Time to get lost at sea ... around Korea
The tide was out, and the old man plodded through the mud, stopping to poke and dig every few feet. From our campsite a few hundred meters away, we guessed at what he was doing. Curiosity prodded us to walk down and investigate.
As we got closer we could see the trail of holes he’d left in the mud behind him. We finally caught up. He went along digging, and we peeked into his red bucket. Octopuses! Little purple ones, fresh from the sucking mud.
He noticed our surprise and motioned us over. We walked a few steps together and he stopped and pointed to a spot in the mud. A few air bubbles emerged on the surface. He tested the spot with his foot; it sunk in a little. This was a possible octopus hiding spot.
He took his shovel and dug a few big scoops, then reached into the muddy hole and began feeling around. His hand went deeper, and pushed into the wall of the hole — he’d found an offshoot tunnel and was following it with his hand, digging clumps of gray mud along the way. Finally he pulled up a fighting octopus and dropped it into his bucket.
The next hole he found, he let us explore, and we dug until we, too, had caught a few (of course, they went straight into his bucket).
It was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in Korea, and it happened on Deokjeokdo, an island in the Yellow Sea about 70 kilometers from Incheon.
Longtime expats will know of Deokjeokdo — it’s been one of Korea’s best kept travel secrets for years. And it’s only one of thousands of islands that lie off the peninsula’s coasts.
You versus the volcano
Take in the most spectacular scenery in Korea on Ulleungdo
Korea’s second most famous volcanic island, it’s the best known on this list. Ulleungdo is a land of jutting cliffs and lush vegetation, renowned for its clean air, medicinal plants and squid. Oh, and also Dokdo.
Yes, Ulleungdo has become inextricably associated with the beloved, uninhabitable, mania-inducing Dokdo by mere happenstance of geography. If you want to see Dokdo, you’ve gotta go to Ulleungdo. But enough about Dokdo. Ulleungdo has plenty to draw tourists all on its own.
Greatest of all is its spectacular scenery. Known as Korea’s Emerald Isle, Ulleungdo’s geography is unlike any other place in Korea. The island was formed violently by an erupting volcano. There’s no flat place on the island save the crater of the volcano. Tree-covered peaks jut into the fog, surrounded by emerald water. The island is renowned for some of the best hiking in the country. And when you’ve worked up an appetite, settle in for a meal of squid (technically cuttlefish, a cousin of the squid) and medicinal herbs. And if that doesn’t sound appetizing to you, don’t worry, there’s more to eat on the island (but seriously, I hope you like squid).
What Ulleungdo is not good for is lounging on the beach. Because of the violent nature of the island’s creation, there aren’t any sandy beaches here. It does have a good tourist infrastructure, however, so you can lounge in a comfortable hotel room when you’re not out taking in the scenery.
Ferries leave for Ulleungdo from two cities: Mukho and Pohang. The trip takes between two and three hours from each and costs between 40,000 won and 50,000 won each way.
Might as well see what all the fuss is about and take a ferry from Ulleungdo to the most beloved island in Korea – Dokdo. Just be prepared for a rough journey – the ferry to Dokdo takes another two and a half hours over open sea to get there.
Boating to the brink
See the island on the front lines of the North-South conflict
Want to make friends and relatives think you’re a badass when you go home? Tell them you spent a few days on Baengnyeongdo, the westernmost point in South Korea and a stone’s throw from the North.
Baengnyeongdo is best known as the South’s first line of maritime defense against the North. The Cheonan was sunk here in 2010, North Korean defectors have washed up on shore here, and Kim Jong-un recently pledged to obliterate the small island. A trip to Baengnyeongdo is a trip to the front line in the conflict between the two Koreas.
On Baengnyeongdo you can observe history in real time, but the island has a softer side, too. It takes a while to get out here from Incheon (between four and five hours), but you will be rewarded with sights unseen in the rest of the country. A colony of about 300 seals calls the island home, along with rare sea birds. The coast is dotted with spectacular rock formations, including the Dumujin, which resemble warriors setting out to sea. There’s also a pebble beach here, and another that is made of sand packed so hard planes can take off and land on it.
Perhaps the biggest draw to the island is its proximity to the North. It’s so close you can see the North Korean coast from here. With a telescope (provided at certain lookout points), you can get a clear view. So go ahead and make the trip; your friends back home will be very impressed.
Ferries run from the Incheon Yeonan Ferry Terminal. The trip takes between four and five hours and costs 56,000 won each way.
Yeonpyeongdo, the island that was infamously shelled by the North in 2010, is about halfway between Baengnyeongdo and Incheon, if you want to stop in to complete the militarized island tour.
The best is hard to beat
Why Deokjeokdo is the go-to island for expats in Korea
Deokjeokdo is the go-to summer island among expatriates for a reason. It’s easy to get to from Seoul, with multiple ferries running from Incheon during the busy season. On the other hand, at 70 kilometers into the ocean, it’s truly remote. You can pitch your tent on any number of beaches, and will usually have that beach all to yourself.
It’s the rare place in Korea where you can rough it – cook your dinner over a crackling fire, sleep under the stars, and swim your hangover away in the salty sea the next morning. If camping’s not your thing, there are also a few pensions on the island. It’s small enough to traverse on foot, but if you bring your bike it offers excellent cycling. There’s a mountain in the middle of the island with a pagoda at the top, piers at the harbor where you can buy fresh clams, crabs and octopus, and little farms scattered all over the island where, if you’re lucky, friendly locals will invite you in for food and drinks.
The island also has a few restaurants around the harbor that serve surprisingly good food (try the kkotgae tang, or spicy crab soup). A trip to Deokjeokdo is the perfect blend of convenience and escape, a Korean travel standby that only gets better the more times you go.
Ferries run from the Incheon Yeonan Ferry Terminal twice daily. The fast ferry takes about an hour and costs about 40,000 won round-trip. The slow ferry takes about three hours and costs a little less.
Muuido & Seungbongdo
Muuido is much closer to the shore than Deokjeokdo, so might be an easier trip if you’re pressed for time. Seungbongdo is a little more developed than Deokjeokdo if you don’t feel like roughing it. Ferries run to Muuido from Jamjinnaru Ferry Terminal, and to Seungbongdo from Incheon Yeonan Ferry Terminal.
This one’s for the birds
One of Asia’s best birding destinations is just a ferry ride away
Photos by Lee Hyeongcheol
Seoul might fairly be called a bird desert. Pigeons, magpies, sparrows and bulbuls are nice, but if you’re looking for much more than that you’re out of luck. Eocheongdo, on the other hand, might fairly be called bird paradise.
If you’re a city-dweller you might be surprised to learn that Korea is smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s great flyways, or bird migration zones. Birds flying to and from Siberia stop over in Korea in the spring and fall, and Eocheongdo is one of their favorite spots.
Two-hundred twenty-eight species have been observed on the island, including several that have been seen nowhere else in Korea. The island is lush and hilly with trails and a few areas of wetland. In other words, it’s a great place to spend a few days tromping around with a pair of binoculars around your neck. If you hit Eocheongdo in the spring, you’ll see up to 120 species a day, including many colorful and exotic birds such as hoopoes, shrikes, thrushes and flycatchers. In the fall, the number is slightly lower, but still far higher than on the mainland.
Aside from all the birds, Eocheongdo is home to just a few hundred non-military residents. There’s a lighthouse there, and the aforementioned trails. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll be doing it early; legend has it the chickens on the island are loud enough to be heard from across the sea in China.
Ferries run daily from the Gunsan Coastal Ferry Terminal. The trip takes two and a half hours and costs 23,000 won each way.
Oeyeondo is the closest island to Eocheongdo, and it’s unique enough to warrant a visit on its own. Formed from an ancient volcano, the island offers trekking and a very, very rural experience. Look for the purportedly enormous insects that call the island home. Ferries depart from Boryeong Port Passenger Terminal.
Escape the ROK
A trip to Japan is easier than you think
Photos by Elyse Canfield
The last island on our list is not a Korean island at all, but a Japanese one. It’s a great inclusion, however, because it’s easy to get to from Busan and offers something that all these other islands just can’t: the thrill of international travel.
Tsushima lies just 50 kilometers from Busan. That’s closer to the South Korean mainland than any other island on the list. Tsushima’s history is linked to Korea by culture, trade and war. Tsushima has been inhabited for thousands of years and has at various times been a thrall of Korea, an independent nation, and for the last few hundred years part of Japan. Many cultural aspects of the island are actually more similar to those of Korea than of Japan.
As far as sights on the island go, there isn’t a whole lot to see and do. This is not Tokyo. It’s not Fukuoka either, for that matter. It’s a sleepy, rural island with just 40,000 or so residents. A full 90 percent of it is covered in mountain and forest. It is Japanese though, so if you’re looking to charge your batteries with a little time away from the ROK, to get a new stamp in your passport or to eat some authentic Japanese food, it will suffice.
The biggest draw to Tsushima, of course, is its serene landscape. This is a place for hiking, cycling, and relaxing by the sea. And if you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the Tsushima leopard cat, a critically endangered endemic species.
Ferries run daily from Busan International Ferry Terminal. The trip takes about two hours each way and costs about 100,000 won round-trip.
If Tsushima isn’t enough to satisfy your lust for new places, you might as well continue on 60 kilometers to Iki, a smaller island with its own tourist draws. Most famous as a place of mass dolphin slaughter in the 70s, the small island now boasts of its white sand beaches and slow pace of life.