Korea abounds with getaway destinations. It can be difficult choosing new turf to explore when myriad options are never more than a few hours away by land, sea or air.
“Look at this! Temples in Gyeongju! Four hours away!” “Hang on, there’s skiing in Gangwon! Three hours away!” “Wait just a second! The beaches of Jeju! An hour away!” Of course, everyone else in the country is thinking the same thing, has the same resources at their disposal, the same time away from work. Last minute getaway doesn’t work in a tiny country inhabited by 50 million travel-frenzied folk. I called one booking agent after the other looking for flights, to no avail. I argued at the bus terminal in bad Korean and broken English with no luck. Disheartened, I spun my globe in search of nearby lands to explore. I closed my eyes, licked my thumb and jammed it into the space between Korea and Japan. Surprisingly, it found purchase on a spent volcano halfway between nations. A little research revealed this mysterious land to be Ulleung-do, a paradise fraught with aromatic trees, wind, beautiful women, water and rocks but void of thieves, pollution and snakes.
Created from stardust for Adam himself, I felt the island calling. Immediately I booked the last two seats on a bus to the coast and a ferry across the open seas, unsure if the volcano was set to blow anytime soon.
The beauty of Ulleung-do betrays its violent history. Fierce volcanic activity birthed the island from the sea floor, crafting steep cliffs along the coast that explode from crystal cerulean waters and a breathtaking peak – Seonginbong – that chastises clouds from its outpost in the center; there is perhaps no Korean vista more stunning than the approach to Ulleung-do by boat. The day we arrived we toured the island by bus (bus and taxi tours can be arranged beforehand or upon arrival at the Tourist Information Center), covering half of the island, from the remarkable Dobong Harbor to the wide, sweeping plains of the Nari Valley, in just over four hours.
Expecting nothing but a steady diet of fish – cooked, raw and/or smoked – we were delighted at the opportunity to feast on Ulleung- do Sanchaebibimbap, a hodgepodge of homegrown vegetables, steamed rice, fresh eggs and tart fermented paste, as well as Yaksobulgogi, a marinated beef dish made with medicinal herb-fed cattle that have been raised locally. Satiated, we chimped the photos we had made on our first excursion. I’ll never want for angles on elephant, lion or turtle rock for as long as I live, though the stories provided by our local guide were certainly more entrancing than the rock formations themselves.
Hard to believe that you need to plan what you’ll see and what you’ll skip on an island with an area of 73 square kilometers, but that’s exactly what we had to do. Korea’s embarrassment of natural riches extends all the way out to this tiny spec in the East Sea. On the back of a cocktail napkin we plotted an adventure that would take us up and down the back of the island’s largest mountain, to Haengnam lighthouse, back across the basin for a touch of ancient culture and the sensational views afforded by the Taeha Lighthouse, a quick stop (and a dip when no one’s looking) in the Bongnae Falls before one last play at Zeus – like observance from the Dokdo Observatory. Or eschew it all for some bridge jumping and a swim in the cleanest, clearest waters in Asia.
The hike to Seonginbong Peak is one of the best in the country. Standing on a rocky outcrop at over 900 meters, surrounded by ocean waters for what could be forever, clouds race by with a gift of cool mist for tired, weary flesh. I remember being transported to some other plane, if only for an instant. The bay view from Taeha Lighthouse is every bit as remarkable; strange then that my fondest memories of the island are of jumping off bridges and rock platforms near Jeo-dong, sharing drinks with new friends on the warm lava rocks and diving with locals for shells and sunken treasure. Beware the Christmas lights that hang limp from the railings, however; soaking wet and shivering, grabbing hold of the rail delivered a shocking good time I’m not interested in reliving again. The rest of the trip was a big slice of heaven. No snakes anywhere.
CAN’T MISS TREATS
• Honghapbap: Hard-shelled mussels in seasoned rice and fermented vegetables. An island specialty.
• Ttagaebibap: Shellfish in seasoned rice. Ulleung-do is known throughout Korea for the quality of the seafood it farms.
• Cuttlefish: Smoked, steamed, jerked or served raw.
• Hobak Taffy: A treat that is sweet and tart at once. Hobak taffy is to Ulleung-do what oranges are to jeju.
REST YOUR HEAD
Accommodations can be arranged upon arrival, but during peak season it is recommended you book ahead.
Consider these options:
• Chusan Ilga Pension Guesthouse in Gyeongsangbuk-do
Chusan Ilga Pension is situated below Mt. Songgotsan in Chusan-ri. Stay for the best views from any hotel on the island.
• Ulleung Resort Daea Hotel Tourist Hotel in Gyeongsangbuk-do
Ulleung-do’s best resort hotel. Rooms built on the side of the mountain overlook the ocean.
• Ulleung Marina Tourist Hotel Tourist Hotel in Gyeongsangbuk-do
In the woods 500m from the sea, Ulleung Marina is located in the resort area of Hubakgol.
Ferries from the mainland terminals depart once a day (twice during the summer peak season) and take between 3-4 hours to reach Ulleung-do.
Pohang and Mukho Terminals service Dobong Harbor.
Pohang Ferry Terminal: +82-54-242-5111~5
Mukho Ferry Terminal: +82-33-531-5891
Ulleung Ferry Terminal: +82-54-791-0831~3
Adult fares range from 45,000 won – 60,000 won
For more information, go to www.ulleung.go.kr .