into North Korea from the Dora observatory.
It’s a hazy day so visibility isn’t great. But thanks to binoculars we’re 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.
Our guide explains 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 visit what I found to be 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. For less than a dollar, you can buy a souvenir ticket to see the train sitting passenger-less on the tracks.
The immaculately maintained station sits idle, 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. Visitors can take photographs of the trains theoretically scheduled for Pyongyang. The station’s $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.
The Korean BBQ Experience
When we get back to Seoul at the conclusion of our tour, our guide announces that he’s heading to his favorite local restaurant for lunch. He guarantees a great Korean BBQ experience for anyone who wants to join.
We aren’t super familiar with the nuances of Korean BBQ but really want to try it, so we decide to tag along.
He’s right, it’s a terrific meal. So terrific, in fact, that we don’t even need dinner later that night. After lunch, we stroll the downtown area a bit before heading back to the apartment for the night.
Last day in Korea (next time, more of Jeju!)
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. Especially Jeju, I feel like we could have spent several more days there.
But now it’s time to head Down Under for the next part of our honeymoon journey…next stop, Sydney!
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