I just returned from a week in Korea. The itinerary included Seoul and Jeju Island.
We flew on Asiana, Business Class from LA to Seoul. I cannot say enough about Asiana's Business class. The service was impeccable, the food very good. Chairs recline almost fully flat.
Upon arrival in Seoul, customs and immigration was easy and smooth. Some members of the group changed money at airport which turned out to be a good idea; ATMs were less easy to find and use than I expected.
We stayed in Seoul at the Grand Hyatt, Club Floor rooms. Rooms were large, very comfortable, with stylish bathrooms. All had a view either of Namsan and Seoul Tower or the Han River. Breakfast was a great buffet with a mix of western and Asian food. Korea has great fruit, especially pears.
Had a tour of Gyeongbok Palace, Korea's royal palace. Our guide was excellent, very informative. This is one of several palaces in Seoul, and parts are still under renovation from damage suffered through half a century of occupation and war. The garden in the back is particularly peaceful and beautiful; it would be a wonderful place to linger.
The adjacent National Folk Museum is a new, state-of-the-art museum focusing on Korean folk life and culture. It is very well done and has much signage in English. A good stop for those who like museums. Lunch was in a restored residence of Korean Nobility (the Min Family House). The setting was very nice; a good place for a small group formal dinner. As with all meals in Korea, service was exceptional.
The Insadong Shopping street offers antiques and crafts though prices were a bit on the touristy side. The Dongdaemun Shopping area is one of several in Seoul. It consists of four towers, each ten stories, and a bunch of affiliated street markets and smaller stores. It is open 24 hours a day, except from Sunday evening to Monday evening. It was a bit overwhelming. One note: not much bargaining in Seoul– you pay what they say. The fashions are pretty contemporary; in fact Korea is considered a fashion leader in Asia. There were some knock-offs, but much more seemed to be local brands. Prices compare favorably with Hong Kong, but higher than China.
Coex Intercontinental is a very nice 4.5-star business type hotel. It was a bit sterile, nothing in the rooms to differentiate it from the business type hotels anywhere else in Asia. It does have a casino. Koreans are not allowed in; you have to present a passport. The casino is relatively small. It has slots and the major card tables. Vegas it is not. The clientele seemed to be predominantly Japanese.
We walked through the Coex mall to get to the Grand Intercontinental. At a brisk pace and just going down one side of the mall, this took ten minutes. This place is huge! It covers a full city block. It has an aquarium and the national Kimchee Museum. The downtown air terminal (where you can check in for flights) is located here, and it has a subway stop of its own. Besides the two hotels, there is also a convention hall and a performing arts center.
The Grand Intercontinental is a full five-star luxury property. Room rates for a junior suite are in the range of $600 per night. For the high end business traveler, this would be the place. (Coex mall is in the newer part of the city south of the river, the business center of the city.)
I also inspected the Hyundai Residence, the only lower-end hotel I saw. It is a residential style place with kitchenettes in the rooms. The rooms are very basic, as is the lobby, but the location is excellent and the rooms are quite inexpensive; the single room came out at less than $80 a night.
Enjoyed lunch one day at a buffet restaurant called Muscus featuring Sashimi. Fresh and tasty! I visited Korea House, a restored residence of a scholar from imperial times. It is now used for traditional dinners, banquets, weddings, etc. For dinner in Seoul, we had Ginseng-stuffed chicken stew; probably my least favorite meal of the trip.
One morning we went to a cooking school where we learned to make Kimchee and then got a chance to dress up in Korean costumes. We then visited Seoul Tower for a view of the city and had lunch at the top of the tower. Great view! After lunch we saw a Taekwondo performance by the demonstration team from the world Taekwondo Headquarters.
I went out to a suburban city called Icheon to visit a ceramic making studio. I have to say this was the part of the trip I enjoyed least. It was an hour plus drive, and the chance to enjoy the scenery was good. At the ceramic village, we all got a chance to play with clay. We visited a museum showing world class ceramic art. It was all fine, but it was a long drive, and there was much else to do in Seoul. The trip is offered as an activity from Seoul; I would not recommend it.
I would recommend a performance called Nanta. This is hard to describe... drumming meets comedy meets martial arts meets cooking. It was absolutely fantastic, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. If you ever have a forced overnight in Seoul, try to see Nanta (and thank me later). I was disappointed not be visit the National Museum. It is the largest museum in Asia.
On the way to the airport we stopped at the wholesale fish market. OK, if you like markets, this was cool. Koreans are seriously into seafood, and the fresher, the better! We then drove to Kimpo airport for our flight to Jeju Kimpo is the old airport and still handles all of the domestic flights in Korea. This flight was in coach. The flight was on time, the seats reasonably comfortable.
After visiting Jeju Island (see my post) we returned to Seoul where we stayed at the Lotte Hotel in downtown. The room was very modern, although a bit small. They went a bit overboard on the modernity, the shower heads sprayed all over the place, and the lighting system was difficult to figure out. The location seems excellent, very near to the Nandaemun shopping area. Breakfast, as usual, was fantastic.
We left Seoul early and went to the DMZ. The highlight of the tour here is a trip underground to see the third infiltration tunnel. This was a tunnel dug by the North Koreans in the mid-'70s with the intent of sneaking behind the South Korean side of the border. It is one of the strangest tourist sites I have ever seen, but is now a very popular tourist attraction. You take a little tram down underground and then walk up the tunnel. The hardhats they hand out are useful; the ceiling is low! You then go up to an observatory where you can look into North Korea. It is rather chilling. The Koreans are now predicting reunification within ten years. We will see.
Finally, we had a tour in Incheon airport. Incheon has some of the best transit facilities imaginable. There are free showers, a free lounge with really comfy chairs, and free internet, although the number of sets was limited. There is a transit hotel operated by Starwood, and a massage and sauna (not free).
Overall impressions: Korea was a very worthwhile destination. I can see how you could easily spend a week or two. There is much history, some spectacular scenery, with an emphasis on outdoorsy stuff like hiking, and great (if occasionally challenging) food. I have heard that language gets to be a problem once you are much outside of Seoul. I think that the niche might be for people going into Asia via Seoul and wanting to break up the trip with a couple of days. Jeju Island was great; I loved it, but it is not on the way to anything. It would be for people who have been everywhere and want something quite different.
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