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Nov 7, 2021

Best Hidden Vacation Spots in Korea 1

Sean Jee (insta @detailance)
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Many parents with little children find planning their summer vacations every year a headache. Most preschools in South Korea have a summer break in the first week of August. Millions of parents across the country fight a predictable but unavoidable battle: To get good hotels or beat the crowds in popular tourist destinations.

Hotel prices temporarily skyrocket due to the concentrated demand around this time. Based on my personal experience in this summer (summer 2021), hotel prices were up to about three times average prices during the weekdays.

The pandemic put the brakes on many areas of our daily lives, but we have got to do what we got to do anyway. So, I had to wrap my head around this problem again this summer—where should I go for summer vacation with my two little daughters?

One of the beaches in Samcheok I visited in summer 2020
Figure 1. One of the beaches in Samcheok, which I visited in summer 2020 for the first time in my life. The water was very clean and there were a lot of places to eat around the beach. I have got to know great hidden vacation spots in Korea over the last few years.

The first place that came across my mind was Jeju Island, which I used to fly over a couple of times a year. I think Jeju is one of the most beautiful places in South Korea. I cannot think of any other place that better represents this old saying than Jeju: “There could be someone who has never been to Jeju, but nobody who has been there just once.”

A beautiful beach in Jeju Island
Figure 2. Rocks and the beaches create beautiful scenes on Jeju Island.

Jeju is a volcanic island formed by volcanic eruptions a very long time ago. There’s Hallasan (Mount Halla), a 1947m (6,388’) tall extinct volcano, located in the center of Jeju Island. There are also about 400 oreums (parasitic cones), 200 – 300m (660’ – 990’) tall, spread around the island.

Hallasan and the oreums make all four seasons in Jeju beautiful and abundant, with the reed forests that cover the oreums and the beautiful sunsets behind them. There is a photographer named Younggap Kim, who spent his entire life taking photos of Jeju’s oreums. The stunning photos of the oreums which he has captured for decades across the seasons are curated in his gallery in Jeju. The gallery feels like a humble suburban house and would be a great place to take a breather during your hot summer vacation in Jeju.

A beautiful Oreum in Jeju Island covered by reeds
Figure 3. One of the Jeju oreums in October. It provides a different pleasure to hike an oreum filled with reeds than hiking a mountain.

An island, Jeju is surrounded by the ocean. The beaches in Jeju have a unique beauty because of the rocks formed by volcano eruptions millions of years ago. Some of the beaches are shallow and crystal clear, offering perfect environments for kids. You can also easily find marine life that lives in shallow water like hermit crabs and conches. If it’s your lucky day, you will find dolphins playing in the ocean not too far away from the beaches. How can I not love this attractive island?

But the insanely high prices for almost everything during the summer peak season scared me away from Jeju Island. You must rent a car to explore the island, but the prices for car rental astronomically soar in summer well above the prices for nice hotels.

Moreover, it is not easy for me, a single dad with two little daughters, to take a plane with them and a lot of baggage all of which need to be taken care of by myself. So, I ended up striking Jeju Island from my summer vacation list.

Then I found a great alternative to Jeju. It’s Goseong in Gangwon-do.

Goseong reminds me of the beautiful beaches in Jeju Island

Out of the beach towns in Gangwon-do, Gangneung was the closest one from the greater Seoul area based on my personal experiences. It takes  a few hours to get to Gangneung from Seoul by car through the Yeongdong expressway without heavy traffic. Then, the Yangyang expressway launched recently, connecting Seoul to Yangyang. I arrived at Yangyang from Seoul in just two hours by car using the Yangyang expressway. Just two hours of driving gets you to the beautiful beaches in Gangwon-do – isn’t that awesome?

The east end of the Yangyang expressway
Figure 4. The east end of the Yangyang expressway. It is the most exciting moment for me when I see this sign because it means the beaches are right around the corner!

Gangneung and Sokcho are beach towns in Gangwon-do popular with tourists from every corner of the country, partially because of the easy access from Seoul through the Yeongdong expressway even before the Yangyang expressway launched.

Gangneung is the end of the Yeongdong expressway stretching from Seoul to the east coast and has big beaches like Gyeongpo Beach. Sokcho has great beaches too, but what makes it special is that you can enjoy the beaches and Seoraksan (Mount Seorak), the third highest mountain in South Korea, at the same time. But both Gangneung and Sokcho are well-known tourist places almost always packed with crowds. Also, their beaches are generally deep and are not really kid-friendly.

Just ten minutes away from Sokcho, Goseong offers quiet beaches with clean, calm and shallow waters for kids. Goseong would be an ideal summer getaway for families with kids. Moreover, Goseong has an amazing lake as well.

For the first time in my life, I chose Goseong for my family summer vacation this year. My two daughters and I spent ten days on the east coast, visiting a variety of places from the beaches to a camp site deep in the mountains. Our vacation turned out to be more exciting than I thought. I want to share with you some hidden gems on the east coast that made our summer amazing this year.

Bongpo beach, the first beach we went to in Goseong

I took a deeper look into Goseong once I chose it for our summer vacation. Surprisingly, there were more than 20 beaches in that small town. I was pretty sure each of them had pros and cons. So, I first set some criteria that suited my family and filtered out the beaches. Bongpo beach was the first one I found that met the criteria.

Bongpo beach in Goseong
Figure 5. There are large rocks here and there in Bongpo beach, like Jeju Island, although the types of rocks are different from those in Jeju. These rocks create great spaces for kids to play in with shallow waters.

Rocks on the beach was the primary reason I chose Bongpo as our first destination. The pools created by rocks on the beach are great playgrounds for kids. The pools have shallow waters at knee height for my kids and have various marine life on the rocks submerged in water, including small crabs, conches and sea snails. Kids interested in marine animals will fall in love with this place immediately.

My youngest daughter at Bongpo beach in Goseong
Figure 6. My youngest child, a three year old, is usually scared of getting into water. But she had a great time at Bongpo beach thanks to the calm and shallow waters there.

When we first visited Bongpo beach in mid-July before our summer vacation, the beach wasn’t officially opened. It was really quiet. Once it officially opens, the beach is busy with beach chairs and umbrellas for rent. Obviously, the beach is better managed with lifeguards on duty and special marks for deep waters but it gets busier than before, inevitably. Also, the best spots for beach loungers and umbrellas are already occupied by commercial ones for rental.

As long as the weather is good, more specifically if it doesn’t rain, I think mid-July is absolutely the best time to enjoy the beaches in South Korea.

My two kids playing on Bongpo Beach in Goseong
Figure 7. Bongpo beach is quite large. The buildings far behind in the picture are mostly accommodation and the beach extends to that area.

We visited Bongpo beach twice, in mid-July and early August. Bongpo is quite large. There is a long and wide sandy beach and hotels and cottages of various sizes stand along the shore facing the beach. One of the benefits of the accommodation is that you can appreciate a beautiful sunrise comfortably in your room. It is definitely worth staying there assuming the prices are reasonable.

Another benefit is their proximity to the beach, which is important especially when you travel with kids. The beach is right in front of the accommodation, so kids can just brush off the sand and run into the hotel for a quick shower after spending as much time as they want on the beach.

It’s pretty inconvenient for parents with little kids to stay at hotels away from the beaches in general. First, walking down to the beach with kids is sometimes challenging (you don’t know when they will start whining or complaining). Second, your car will be full of sand very quickly if you drive them back and forth between your hotel and the beach. I know I shouldn’t care about the little hassles to get the most out of summer vacation, but it’s easier said than done!

Rocks at Bongpo Beach create natural pools perfect for kids
Figure 8. My kids played on floats and spent time collecting small marine animals that live between the big rocks. So, a landing net is an essential item for them.

Bongpo harbor is adjacent to Bongpo beach. Fishing boats come to the harbor, so it has a large sashimi strip. Fresh sashimi is one of the reasons people come to the east coast. If you’re interested, you can rent a fishing boat and fish in the sea.

I had great memories of fishing with my dad when I was little. I wanted my kids to have the same experience with their dad, but they were too little to go offshore fishing on a boat. So, I have to save it for the next time we visit this place.

Gajin beach, a small beach that I wanted to keep to myself

Geographically, Goseong is a long and narrow shape. It takes about an hour to drive up alongside the shore from Bongpo beach, from which Goseong starts, to Myeongpa beach up north. As Goseong doesn’t have high rises or big hotels like Gangneung or Sokcho, it offers wide open ocean views anywhere in the town.

Additionally, Goseong spreads across North and South Korea. So, there are two Goseongs geographically, one in South and the other in North. It was originally one town before the Korean war but was divided into two as Korea was divided along the 38th parallel.

Goseong in South Korea still touches North Korean Goseong. It is also the northernmost town in South Korea.

Map of Goseong
Figure 9. As the map shows, Goseong touches North Korea.

Such a unique geographic location made tourists hesitant about visiting Goseong in the past. A long time ago, there were actually some cases where North Korean spies came down to the South through the east coast. Some beaches in Goseong are still closed to the public as they are designated as military zones. But the location ironically enabled the preservation of the beautiful nature in Goseong.

I found our second accommodation around Ayajin beach, a little bit north from Bongpo. Ayajin is a similar length to Bongpo, but with way more shallow waters than Bongpo. So, Ayajin is a great beach for kids to play in the water rather than simply collecting small marine animals. On the flip side, it was as crowded as popular beaches in Gangneung and Sokcho. Sometimes, I didn’t even feel relaxed at the beach as it was so full of beach chairs and umbrellas.

We eventually gave up playing at Ayajin beach despite its proximity to our cottage. Instead, we went to a very small beach about 20 minutes up north from Ayajin by car. This was Gajin beach.

My two kids playing on Gajin Beach in Goseong
Figure 10. Gajin is tiny, but has sands, rocks and shallow waters. I couldn’t ask for more for my kids to play with.

Personally, Gajin was known to me as a harbor more than as a beach. About ten years ago when my two daughters weren’t born yet, my wife and I used to travel to Gajin harbor. Every harbor has its own characteristics. So does Gajin harbor.

It has about ten sashimi restaurants, each of which has its own fishing boats for offshore fishing. That means these sashimi restaurants serve only wild fish, not farmed. When it comes to sashimi, there are big differences between wild and farmed fish. Wild fish is way better than the farmed in terms of almost everything, including taste, texture and freshness. Of course, the wild is more expensive though.

There are specific types of fish only available in summer. Of them, I love a very ugly fish called jeonbokchi (fringed blenny). Known as goidorachi as well, this fish is great for maeun-tang (spicy fish stew) due to its chewy texture. It cannot be farmed and is rarely caught in the ocean, so the price is devilish. I heard it is cheaper on the south coast, but you need to pay at least $100 in the east coast areas for two adults. You have to try it though. It tastes fantastic.

Even while driving towards Gajin beach, I was not sure if there would actually be a beach around Gajin harbor. But it was there! A tiny beach was found next to a small road. The locals told me the beach had been a military zone fenced by barbed wire for a long time. It has not been that long since Gajin beach was released from military use and opened to the public. It’s a real hidden gem!

Quite, peaceful Gajin beach in Goseong
Figure 11. There were some surfers far away, but the waves were not that high at all. Gajin beach was really quiet, especially compared to other beaches in summer. My two daughters and I were able to enjoy the beach as though it was our private property.

The biggest advantage of Gajin beach was its quietness. That’s probably because the beach is not known to many people yet. Many of those relaxing on beach blankets or loungers on the beach looked like locals living around the beach. Secondly, there are kid-friendly rocks and they offer natural spaces between them like shallow bath tubs or pools. Finally, there are no high buildings to interrupt the views.

The waters are shallow as well. You can go pretty far in the waters at chest levels for adults. There is no lifeguard on duty as Gajin beach is a wild beach not developed for tourism. But that didn’t matter at all to us as the water was shallow. We stayed all day long at the beach from 11am to 5pm and had a lot of fun together.

I set up an umbrella and beach blanket for my kids and pulled out snacks and drinks I prepared for them. For lunch, I picked up Chinese food from a nearby Chinese restaurant five minutes away from the beach. Jajangmyeon and Jjamppong taste special on the beach.

My oldest kid at Gajin Beach in Goseong, Korea
Figure 12. My oldest who never wanted to leave the water.
My youngest kid sitting next to me at Gajin beach in Goseong, South Korea
Figure 13. On the contrary, my youngest loved eating snacks on the beach blanket sitting right next to me.

I have two little daughters. The oldest one is five and the youngest is three years old. They have totally different personalities. The five year old is a “just do it” girl. She has to try everything firsthand and loves physical activities. The younger one is a homebody kid. She likes lazing around. When I go to the beach with them, the older one just runs into the water no matter what. She has to do something active, like collecting small marine life or swimming in a float tube. The youngest one, on the other hand, just idles on the beach. Then she grabs some toys and plays with the sand, building a house or just digging into the sand. She plays for a while by herself.

But both of them want me to stay close to them. So, I have to go back and forth between the beach and water as a single dad. Time really flies on the beach while playing with them with polar opposite preferences.

The weather started cooling down after 5pm even if it was still early August. The water got colder too and there was a cool wind blowing. So, I started wrapping it up around 5pm.

(to be continued in part 2)

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