Monday, May 10, 2010

another side of Korea

A few closing thoughts on our visit to Korea...

When we went to Korea last August, it was mostly a stopover on the way to Australia and the rest of our trip. We spent two full days in Seoul, knocking off all the touristy items on our list.

This time, although we spent only one full day in Seoul, it felt like more than enough. Other than the food (which was yummy as usual), we mostly hung out in department stores and malls. Unfortunately, the weather was a bit rainy, which did encourage much additional city exploration.

The good thing was that we'd already planned to spend three full days on Jeju Island. Even on arrival, it was obvious that Jeju was different. D was a bit apprehensive about driving after our experiences as pedestrians in Seoul, but once we'd picked up our rental car and gotten out of the area immediately surrounding the airport, traffic was light and the roads were well-paved and clearly marked.

Over the next three days, we found that there were lots of things to do on Jeju. Jeju is a volcanic island and there are lots of natural attractions and formations like waterfalls, lava tubes, and other interesting volcanic rocks.

Choenjeyeon Falls

Manjanggul Lava Tube (4km long!)

"Jusangjeolli" volcanic rock formations

Some of the man-made structures were also unique and picturesque.

Seonimgyo Bridge

The omnipresent "dol hareubang" statues are protective spirits, carved from volcanic rock.

We saw lots of other cute statues in Hallim Park; not sure if they also have a special meaning.

Generally I felt like the food was more home-style and "authentic". We did eat at hotels once or twice, but generally we would drive around until we saw a sign that caught our eye. One time we ended up at a place in the middle of the island that served only one dish: spicy pork bulgolgi, cafeteria-style. Luckily it was not too spicy for D, there were unlimited sides, soup, and rice, and the total bill came out to roughly $8 USD.

This pork bone and potato soup may be the most delicious thing we ate in Korea. It was also huge; when we ordered it and another dish, the guy taking our order hesitated a bit, but as he spoke no English and we spoke no Korean, I guess he decided it would be too hard to try and change our minds.

There were little "museums" and studios all over the island. One of the most famous is the Teddy Bear Museum. I was skeptical at first but in the end I was really glad to have gone; there were teddy bear replicas of famous paintings (Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, The Thinker, The Kiss), famous people and moments in history (Charles & Di on their wedding day, the invasion of Normandy), and lots of other cute displays.

My favorite exhibit at the Teddy Bear Museum was this "seven continents" display.

Nearby was the Joanne Studio, where we saw lots of gorgeously handmade teddy bears.

We also stopped by the O'sulloc Tea Museum, known for its award-winning green teas (their green tea ice cream was delicious).

Of course, the hotels also had lots of activities going, too. We happened to coincide with the PGA's Ballantine's Championship (there were golf courses all over the island) and often saw people checking the players board in the hotel lobby. Before arriving, we'd chosen to stay at the Shilla rather than the Lotte Hotel based on price, but we eventually decided that the Shilla was more our style; the Lotte had lots of "family-friendly" attractions such as cute windmills and a volcano show, but the Shilla felt more laid-back and Zen.

We did go to the Lotte one night to check out the volcano, though I thought it was no more impressive than the Mirage's volcano in Las Vegas.

On the last day, we discovered the Shilla had an entire PS3 game room, complete with a library of games. Unfortunately, we only had time to stop by and take a quick glance.

We found Jeju Island quite pretty, and relaxing but not boring. I was glad that we'd rented a car; there were many tour buses and we were able to avoid the crowds by timing our stops (best times: early morning and during lunch).

On our second full day, after stopping by the teddy bear museums, we decided to drive out to Sunrise Peak despite the fog and rain, and we were rewarded by a short break in the clouds.

Then, on our very last day, we finally spent some time exploring the Shilla Hotel grounds.

Many Korean dramas are shot on Jeju Island, and there are little signs indicating exact filming locations. We ran across this one while wandering around the Shilla.

Before our trip we'd been debating between visiting Jeju Island, Gyeongju (a historic city), and Seoraksan (a national park). Based on advice from two native Koreans, we picked Jeju despite its touristy reputation, and I'm glad we did.

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