With Asia becoming an ever more popular destination for U.S. tourists, it's clearly time for Korea to join the ranks of established players such as Thailand, China and Japan.
One of Korea's greatest strengths is that it engages all of the traveler's senses. The country is playing to this by developing new programs that encourage visitors to connect with the culture. These include such experiences as Buddhist temple stays, tae kwon do martial arts classes designed for tourists, museums devoted to Korean foods, and traditional sauna and spa treatments. These experiences can be interwoven with numerous options for sightseeing, recreation and shopping, creating a visit that would be impossible to duplicate anywhere else.
Most visitors from the U.S. will arrive in Seoul, Korea's capital. This fast-paced city has a number of must see attractions, including the 15th-century Chang-deokgung Palace and the National Museum of Korea—with a collection of 11,000 works of art, it's the sixth-largest museum in the world.
A nice way to mix with the locals is to take a stroll along the Cheong-gyecheon Stream. To contribute to the greening of Seoul, the stream, which was paved over in the 1970s, was uncovered in 2005 and is now a place of calm in the midst of the city, with various cultural sites and shops on its banks.
Visitors to the Korean Folk Village, about 40 minutes outside of Seoul, can stroll through gardens, view recreations of traditional Korean houses and watch acrobatic and folk dance performances. A highlight of my visit was sitting down with an authentic Korean shaman who, through a combination of my birth date, palm reading and throwing of coins, predicted my future.
Another popular day trip is to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea. A variety of tour operators offer full- and half-day excursions from Seoul.
After sampling the capital's sights and sounds, travelers will want to venture forth and see the countryside. I recommend the bullet trains called KTX, operated by the Korea National Railroad, and which run the length of Korea. These are a great alternative to domestic flights. As I was heading south to the city of Daeju, I was surprised to see that morning trains were leaving approximately every 20 minutes. The process of arriving at the train station, purchasing tickets and boarding the train took about 10 minutes and all of the annoyances of air travel were circumvented. Signage is in Korean and English, there's assigned seating, and ample room for luggage. These trains travel at 186 miles per hour, passing through the countryside and depositing you at centrally located rail stations.
A Taste of Korea
A Korean meal can be an adventure for tourists. A good place to start is the Korean barbecue, with beef and pork grilled right at the table. Small pieces are placed on a piece of lettuce leaf and then combined with slices of garlic, spicy red bean paste and flaming hot peppers. This is then folded like a tiny taco and eaten in one bite. One of the delights of a Korean meal is the dozen or so tiny dishes that appear alongside the entrée, at no extra charge. These range from the ubiquitous kimchi to pickled or peppered dishes containing such ingredients as anchovies, soy beans, radishes, tofu and a variety of seaweed. You'll also most likely find yourself at least once in a restaurant without chairs, where diners sit on the floor around low tables. My advice is to get in the spirit of things and try chopsticks, sample new dishes and imbibe unusual spirits such as ginseng wine.
I recommend that visitors set aside a day or two to take a domestic flight to visit Jeju Island. At one time, when Koreans were restricted in their travel, Jeju became known as the honeymoon island of Korea. To be honest, I was expecting something cheesy. Instead, I found a completely charming volcanic island, dotted with stone fences and homes, presenting magnificent ocean vistas, and a landscape that mixed evergreens and palm trees. More than one local told me—especially those who work in Seoul—that Jeju is where Koreans go to de-stress and get in touch with nature.
While waiting for my return flight back to the States, I took a tour from Incheon International Airport and visited a traditional Korean spa and sauna. I took advantage of the cold-water plunge pools, outdoor Jacuzzi and waterfall massage, a great way to relax in preparation for a long-haul flight. Here, more than a hundred Koreans, ranging from toddlers to septuagenarians (men and women are separated), were enjoying a range of treatments and bathing options. Overnighting in a Buddhist Temple