Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Road Trip Through South Korea’s Idyllic Countryside

South Korea is one of my favorite travel destinations! I love that everywhere you go, there a wonderful mixture of ultra-modern technology as well as tradition and natural beauty. It is a country full of spectacular sights of both industrialized, urban cities as well as cultural, suburban and rural areas. It is a diverse country for both city tourists and wild adventurers.

As much as I love Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, during this trip, I wanted to venture out and see other parts of the country.

There are many different way to take a road trip in South Korea. As the public transportation is one of the finest and the most efficient in the world, you can take either buses or KTX, high-speed train to any desired destinations. However, we opted to rent a car and drive, which gave us a lot of flexibility to change our itinerary!

Full disclosure, renting a car is expensive in South Korea (about $100/day), but the standard and the quality of car is much better than the run-of-the-mill cars you get in the U.S. Not only was the car we rented looked (and even smelled) like it just came out of a showroom, it was equipped with the top of the line media equipment and GPS.

Instead of renting the car at one of the two main airports, (ICN or GMP), we decided to pick up our rental at a location near by the hotel, which saved us about 3 hours of travel time, and we had to pay for the convenience.

Note that some of the car rental offices are located in residential buildings, which will be difficult to find, and do not be discouraged or worried if you don’t see parking lot of rental cars. As space is limited in Seoul, rental offices may keep one or two cars based on reservations.
Once we picked up the car, we were on our way to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Silla Dynasty located southeast of the Korean Peninsula.

As is the case when taking a road trip in any foreign country, having a reliable GPS is a must! Some may insist traveling without one will enable you to enjoy the off the beaten path, but after nearly three decades of travel experience, I’ve learned that I’m able to enjoy the off the beaten path more if I actually know what path to take.

However, South Korean roads are in an impeccable condition, and there is plenty of great signage in English to make the road trip doable without a navigation system.

Unfortunately, we found out an hour into our road trip that the week we’d designated for the road trip was the week of a major holiday in South Korea, and everyone (which seemed like all of Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants) and their Uhm-ma were on the road with a destination in mind. Note to self, always be aware of major holidays when making travel plans!

Although our trip to Gyeongju took 7 hours in comparison to the 4 hours it was supposed to take, we were glad that we made the trip, as we couldn’t have asked for a more scenic introduction to the South Korean countryside.

South Korea consists in large part of Precambrian rocks that are more than about 540 million years old, and the country is largely mountainous, with small valleys and narrow coastal plains. The T’aebaek Mountains run in roughly a north-south direction along the eastern coastline.
Although none of South Korea’s mountains aren’t very high, they certainly are picturesque and retains a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere even while sitting in a back-to-back traffic jam. And as strange as it may sound, the best part of our prolonged drive were the bus stops along the highway, which were equipped with a great selection of freshly made Korean meals and snacks!

Gyeongju (경주)
Nestled in the central valleys of South Korea is Gyeongju, “walking museum”, as I like to call it. It is a testament to Korea’s past, and there are numerous Buddhist temples and royal burials grounds throughout the city ad beyond to keep you busy for weeks.

Bulguksa Temple
Daereungwon Tomb Complex
Jeonju (전주)
Jeonju is one of South Korea's top destinations, though it remains under the radar for international travelers. The largest city in the country's southwest, Jeonju has a vibrant historic district and a fantastic food scene!

In 2012 the city was designated a Unesco City of Gastronomy. Though the city itself sprawls, the main attractions are mostly clustered in one area, and you can easily wander cobblestone lanes lined with traditional homes, Hanok.

Many hanok are now also guesthouses, and sleeping in a hanok means sleeping on mats on the floor (which benefits from ondol, a unique form of underfloor heating in traditional Korean architecture).

I haven’t slept on the floor since I was a little girl, and my husband and I weren’t sure whether how our wiry middle-aged bodies would react. Surprisingly, we had the best nights sleep, and we enjoyed sharing the experience with my little boy, who thought, “Sleeping on the floor was really cool!”
Jeju-do (제주도)
Jeju-do (제주도), Korea’s largest island, has long been the country’s favorite domestic holiday destination thanks to its beautiful beaches, lush countryside and seaside hotels designed for rest and relaxation.

What surprised me the most was that there were so many family-friendly places and activities.

Kimnyoung Maze Park (김녕미로공원)
Seguiwpo, Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff (주상절리 대포동지삿개)
lovely Deokpanbae Museum
Udo (우도)
Situated off the eastern coast of Jeju Island, Udo Island was named because it resembles a lying cow. It boasts fertile soil, abundant schools of fish, and scenic sights; local heritages (female divers, stone walls, and stone tombs) as well as natural attractions abound on the island, making it an ideal day trip from Jeju Island and a lovely drive.