Often translated as the “land of the morning calm,” south korea (officially the republic of Korea) boasts majestic mountains, stunning coastlines, misty archipelagos and verdant rice paddies. Still relatively untapped by Western travelers, this East Asian destination proves a trove of treasures both natural and manmade. As one of the world’s most homogeneous cultures-racially and linguistically-Korea maintains its own distinctive language, dress and cuisine.
The nation’s 50 million-plus residents have helped its economy rise to the globe’s 15th largest, and, while Koreans no doubt enjoy their modern-day success, they highly value their traditional culture, too. Here, visitors experience cutting-edge technology and skylines buzzing with electrifying neon one minute; the next, they step back in time, wandering 14th-century palaces, tranquil imperial gardens, intimate tearooms and swirling marketplaces. In South Korea, the rhythms of old and new practice a delicate dance.
DISCOVER THE CAPITAL
No trip is complete without a visit to the capital, a bustling metropolis of 10 million-plus that houses some of the world’s largest corporations and an impressively extensive subway system. Situated on the Han River, the sprawling cityscape juxtaposes beautiful, ornate temples against modern skyscrapers. Although it’s now one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, Seoul has numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites that showcase the region’s rich past.
Must-see Seoul sites include the War Memorial of Korea, crafts and culture hub Insadong, Bongeunsa Buddhist temple, Namdaemun Market and such palaces as Changdeokgung Royal and Gyeongbok.
Active visitors enjoy hiking the trails of Bugaksan, or they stroll along the tranquil urban stream Cheonggyecheon. To get a dose of “old,” Bukchon Hanok Village presents re-created traditional homes; for “new,” the D’Light showroom dazzles with Samsung Electronics’ futuristic gadgets.
Luxury lodging and dining provide an oasis from Korea’s crowds. Culinary dishes range from bibimbap, a staple of veggies, rice, red sauce and fried egg, to kalbi, grilled marinated beef. Popular market snacks include fish-shaped waffles filled with a sweet, red bean paste.
Those wanting to experience hanjeongsik, traditional Korean food, head to Seoul’s Song Jook Heon, located across the street from the secret garden of Changdeok Palace. Another popular option, Sok Chon, was preferred by the late president Noh Muh-hyun and has become a mainstay on the tourist trail. Here, try samgyetang-young chicken that’s been slow-cooked and stuffed with chestnuts, garlic, dried jujubes and ginseng. Diners describe restaurant Si Hwa Dam as a museum of sorts; beauty marks the dÃ©cor (display cases filled with ancient relics) and the beautifully handcrafted dishes.
When it comes to Seoul lodgings, the recently renovated Shilla (www.shilla.net) exists as one of the city’s few luxury hotels to also house a high-end restaurant, La Yeon. Marked by ornate rooflines and a well-stocked duty-free store, this top-notch venue offers a traditional Korean lodging option-thick floor blankets on which to sleep. The 24-story Park Hyatt (www.seoul. park.hyatt.com) features ground-to-ceiling windows (in the bathrooms, too), and the sleek, top-floor lobby features panoramic views of tree-lined Gangnam. The centrally located Westin Chosun (www.echosunhotel. com) places guests just steps from the Lotte Department Store and Myeongdong shopping district; the picturesque W Seoul Walkerhill (www.starwoodhotels.com), perched on the slope of Mount Acha, overlooks the Han River.
Several luxury tour operators help craft all-inclusive itineraries. UK-based Cox & Kings (www.coxandkingsusa.com) offers packages like the eight-night “Wonders of South Korea” tour, during which visitors stay at four-star hotels and explore Seoul, rural South Korea (think mountains, waterfalls and the exquisite temples of Songnisan National Park), Gyeonju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom, and coastal port town Busan. Another popular, high-end company-Artisans of Leisure (www.artisansofleisure.com)-offers private, customized tours that focus on experiencing authentic culture. Upon request, guides include activities like Korean cooking classes or taekwondo lessons.
Many day-trippers head from Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), where a heavily fortified border runs the width of the peninsula and separates Korea’s north and south. In the southeast, Gyeongju visitors explore a complex of 200-year-old burial mounds (or tumuli) as well as attractions like Bulguksa, an eighth-century Buddhist temple, and Gyeongju National Museum, which exhibits masterpieces from the Silla period. The Hotel Hyundai Gyeongju (www. hyundaihotel.com), located on the Bomun Lake Resort, boasts spacious rooms, a pool, sauna and multiple restaurants.
Even farther south, visitors frequent Busan, Korea’s second largest city, for attractions ranging from beaches and hiking trails to fish markets and stunning Buddhist temples (like Haedong Yonggung Temple). Art buffs enjoy local museums, while nature fans visit Dongbaek Island and the Nakdong River estuary. The Westin Chosun Beach Hotel became the region’s first deluxe hotel when it opened in 1978; today, the Park Hyatt Busan (www.busan.park.hyatt.com) lodges guests in style.
In the southwest, the volcanic island of Jeju, a popular tourist spot and honeymoon destination, is renowned for its sandy beaches and vibrant sunrises. Here, adventurous guests hike to Baeknok Lake at the top of Hallasan, South Korea’s highest peak. Luxury lodging options include Shilla Jeju and the Lotte Jeju Resort Art Villas (www.lottejejuresort.com).
The Incheon International Airport just outside Seoul, one of the world’s largest airports, has perks like a spa, golf course, casino and skating rink. Korea enjoys four distinct seasons, with spring being an optimal time to visit. From April to June, cherry blossoms bathe the landscape in pink pastels, and residents and visitors alike take advantage of the country’s many national parks. Autumn means mild temperatures and minimal rainfall, and festivals dot the calendar as Korea’s mountaintops erupt into brilliant displays of color.
Artisans of Leisure’s Research & Communications Manager John McGee says, “South Korea has fascinating cultural sights, great food, high-quality crafts and design, a rich history and beautiful landscape…I think the increased awareness of all that South Korea has to offer, combined with the types of services luxury travelers expect, have helped make more and more travelers interested in visiting the country.”
If you haven’t been to Volcano House recently, it’s time to pay the Hawai’i Island hotel a visit. The quaint lodge received a multi-million dollar revamp last year, and though always charming, the 33-guestroom venue has been refurbished to more modern standards. Warm up by the fireplace in the Great Room or relax in a rocker in the indoor lanai as you relish out-of-this-world caldera views of Kilauea and its steady stream of steam. Come sundown, the crater glows red and becomes even more mesmerizing. Now that the cozy venue has crater-view rooms available, you can channel your inner Mark Twain (who was once a Volcano House guest himself) and find creative inspiration while lying in bed under a thick comforter.
Additionally, the hotel also has a snack bar, full-service bar and a well-curated gift shop filled with local craft goods, souvenirs and much more. Its signature restaurant, The Rim, has the trimmings of a fine dining establishment with its white tablecloth covered tables and elegant menu. But don’t be intimidated-lively conversations and children of all ages are always welcome. Serving “Creative Island Cuisine” and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Rim is worth a visit on its own. Tip: if you plan on having dinner there, be sure to make reservations-tables by the windows go fast.
-by Margie Jacinto