Story by: Merissa Quek, Photos by: Merissa Quek
As the winter wears off and spring reawakens, Korea’s islands are still, calm and welcoming to those looking to steer away from the maddening crowd. But with the inconvenience of travel and fickle springtime weather, it’s not uncommon to cling to your weekends like cellophane and dismiss the idea as an exercise in self-torment; on those weekends, even Jeju isn’t worth a nine-hour journey.
Luckily for you, Korea’s western coast offers an escape to mountains, beaches and the quiet of the countryside without annoyance. No long-haul bus or subway ride is required for a quick reprieve from the city. Korea has more than 3,300 officially affirmed islands, and a handful of them are just outside your doorstep. Pick a sunny day, set aside three hours and hit the road.
Seonjae, Cheuk and Mok Islands
Seonjae Island is the most accessible of this tri-grouping, located just off the coast near Incheon and connected to the Korean mainland by a bridge. Stepping onto the island drops you in the middle of the countryside, where the smell of grapes wafts from the vineyards if the wind blows just right. The number of pensions here will give you an idea of how popular this area is in summertime, and some are downright quirky. One consists entirely of mushroom-shaped buildings, and another has a large replica of the Statue of Liberty standing at the edge of a swimming pool. But the most intriguing feature of Seonjae Island is only visible at low tide. For a few hours every day, a narrow sandbar connects Seonjae to Cheuk and Mok Islands before disappearing back into the ocean.
From a distance, all that’s visible of Mok Island is one small hill. At low tide, however, the sandy path that leads there from Seonjae directs you to a large sandy beach that forms behind the hill, revealing some prime (albeit temporary) real estate for fishermen and their floating baskets. If walking the distance seems dull, you can speed across on an ATV and explore more of the surrounding areas left exposed by the receding tide.
Larger and more heavily populated, Cheuk Island boasts 38 inhabitants and is surrounded by the vast mud flats common to the western Korean coast. Once the path is exposed, so are hundreds of concrete-mounted poles carrying power to the remote hamlet. Despite the isolation, fishermen here are in heaven, and their high spirits bubble over into generosity; don’t be surprised if your polite curiosity is rewarded with an offer of freshly cooked crabs boiled with ramen. Each sweet bite of crab is a dream come true.
If you want more seafood, head back to Seonjae Island for some of its famous oysters and short-neck clams. The kalguksu — a showstopper noodle soup piled with clams — is especially delicious when eaten right next to the mud flats where the clams were harvested.
From exit 1 or 2 of Oido Station, walk to the main road and take bus 790. It leaves every hour.
For the adventurous traveler with a little more time, Gureop Island’s tiny village (really just 10 houses grouped together) and beach are worth the two ferry rides it takes to get there. At low tide, bright purple starfish cling to the rocks and intrepid hikers can catch crabs with their bare hands. When you’re done gawking at the scene, you can hike either east or west from the beach to find an excellent campsite for the evening. The westward hike is occasionally challenging, but you’ll be rewarded with a stroll among the softest of reeds, with awe-inspiring views of the rolling hills and surrounding sea. The westernmost headland is the best place to set up camp; you’ll catch a jaw-dropping sunset, sleep under the stars and wake up to a misty, dew-filled dawn.
Outside exit 1 of Dong-Incheon Station, take a taxi to the Coastal Ferry Terminal. Catch a ferry to Dongjeok Island (46,000 won for a return ticket, one hour each way). Then, on Dongjeok Island, connect to the boat bound for Gureop Island.
It costs 15,000 won for a return ticket, two hours each way. A fee of 10,000 won is payable upon arrival at Gureop Island, and with that fee you get a lift from the dock into the village. On weekends and public holidays it’s advisable to reserve ferry tickets beforehand.