A memorable first trip to Seoul
published: February 14, 2018
I am a seasoned traveler, but somehow a trip to Seoul, in the Republic of Korea, to visit the Armed Forces Recreation Center Resort’s Dragon Hill Lodge, seemed like a daunting endeavor. This would be my first time traveling to the East and with that came the obvious concerns, like: will the language be a barrier? How can I get around if all the signs are in Korean? Is the food too exotic for me to eat? Will there be a threat from North Korea? I found that none of my initial concerns were a factor, and, in fact, they were a source of adventure and exploration during a very memorable trip.
I must disclose that I have a biased opinion about the Dragon Hill Lodge. I work for their sister property, the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in beautiful Garmisch, Germany. I was sent to Dragon Hill Lodge to create a video to highlight its new retiree vacation program. I never really considered Dragon Hill Lodge to be a vacation destination, so I was concerned the video would be a challenge to develop. But it turns out I was wrong; it absolutely is a destination vacation spot for service members looking for a little adventure.
Since Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world, I expected a lot of noise, chaos, traffic jams, smog and over-packed subways. The city is indeed bustling and the air quality is a bit gray at times, but it isn’t noisy, it isn’t chaotic and it is not over-packed. It is extremely easy to navigate and filled with great sites for travelers. The mix between ultra-modern architecture and ancient dynasties is seamless.
Travelers can easily navigate the city by mastering the universal language of finger-pointing. Pointing on a map, on a menu or in the street along with a smile seemed enough to satisfy getting around easily. Seoul is one of the most connected cities in the world. Wi-Fi is everywhere and with Google Maps you are never lost.
The Dragon Hill Lodge is located in an absolutely prime location in the city. In any direction are museums, parks, shops and public transportation, all within walking distance. Anytime I returned to the lodge from a city outing, I could feel an instant calm come over me. It is familiar, the rooms are spacious, comfortable, well equipped and the best part is the food is absolutely delicious. They have the entire food spectrum covered from Texas BBQ to Korean starter dishes to five-star lobster platters. They bake their own pastries in the morning, they have their own butcher and they brew their own beer. I found myself always making it back to the Dragon for dinner even though the food in Korea is very good. The grounds at Dragon Hill Lodge are beautiful and well-manicured. The Korean gazebo next to the waterfall is very a peaceful place to get a little fresh air after dinner.
The rooms have American standard amenities along with nice Korean details. I suggest asking for a room on the highest floor for the best views of the city at night. Being that Dragon Hill Lodge is so central; there are great views in any direction. There are the obvious amenities that American travelers expect like coffee machines, in room safe, free WiFi, large screen TVs and AFN programming. The beds are very comfortable and nicely appointed with soft comforters and large pillows to ensure guests get a good night’s rest.
For those travelers looking to learn about the culture, history and have a relaxed guided tour of the city and surrounding areas, all they need to do is visit the Discover Seoul desk in the main lobby. Guided trips to the palaces, war history sites and a Han River tour depart from the hotel daily. They sell tickets to almost any popular destination in Seoul, which saves you time and money instead of buying them at the venue.
I signed up for the must-see, highly-informative DMZ tour. After signing a waiver that I understood the risks traveling to a military border, I got to stand at the closest point a tourist can get — or would want to — to North Korea. Seeing the North Korean guard’s standoff in front of South Korean guards is a unique, tense and somewhat haunting atmosphere. The tour includes several stops like the Observatory where with binoculars you can peer into North Korea and the Infiltration Tunnel that North Korea dug to move more than 30,000 troops into South Korea. Lastly was Freedom Bridge, which connects the North to the South and is a symbol of reunification and hope.
I also joined a group of military retirees on a Discover Seoul guided trip to a cultural folk village just outside the city. I would have never known about this cultural gem, nor would I have gone, if it weren’t for the guided trip. We walked through the living old villages to see how people survived hundreds of years ago. The highlight was a rhythmic performance of acrobats and musicians in colorful traditional Korean outfits. Watching them perform while listening to the drums and horns was infectious and you couldn’t stop your feet from tapping to the sound.
Surrounded by modern buildings in the city center sits the expansive Gyeongbokgung Palace. Built in 1395, it takes any traveler back in time to when dynasties ruled the river valley. We watched the colorful changing of the guards and strolled around the expansive gardens. The surrounding mountains give a backdrop for you to imagine life in ancient Korea.
All these trips and more are part of the new retiree packages. Any independent traveler can also sign up for trips like these at the Discover Seoul desk in the main lobby.
It isn’t hard for travelers to stick to their workout routines while staying at the Dragon Hill Lodge. The onsite Point Wellness Club has everything you need to get a sweat. Free weights, top of the line treadmills, stationary bikes, a fitness lap pool, hot tub and steam room are available for guests to reach their fitness goals and relieve sore muscles.
The Dragon Hill Lodge makes a journey to the East obtainable for even non-seasoned travelers who might be hesitant to make a trip of this scope. The combination of Seoul - with its culture, architecture and history - coupled with the comfort and service that Dragon Hill Lodge provides convinced me this is indeed a destination vacation resort that service members should have on their life list. To quote Warren Miller, a famous filmmaker, “if you don’t go this year, you will be one year older when you do.”
To watch the video from this trip or make your own reservation, visit the Dragon Hill Website at www.DragonHillLodge.com.
Bray Hays is the Marketing Manager for the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, a sister property of the Dragon Hill Lodge.