Highlights of South Korea with Wendy Wu Tours

Silver Travel writer Solange Hando discovers the highlights of South Korea with Wendy Wu Tours.

cherry trees in full bloom

The cherry trees were in full bloom and from cities to beaches and mountains, the peninsula glowed in auspicious colours, dreaming of ‘reunification’. This is a prosperous world, skyscrapers even in the countryside, new highways, huge commercial harbours, yet living in harmony with its own heritage and cultural wonders. Lapped by the Yellow Sea to the west and the Japan Sea to the east, South Korea stretches 1,100 kms north to south and just 300 across.

Highlights of the west

Capital city sights in Seoul  

We arrived on a National Day and beyond the great statue of King Sejong, we followed the locals in traditional costumes, heading to the Palace across the vast Central Plaza. We loved the Changing of the Guards and walked all around the restored buildings and gardens. Later we explored the Jongmyo Royal Shrine, listed by UNESCO, and according to Confucian rules, we did not walk on the Spirits’ Path.

Time to shop in the main pedestrian avenue lined with luminous trees, then up we went to the N Seoul Tower, one of the capital’s highest points, perched on Namsan Hill. The panorama was spectacular, the city far below, the meandering river, blossom and mountains all around and thousands of lights after a golden sunset.

Bamboo Forest to Confucius Garden

It was a long drive south to Gwangju, the birthplace ofKoreandemocracy, but away from tower blocks and industrial sites, we found some lovely spots.

In Damyang, the bamboo forest held me spellbound as we strolled in peaceful surroundings. I could almost hear the flautist setting the mood as I lay on a hammock, ‘forest bathing’ for the first time in my life. Flowers, bird songs, cascading water, local pavilion… I could have stayed all night.

Soswaewon
Soswaewon

Not far away we arrived in Soswaewon, a quiet garden in Confucian style and a place to meditate in the shade, enjoy the cooling breeze and the silvery stream tumbling over the pebbles. It was another world.

Temples and tea

Our next stop was Boseong, the country’s green tea capital for 1,600 years. After the tangy taste of green tea ice cream, we were ready to climb the steep plantations rising above the cherry blossom trail. Steps, rocks, those who made it to the top could glance out to sea, but the scenery was superb even on the lower slopes.

Boseong, the country’s green tea capital for 1,600 years
Boseong, the country’s green tea capital for 1,600 years

That afternoon we discovered Seonamsa, a colourful Buddhist temple beyond an attractive stone bridge and later, on the way to Suncheon, a historic ‘fortress’ village where families preserved the ancestors’ lifestyle and we learned to dye handkerchiefs.

Scenic Yeosu

In the morning, we reached Yeosu, one of the peninsula’s southernmost points and roughly, the dividing line between the fairly remote western area (south of Seoul) and main tourist attractions along the east coast.

Yeosu
Yeosu

Up on the hill, the Maritime Cable Car – the only one of its kind – glided down with the most amazing views of the bay, boats, bridges and a few of the 365 islands, mostly uninhabited. Down on the shore, a long breakwater took to us to the closest island where we trailed through forested slopes past the Dragon Cave, the Windy Corridor, Lighthouse and Seal Rock.

We enjoyed the musical fountains before returning to the mainland on the joyful Camellia Train.    

Must-see sights in the east

Beautiful Busan

Now ready to loop around the peninsula, we continued to Busan (in the south-east), South Korea’s second largest city, with a gorgeous sandy beach where you could spend a week. Colourful, vibrant, the town centre had a huge souvenir market, local crafts, clothes and anything you ever wanted, and I lost my way more than once.

We also went up the Busan Tower for panoramic views, but my favourite adventure was the clifftop Skywalk . Stepping out on a glass floor high above the sea, looking down on verdant islands, the coastal trail and a romantic ‘heart in the rock’. Add myriad Buddhist temples, most inspiring Yonggungsa right by the sea, and Busan seemed an enticing blend of ancient culture and the modern world.

‘Museum without walls’

Capital of the Silla Kingdom for almost 1,000 years, Gyeongju is the main destination for cultural heritage. Imagine the Tumuli Park, in the town centre, claiming over two dozen Silla tombs, the lovely Anapji pond loved by the royals, the National Museum full of treasures, its quiet garden, pagodas, flowers, and hilltop temples, including a grotto housing the most important Buddha.

Moonlight Bridge
Moonlight Bridge

We wandered most of the day and after dark, we went to the Moonlight Bridge, beautifully reflected in the pond, close to an ‘ancestral’ village draped in cherry blossom.

Mount Seorak

The next day, after another long drive, we climbed to Naksansa, keen to pay our respects to the impressive Buddha rising high above the land. So, my wish was exhausted and in no time at all, Seorak, one of the best National Parks, greeted us with pristine mountains and a babbling stream, as clear as crystal.

This was my sort of place, especially in the morning when we boarded the cable car then continued along the trail, up and up as far as we could, scrambling to the rocky peak for the best views.

Back at the base, there was time to explore the temple complex, the big Buddha garlanded in lanterns and the streams gurgling under the archways while out in the forest, I quietly followed the meditation trail, the perfect place to escape after such a fast travelling trip.

A trip to the DMZ

Back in Seoul, our final day took us to the ‘Demilitarised Zone’, only an hour away and one of the most heavily armed areas in the world. Set up in 1953 to keep the peace between north and south, it is about four kms wide and 250 kms long from sea to sea.

The extended tour into North Korea is no longer available but we went up in the gondola, wondering about the Freedom Bridge and the vast tinder box of a deserted land. Later we joined a tour, strictly controlled, into the buffer zone to visit the observation tower, the Freedom Village and the third tunnel. This was a dark but awesome experience and back out in the sunlight we appreciated the symbolic golden globe and the ‘family’ attempting to reunite the two sides.

Korea reunification symbolic globe
Korea reunification symbolic globe

With skyscrapers and shopping malls, South Korea is surprisingly Westernised – yet with little English, locals may seem reserved.

Our busy schedule covered all we expected, from morning to night, including natural gems and stunning palaces and temples (lots of tourists but few worshippers). Yet spirits still roam around, they say, and one day maybe, a new nation will rise across the peninsula.

Next steps

Solange Hando travelled with Wendy Wu Tours on their 13-day escorted tour around South Korea.

To find out more, get a quote and book your holiday to South Korea call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Solange Hando

Award-winning travel writer & member of BGTW

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