South Korea will surprise you and blow your senses away, discovers Phil Osborn. If you want an adventure holiday, in a new destination, put South Korea on your ski bucket list.
Discovering the Magic of South Korea!
Before heading to South Korea, I was actually shocked at how little I actually really knew about the country. I’d watched the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which was great, but nothing educated me more than spending time in the country, and researching it, once I had committed myself to going. So what makes South Korea so incredible to visit?
First up. South Korea is not Japan. So many people ask me straight away to compare it to Japan. So I want to start by saying, South Korea is not Japan…and that’s a key reason to visit. In South Korea, you experience a totally unique culture, cities and ski resorts with their own personality and qualities.
Seoul is now one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s a vibrant city, with fantastic architectural and deep history.
In Seoul we stayed in Hongdae in central Seoul. Hongdae is a buzzing location. We arrived on a Sunday evening and it felt like a pumping Saturday night with everyone out shopping, bar hopping and having fun. Hongdae’s youthful vibe is largely due to the presence of nearby universities like Hongik University, a leading and influential art school in South Korea which attracts a creative and artistic crowd. I loved seeing the K Pop style dancing in the streets, a vast array of fashion shops, cafes and bars. There are so many small bars. When you order alcohol in a bar, especially if it’s Korea’s famous Soju – a clear and colourless distilled beverage, you have to order food (Anju) to accompany the alcohol. Soju varies in alcohol volume, so it pays to know if you are drinking 12% or up to 53% alcohol content! In Hongdae, we stayed at Ryse Hotel. It’s a super cool hotel, reflecting the areas artsy and upbeat location. Hongdae is well connected to public transport, so it’s a great location to explore Seoul.
Awesome experiences in Seoul to consider before or after skiing:
- Gyeongbokgung Palace & Hanbok Clothing experience:
If you want to have some fun with your family or friends, get dressed up in Hanbok, traditional Korean clothing from the Joseon dynasty and visit the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul’s largest Palace. At first, you probably are thinking, what a stupid idea. Put that fear aside now! Getting dressed up in traditional Hanbok clothes with your family or friends is loads of fun. I found it helps connect you to the history of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. And if you are wearing Hanbok clothing, entry is free to the Palace. It’s great content for your instagram account as well.
Samcheongdong is a charming neighbourhood nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace. The name “Samcheong” is derived from the words “sam” meaning “three”, and “cheong” meaning “fresh” or “pure”, because the mountain, water and the heart of the people in this area are all very fresh and pure.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Kumho Museum of Art are located here. The area is dotted with private art galleries and boutique retail stores. One of the highlights of this area was visiting Osulloc Tea House. Osulloc is a famous Korean tea brand. The Osulloc retail store is an architectural masterpiece with a hip bar serving non-alcohol tea cocktails. I had a Volcanic Hallatini, a martini-style tea cocktail. The drink reinterprets the flavour of milk with acidic lemon and the richness of Volcanic Rock Tea, created via Clarified Technique, which involves the long extraction of various ingredients using a filter. The cocktail was paired with 3 delicate foods that just lifted the whole experience to a new high.
- Bukchon Hanok Village
Seoul’s 10 million residents mainly live in high-rise, apartment blocks. So I was intrigued to see one of the oldest parts of the city. Bukchon Hanok Village is located within walking distance between Gyeongbokgung Palace, Samcheongdong and nearby Changdeokgung Palace. It is a 600-year-old village that dates back to the Joseon Dynasty when it was home to high-ranking officials and nobles. Even today, the very wealthy of Seoul live Bukchon Hanok Village. I loved checking out the architecture of these traditional Korean wood framed houses, refered to as ‘Hanok’. The mixture of stone, brick, timber low-rise homes, densely built on narrow streets steps you back in time.
- Ice Skating – Grand Hyatt Seoul
Grand Hyatt Seoul, nestled on Namsan Mountain, offers a prime location with stunning cityscape views and luxurious accommodation. Check out the hotel’s acclaimed ice skating rink and soak up open view of the Hangang River and Gangnam area.
Lets go Skiing! Gangwon-do Province
While I loved exploring Seoul, I couldn’t wait to head to their snow covered mountains and connect with nature.
Gangwon-do Province is east of Seoul and Seoul’s surrounding Gyeonggi-do province. Gangwon-do borders the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and North Korea and the East Sea. Its geography is almost 80% mountains, and the cold and dry climate in the area means it receives the largest amount of natural snowfall in Korea. Gangwon-do has the majority of Korea’s 16 ski resorts.
How to get to South Korea’s Ski Resorts?
All the ski resorts in South Korea are relatively close to Seoul and can be accessed in around 2.5 hours to 3 hours travel time. You can get bus transfers from Seoul to ski areas within Gangwon-do. Or you can catch the KTX Gyeonggang high-speed train line that takes just 1 hour and 54 minutes to connect Seoul and Gangneung and bus transfer to the various ski resorts. If you hire a car, you drive on the right-hand side of the road, like in the US. The roads are well maintained, but we did experience some icy and slushy conditions on the roads, so be prepared to for slower driving conditions in the mountains.
Korea’s Top 3 Ski Resorts?
You may be familiar with the name Pyeongchang from the 2018 Winter Olympics. But the names of the individual ski resorts may be less familiar. Our drive from Seoul to Korea’s ski resorts became exciting as we neared the snow covered mountains, with light snow falling. To be honest, I was not expecting much, as I was visiting in early December. Seeing the trees covered in snow as we drove towards Yongpyong Resort was exciting. Leading into the resort, again, my expectations were humble. I had no idea that the hotels, accommodation and infrastructure around the South Korean resorts would be well established and modern.
Yongpyong (Dragon Valley) Resort is South Korea’s original and largest ski resort. Yongpyong hosted the technical alpine skiing events for the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang.
The resort has 1,740 hectares of terrain, with 28 slopes, 14 chairlifts including the eight-person Rainbow Gondola which runs a lengthy 7.4 kilometre round trip from the base to the Dragon Castle atop Mt Balwangsan.
So what did we discover? Yongpyong is a beautiful looking ski resort. It has been developed as a premium ski destination for the local South Korean market. With 51 million people, it’s a large market. Yongpyong reflects the success of the Korean economy, which is now the 10th largest globally. From very humble times 70 years ago, South Korea is an economic Asian tiger able to construct world class ski resort amenities. On our visit to Yongpyong, we scored fresh snow, which was a bonus. Being so early in the season, we scored great snow for early December. We could see advanced snow making systems in place to ensure a consistent snow pack. They have an advanced night skiing set up as well. Yongpyong is a popular resort, so lots of skiers and snowboarders create a vibrant vibe to the base village. Skiing and snowboarding on piste was a lot of fun. Australian skiers and snowboarders would totally understand how to ride and enjoy skiing in South Korea…we are experts in navigating and enjoying all types of snow conditions. It’s not deep powder snow, like Japan can achieve, but I was pleasantly surprised by the snow cover for December and we had a blast shooting around the resort. Like Australia, making sure you have a great wax job on the base of your skis or snowboard is crucial once you hit the lower elevations and less pitch. I’d love to come back to Yongpyong when all of the mountain was open and enjoy more of the terrain on offer. If you were gong to visit only one ski resort in South Korea, this one should be on your radar. Plus if you are travelling with kids, they have loads of activities like a water park, bowling alley and games arcade. So lots to do beyond skiing.
Situated 5 minutes drive away from Yongpyong is Alpensia resort. Alpensia is smaller resort, with luxury accommodation including the stunning InterContinental Hotel. I normally snowboard, however at Alpensia, I clicked on skis and had a blast. Make sure you check out the Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium which was the location of the ski jumping events during the 2018 Winter Olympics. I loved how they sculpted the ski jump into the mountain and made it blend into the environment. I would have loved to have witnessed the Olympic ski jumping at this venue, it would have had the best atmosphere.
High1 is located in Jeongseon Country (next to Pyeongchang) in the Taebaek Mountain Range. It’s arguably the best ski resort in South Korea. High1 Resort has three peaks with 29 km of runs, three gondolas and six lifts. I snowboarded at High1. The day we rode, was so fun, with the softer snow perfect for a snowboarding. Again, I would have loved to visit High1 in the peak of their season in January or February, when all their terrain would normally be open.
High1 was established in 2006 to revitalise the declining mining towns nearby. This is also the reason that the resort was given permission to build the only casino in the country that Koreans can legally gamble at.
Make sure you visit a Korean BBQ restaurant when visiting High 1. Korean BBQ here was a food highlight of visiting Korea.
Adventure Backcountry – Ulleungdo Island
Wanting a deep powder adventure in Korea? Then check out Ulleungdo Island. Teamax Adventure can take you to Ulleungdo Island, 150 kms from the East Sea. The Island is sitting between Korea and Japan, so the lake effect really kicks in for this remote island. There are no ski resorts here, so it’s all earn your turns by climbing up and skiing down the Volcanic Island. Korea keeps surprising!
Discovering more of Korea on your ski trip:
Gangneung, in Gangwon province, sits on the east side of the Taebaek Mountains, South Korea’s longest range along the eastern edge of the Korean Peninsula and the East Sea. Hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, it’s a key city in winter sports history. The city, blending art, culture, and nature lures tourists to its coastal and mountain regions, including the popular pristine east coast beaches. Make sure you visit;
- ARTE Museum Valley Gangneung is an immersive media art exhibition. South Korea’s tech and art scene meet in this fantastic gallery. It’s a must visit experience. I loved the lamp room and the nature based visual artwork. Adding these experiences to your ski trip, makes visiting Korea such a must visit destination.
- Gangneung Jungang Market: I love visiting the traditional style markets in Korean cities. It’s fun to taste a wide variety of Korean street food and get great photos for your instagram account!
- Gangneung Anmok Coffee Street at the beach! Gangneung is heaven for coffee aficionados. It’s a street lined with artisan coffee houses, all roasting their own coffee directly opposite the beach. Australians who love coffee and the ocean, have to visit this little slice of heaven when you visit Korea!
Is South Korea worth visiting?
Without a doubt, South Korea is a must visit destination. Korea is one of the world’s leading economies and is so dynamic and vibrant. A ski trip to Korea is truly elevated by visiting such a fabulous, unique country. Open your mind to new experiences and you’ll come away refreshed and pumped on life. Visiting South Korea will exceed your expectations…trust me, it blew me away and already I’m planning my next trip to South Korea!
Meet the team from Korea National Tourist Office, High 1, Yongpyong Resort, Alpensia and more at the Snow Travel Expo 2024 in Melbourne 19 May and Sydney 26 May.
For more information on visiting South Korea from Australia go to: www.visitkorea.or.kr