Korea's Fantastic Islands
Sep 10, 2010
David Rich 1000 Words
1200 Korean Won = $1 US
Korea's Fantastic Islands
I've never met a soul who not having been there thought South Korea was other than boring, cold, insular and exceedingly backward. This includes a golfing nut friend who, after I emailed her a list of world class Korean golf courses, said Korea had never been on her list of places to visit. If you don't go, you don't know. And she hadn't a clue.
Korea's physical attractions range from spectacular islands and ancient temples in a rainbow of colors to captivating mountains and fabulous festivals. However, its most striking asset is its warm and hospitable people who are particularly copasetic with Americans. South Korea may be the only country on earth where a majority of the population actively likes Americans, as opposed to mostly welcoming our pocketbooks.
The histories of the U.S. and Korea have been inextricably intertwined for 60 years and the South Koreans are graciously grateful. My evidence ranges from Seoul cops who bundled me into the backseat of a squad car to find a hotel I couldn't find (extremely crowded with my luggage but who's griping) to solicitous hotel owners and park rangers, assorted subway saviors who'd point me onto the right subway train at the drop of a perplexed look, which I've totally perfected and several gentlemen who found the bus stop I needed though blocks out of their way.
For those who prefer to go where they're wanted as opposed to tolerated, such as most anywhere else on the planet, Korea is a no-brainer. And if the general attitude toward Americans isn't enough there are the islands, of which South Korea offers hundreds. My personal favorite is Ulleungdo, 90 miles off the east coast, a mere 30 miles (50 km) in circumference and home to a 10,000 Ulleungdoans principally occupied in squid-fishing, pumpkin-taffy manufacture and servicing the boatloads of Korean and a few other random tourists who embark on its fabulously jagged shores.
Having spent an idyllic week on Ulleungdo five years previous I knew precisely where to head after jumping off the ferry, onto the Dodong seaside trail, miles of spectacular adventure, down a hundred foot spiral staircase and across rainbow colored bridges barely skimming the brimming surf, past the Dodong lighthouse for several miles to the village of Jeodong pasted on the side of nigh-vertical Ulleungdo. Dang, I loved this place.
Next morning I jumped on a two-hour boat tour around the island, Korean tourists spending every second throwing popcorn and Cheese-its to Ulleungdo's raucous seagull population, a mass of swirling feathers epitomizing piggy pandering for junk food while the locals took each other's photos in front of weirdly shaped islets. Naturally every rocklet was fancifully named from Elephant, that looked like it was siphoning seawater, to three lumpy angels. At tour's end I snagged yummy dried squid for $1.65 each, ultra-chewy for building massive jaw muscles, along with the pumpkin taffy washed down by incredibly cheap rice wine.
Many Koreans take a patriotic tour to close-by Dokdo Island, also claimed by Japan for eons. While I reveled on Ulleungdo a 58-year old Buddhist Monk received a 6-month suspended sentence for threatening to kill the Japanese Ambassador: offense, Japan approved textbooks stating Dokdo was owned by it.
The locals' favorite island is their largest, the primary honeymoon destination and Korea's resort capital, Jejudo, a humongous sub-tropical island off the south coast. I've criss-crossed Jejudo on two separate trips and found my favorite activity was scootering for close-up adventure. My favorite ride was along the scenic south coast and to the Jejudo art sculpture park.
Jejudo's highlights range from Korea's highest mountains, the extinct volcanoes in the middle of Jejudo including lake filled calderas, to the diving women of Udo, a small island off Jejudo's east coast. I stayed in a spacious hotel room with a balcony overlooking the black sand beach next to Ilchulbong volcano in the tiny town where the ferry trundles across two miles of open sea to Udo, another hot-bed of scootering fantasies. The diving women were fascinating to watch, three dozen wetsuit-clad ladies taking to the sea with floats and nets bags for snagging abalone and other seafood delicacies. Next morning after I'd scootered Udo two dozen diving women marched in front of my balcony and took to the sea as I enjoyed breakfast on my patio.
These simple pleasures ignored the dozens of world class resorts, golf clubs and hokey tourist attractions that populate much of Jejudo. But no matter anyone's druthers there is something for everyone, and lots of it on Jejudo, one of Korea's many fantastic islands. But if you don't go, you'll never know.
When you go to South Korean Islands: South Korea is south of San Francisco (38th parallel), sweltering in summer (only go in spring or autumn), cold and windy in the middle of winter but it's never boring or insular. The country is more technologically advanced than the USA, from its bullet trains to its internet and computers in every hotel room, smart cards used to buy anything from bus and subway trips to shop goods, and what goods, largely designer. Yet it's far less expensive than Japan, which is famous for its $100 melons. Melons in Korea only cost $10. But extremely nice hotels can be found anywhere outside of Seoul for $43 (50,000 Won), and in Seoul from $43 and up. The food is excellent and relatively inexpensive, ranging from seafood to seafood extraordinaire, though the thirty plus varieties of kimchi may be an acquired taste for many visitors, as is Soju, the fiery liquor that is the world's number one simply because many Koreans drink dirt-cheap Soju like Russians drink vodka. Scooters rent on Jeju for $20 a day, 125cc with ample power for two adventurous adults or extra-big kids. Flights to Jejudo from most anywhere in Korea cost about $50 a seat. My Jejudo beach hotel with balcony and view cost $32 a night.