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An island escape for the independent

Ulleung offers thrills for visitors willing to get off the beaten path
July 04,2015
The scenic views of Ulleung Island’s seaside roads and the island’s jade waters are available from Namseo Sunset Observatory. By Ahn Sung-sik
Three stone columns known as the Samseonam Rocks. According to local mythology, three angels used to come down to this spot in the sea to enjoy a bath. One day, the Great Jade Emperor from the heavens sent his strongest commander and a dragon to protect the three. But when discovered that the youngest angel had become too intimate with a man, all three angels were turned into rocks as punishment.
Left: Transparent canoes are one of Ulleung Island’s most attractive and exciting leisure activities. Right: Seonginbong primeval forest, located in Buk-myeon, or the northern part of the island.
Ulleung Island on the east Sea has recently grabbed many tourists’ attention. The island is long renowned for its beautiful and unique nature scenes that cannot be easily found in other parts of Korea.

The color of the water surrounding the island, for instance, is jade instead of the usual dark blue or green. Tourists can also explore the island’s forests, which are untouched by development. Ulleung also offers delicious food, including various types of edible plants and fresh seafood.

Thanks to these attractions, the number of tourists visiting the island soared every year - until the fatal Sewol ferry disaster last April. After the deadly incident, which killed more than 300 people, the number of visitors dropped 36 percent from a year earlier.

Fortunately, people’s fear of boat travel after the disaster seems to be waning. The number of visitors to the island in May increased 75 percent compared to the same month last year, which has led to optimism that the island’s tourism industry will soon recover.

As Ulleung becomes more popular, the island’s travel industry is starting to see big changes, especially in the rental car sector. Instead of going on the usual guided group tour, many tourists have begun to rent cars to explore the island independently.

There were only four rental car companies on the island in 2012, with 54 registered vehicles. As of this June, there were eight firms with 131 cars - an increase of more than double in three years.

“Around 2,000 cars have been rented on the island as of last month,” said a person affiliated with the local tourism industry.

“Since four people usually ride on a car, we can speculate that around 8,000 people visited the island to explore independently,” he added. “So we can estimate that approximately 12 percent of tourists to Ulleung Island are traveling without an organized tour.”

Independent travel is soon expected to become the norm, as more and more people wish to visit the sites around the island that interest them, rather than being told where to go by a tour guide.

Going for a drive

It’s not difficult to rent a car on the island. However, it is difficult to drive the roads since the island is highly mountainous with slopes as steep as 30 degrees.

The steepness of the roads means snow chains are a must in the winter. Since asphalt is easily damaged by the chains, every road on the island is concrete.

However, one of the island’s top attractions are its seaside roads, which are easy to drive because of their gentle slope and offer a splendid view of the coast. Though most of the coastal roads have been completed, the breakwater extending from Seommok to Jeodong, around 4.4 kilometers (2.7 miles), has not been constructed yet.

Nari Basin, the largest flat area on Ulleung Island, is also worth exploring. To reach the basin, drivers first have to drive from coastal Cheonburi for about 15 minutes. The basin will appear, surrounded by various mountaintops, the highest of which is Seonginbong Peak at 986 meters (3,230 feet).

Near the peak of Seonginbong is a primeval forest featuring unique plants like T. insularis and A. takesimense, which only grow naturally on Ulleung Island.

The forest has been designated as a natural monument, but is still accessible to the public. Visitors to the area can enjoy clean mineral water streams, along with 2.5 kilometers of trails.

Seokpo Observatory is also a popular spot to take in the sunset, but it’s only easily accessible by car.

Leisure activities

Despite the great views, the island lacks a decent beach for people to visit. Though the coast surrounding the island is visually pleasing, tourists looking for a leisurely beach vacation or party spot for friends and family would be better suited elsewhere.

But the island does offer many new and exciting outdoor experiences, including a trip in a transparent canoe. The surrounding water’s visibility means passengers can see up to 10 meters down, glimpsing sea creatures through the boat’s hull. Some people related to the industry even claim that octopuses and sea urchins can be caught on lucky days.

Just like cars, transparent canoes can be rented.

Popular foods

Tourists traveling the island with a tour guide have almost no choice what they eat, because their menus are determined by the tour company in advance. But when an individual travels alone or with few friends by renting a car, they can visit whichever restaurant they wish and order exactly what they want.

Out of all the edible plants that sprout on the island, the most famous is myeongyi, also known as “mountain garlic” for its spicy and garlic-like taste. In fact, salted myeongyi is one of the representative foods of Ulleung Island. People on the island started cultivating the edible green 10 years ago, which has brought huge profits to local residents. The business, however, is not as lucrative as it used to be, since the green is now being cultivated in other regions.

A few other renowned edible plants include samnamul and bujigaengyi. Since samnamul contains a high volume of saponin, the main compound in ginseng, it is perceived to be very healthy. Sam translates to ginseng in Korean, while namul means edible plant.

Bujigaengyi became popular after singer Lee Jang-hee, who moved to Ulleung in 2004, praised the taste of the edible green. The vegetable is also known for its durability. Since it grows in the snow, bujigaengyi is available year-round.

Another local speciality is seafood. Ulleung Island is always full of fresh, just-caught fish. Its high quality is guaranteed thanks to the clean water surrounding the island.

Various dishes prepared from the day’s catch are squid intestine soup and cold raw squid soup. While the former is cooked using the squid’s heart, hard roe and liver, the latter is made with thinly sliced squid meat and vegetables like lettuce, carrot and onion.

The taste of the island’s specialties can’t be compared to the dishes prepared elsewhere, thanks to the freshness of the ingredients from Ulleung.

Tips and tricks

The distance between Gangneung Harbor in Gangwon to Ulleung Island’s Dodong Harbor is 178 kilometers. Tourists can reach Ulleung Island via a cruise ship that departs from three different harbors in Korea: Gangneung Harbor, Mokho Harbor of Gangwon and Pohang Harbor located in North Gyeongsang. It takes around three hours to reach Ulleung Island from each.

The cruise ship that departs from Pohang Harbor costs around 65,000 won ($58) for an adult ticket. Tickets from the two other harbors cost around 55,000 won.

There’s a large price difference between renting a car on the island during the week and on weekends. The company Hanjin charges its customers 50,000 won per day from Monday to Thursday for a compact car. It costs 90,000 won for a day from Friday to Sunday. The contact number of the rental car company is 054-791-1337.

If travelers want to explore the island by taxi, the cost of an eight-hour ride hovers between 150,000 won and 200,000 won. The price also differs between peak season and off season.

Most accommodations are located around Dodong in Ulleung-eup. The average cost per day is around 50,000 won.

The island’s travel companies offer two types of tour programs - group tours and individual tours utilizing rental cars. Regardless of the program, it costs around 200,000 to 400,000 won for an individual staying two nights and three days.

The price covers almost everything, including round-trip cruise ship tickets, accommodations and meals.

For travelers wishing to strike out on their own with a rental car, tour company Tourbaksa is the best bet. Their least expensive tour program costs 179,000 won for one day and two nights and 216,000 won for two nights and three days. The price includes round-trip cruise tickets, accommodation and rental car. The accommodation fee covers one person in a room that fits four people. The contact number of the company is 070-7017-2237.

BY LEE SEOK-HEE [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]