Big Chill on the Big Island

A Traveler’s Guide to Hawai’i

We were determined to leave the bitter cold in Seoul for warmer days. Last year, Ashlee’s Mom made the long journey to Korea and we spent two bone chilling weeks touring around the peninsula (Pork Chop Meets Korea). This year we decided to leave the frigid temps behind and spend our winter break in Hawai’i. The East side of the Big Island boasts the most sunny days in the State and so we met Ellen, who was coming from Texas, in Kona. For the weeks leading up to our trip, the forecast was calling for rain, flooding was being reported, and a blizzard dumped 14 inches of snow on Mauna Kea. Prepared for the worse we were instead pleasantly surprised with two weeks of brilliant weather. We kicked back on beaches, snorkeled in the aquatic world, sampled cuisine and libations at local establishments, hiked to waterfalls, and walked along the lava fields. Regardless of your ambition to get after it or simply chill, the Big Island will heal your mainland stress and let your soul shine through.

The Basics

If your goal is to truly explore the Big Island, you will want to rent a car and expect to pay a pricey fee ($100-$150/day). There would be many benefits to having a 4WD vehicle when it comes to accessing some of the beaches but we were able to get by in a Chevy Spark. Although, on the days when we were transitioning to different accommodations we were a sight to see with 3 of us crammed in the tin can with all of our luggage. We went the Air B and B route when booking accommodations and stayed right on Ali’i Drive which is the main drag in Kailua, Kona. We mainly stayed in two different condos, the Royal Ka’hili (Google Maps) and White Sands Village. Both places had two bedrooms/two baths which was ideal for 3 of us. Whites Sands was a bit more spacious and is right across from Magic Sands Beach Park (featured below). We preferred the Royal Ka’hili as it had less units meaning there were fewer people in the pool/hot tub/BBQ area. Directly across from Royal Ka’hili is a secluded little cove shaded by a Banyan tree that offered amazing sunsets and Lyman’s Surf Spot was a stone’s throw from our condo as well. By going the Air B and B route we were able to cook meals at home, do laundry, and could utilize all of beach and snorkeling gear that was provided.

Kailua Kona

If you only have 5 days, I honestly think there is enough to keep you busy just in the Kailua area without needing to rent a car. You can stay right on Ali’i Drive and either walk, bike, take the bus trolley, or the occasional Lyft to check out all the hot spots with cool drinks.

The first beach that we went to the morning after landing was Magic Sands Beach Park (Google Maps). This is very centrally located making it consistently packed with people. I did not get in the water on the day we visited as the break was pretty gnarly and I was watching kids on boogie boards getting their vertebrae’s stretched to the limit. The Magics Beach Grill has a little booth that you can grab cold beer, iced coffee, or Acai’i bowls and the restaurant has plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy their tantalizing Mai Tais and toasted macadamia nut Pina Coladas.

Just down from Magic Sands Beach is Kahalu’u Beach Park which offers incredible snorkeling. We heard that it fills up by 9am, so Ashlee and I went on several sunrise sessions where the long extended reef is teeming with all kinds of different fish. There is also a surf shop here that offers lessons and is a decent place for beginners.

I highly recommend taking a snorkeling boat tour which takes you from Honokoahu Marina to Captain Cooks inlet. We had amazing guides through Kona Snorkel Tours and on the zodiac boat ride saw schools of dolphins, humpback whales, and in one spectacular display watched as a Mama Humpback was teaching her newly born calf how to breach the water as a shark was circling to eat the placenta. While snorkeling around Captain Cooks Inlet we were able to see a 6 ft long reef shark, spotted eels, and an endless array of vibrant fish.

Hawai’i is crazy expensive so we would stock up on groceries and cooked the majority of our meals at home. There is also a plethora of establishments to get full and tipsy like a teapot and here are some of our favorites:

Da Poke Shack (Google Maps)- This place sells out daily for good reason. Grab some tuna loaded bowls to go and park yourself by the water.

Humpy’s Big Island Whalehouse (Google Maps)- Same Humpy’s Alehouse from Anchorage, AK with better weather. This a great spot to sample some local brews on draft with a view of Kalaepa’Akai bay and a chance to see spinner Dolphins or Humpback Whales.

Papa Kona Restaurant and Bar (Google Maps)- In terms of being on the water, Papa Kona’s is built right over Oneo Bay. We came here a couple of different evenings to catch live music.

Kai Eats and Drinks (Google Maps)- Macadamia nut flavored iced lattes with macadamia milk could only be better with fresh baked chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies.

Umekes Fish Market Bar and Grill (Google Maps)- Ahi fish tacos, poke, and fish and chips are fresh off the boat!

Kenichi Pacific (Google Maps)- Nothing spells a Christmas dinner like Japanese cuisine! On the pricey side but well worth it as the sushi rolls were stuffed with seafood and no matter how full you are, make room for dessert.

The Beaches of Kohala

If we ever have the opportunity to return to the Big Island, I would choose to leave the hustle and bustle of Kailua behind and stay further North in Kohala. Many of our top beaches were past the airport and it would be a way to spend more time with your feet in the sand instead of in the car. During peak tourist season, I’m unsure if you will find any secluded beaches. However, if you can arrive by 8am you can grab a choice spot with some shade and have some semblance of solitude.

Mahai’ula (Google Maps)- In our economically compact Chevy Spark Rental, speed bumps would rattle our bones. So, for Mahai’ula we parked in the pullout off the highway and walked the two miles on the gravel pot holed road to the beach. There were cars that scraped paint and streaked oil along the rocks to save the walk and having a vehicle with a little clearance would have made all the difference. Even if you drive until the payment ends, hike the trail to Mahai’ula Bay for calm waters to swim and snorkel. You can literally float the whole bay and we saw some sea turtles along with schools of fish.

Makalawena(Google Maps)- From Mahai’ula Bay (above), walk another 30 min over the lava rock to find powdery sand and even more pristine water.

Manini’owali/Kua Bay (Google Maps)- Parking is at a premium here so arrive early, bring your cooler, beach chairs, and post up shop with everyone else in Kona. There is a reason it is crowded and the surf here was too big to snorkel and is probably better suited for boogie boards.

Beach 67 (Google Maps)- In our search for Beach 69, we stumbled upon an even more secluded spot. We didn’t arrive until the afternoon and the waves made the water too murky to view fish.

Hapuna (Google Maps)- This is often makes the top 10 list of World’s best beaches. If you are in the area you have to checkout this picturesque stretch of fluffy sand. We arrived just after 8am and were able to grab a spot in the shade. Even though the surf was big, there is a protected bay on the North end of the beach. There is a trail that leaves the sand just below the Westin Hotel and hugs the coastline for 5min before reaching steps that drop you right into the water.

Beyond the East Coast

The weather and beaches made it tough to leave the East Coast but we went on a few different road trips that had us wishing we had even more time to explore the Big Island.

Hilo Loop- From Kona go up Hwy 19 through Waimea and along the North Shore with a must stop at Tex’s Drive In (Google Maps). Although the name would indicate different, there is outdoor seating and they feature local cuisine including Malasada’s which are a Portuguese Donut. We went on a beautiful little hike through the lush jungle to Akaka Falls (Google Maps). From there we went to Hilo and grabbed a bite on the water at Ponds (Google Maps) where we were treated to some live music as we watched kids jump off the bridge. We walked around Hilo Bayfront Park before getting back in the car and taking the 200 Saddle Rd through the Mauna Kea volcanic are and back to Kona.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park- There are plenty of hikes or short walks to go on that will allow you to marvel at magma’s carved creations. We parked at Kilauea Overlook and hiked a loop (All Trails) that that went along the rim of the crater, through a diverse forest, and across the scorched out lava flats.

The Southern Coast- Following Hwy 11 on the Southern shore provides magnificent views of green flowing fields falling off into the sea. Start your day by stopping into the farm at Paradise Meadows where you can sample and purchase their different types of coffee, eat all things Macadamia nut, and soak in the owner’s paintings. From there, check out the sea turtles sunning themselves on the gunpowder colored sand at Punalu’u Beach (Google Map), grab a pulled pork chili verde burrito at Taco Tita (Google Map) and have a picnic lunch at Whittington Beach Park (Google Maps).

However you choose to spend your time on the Big Island, you will find your experience well worth the trip!

No Car, No Problem- Traveling Light on Jeju

Getting There

Owning a car in Korea has allowed us to embark on countless road trips throughout the peninsula; exploring the mountains and beaches that comprise the phenomenal landscape of the region. However, when time is limited or you simply do not care to navigate the highways, there are plenty of other options that do not include operating a vehicle. One of these premier destinations is Jeju Island, the largest of all the islands being dubbed the ‘Hawaii of Korea.’ The first time we went to JeJu was in late September of 2020 and with a week to explore and predictable weather, we took our backpacks, camping gear, and set off to explore via the Olle Trail (I Found My Juju on Jeju- Part 1 and I Found my Juju on Jeju- Part 2 ). This year, for a long weekend at the end of November, we decided to keep it simple, stuffed some clothes in a duffle bag, took the 1 hr. subway ride to Gimpo Airport, and boarded one of the many flights that depart to Jeju-si. We were in the air for less than hour and soon walking down the staircase onto the runway where we were immediately met by the clean and warm island air.

Location, location, location…

From our previous trip to Jeju we found that one our favorite beaches was Hopjae and so we booked in that area at Hotel Agilla (Naver Maps). The cab ride from the airport in Jeju-si was around 30min and our room had an amazing view of Gapado Island perched in the South Sea. The rooftop of the hotel boasted 3 hot tubs and a swimming pool for us to choose from and we were even enticed by their room service on a couple of occasions as the sunsets from our balcony were mesmerizing. There was even another restaurant in the basement of the hotel which served up succulent dumplings and noodles in a steamy meat broth.

In addition to the gorgeous water and fluffy beaches of Hopjae, one of the main reasons that we wanted to stay at Hotel Agilla (Naver Maps) was that we could simply walk out the door and stroll along the sea to access any number of great spots. Sometimes the best destination is the unknown and we found ourselves weaving through the streets, along the docks, and through the sand soaking in the island feel.

Cafe Crawling

If you find that you must have an endpoint in mind when wandering around Hopjae, allowing your stomach to be your compass is a fantastic option! There is no shortage of cafe’s in the area which offer stunning sites along with tasty bites. On the morning of Thanksgiving Day, we stumbled upon a spot that was serving a slice of pecan pie that I could not resist. Ashlee ordered a piece of Earl Grey cake to go with our Americanos and the cheerful host of Ennikskerry Cafe (Naver Maps) even brought us a special decorated cookie that emulated the view from their deck. I consider myself to be somewhat of Panini connoisseur and the gooey goodness that comes out of Geumneung Sandwich is at the top of my list. They seem to harness some of the island’s magic between two pieces of toasted bread as they boast Jeju black pork meatballs soaked in marinara and topped with parmesan and asiago or flavor packed bulgogi with grilled onions smothered in gouda and mozzarella cheese. Definitely get an order of fries to go with any number of the drink options that are available. Even if you do not save room for desert, find a way to work through a delicious bowl of bingsu at Jeju Seolsimdang (Naver Maps). Bingsu is a sweet treat of shaved ice that would be a healthy light option if it were not for the condense milk drizzled on whatever topping you choose. There is no flavor too creative for bingsu and concoctions range from green tea matcha, mango and cheese, Oreo crumbles with ice cream or anything else that can be imagined. Of the all the places we went with stunning views, the rooftop cafe at Parato Dos offers the perfect start to a tranquil morning or a happy hour cocktail at sunset.

Day Excursion

We honestly tried and a steadier hand would have prevailed. However, as enticing as it was to simply roll along with the waves at Hopjae beach, we were overcome with wanderlust and decided to go on an outing to different part of the island. JeJu, for being relatively small, has an insane amount of museums (100 to be exact) and one of the more famous is the Museum of Sex and Health (Naver Maps). There are incredibly affordable city buses that make frequent stops all around the island it was about an hour ride for us coming from Hopjae. To say that this museum covers ALL things related to sex would be a drastic understatement. The multilevel complex encompasses a cultural timeline of sex in the region stemming from artifacts, rooms upon rooms of folic statues and nude paintings as well contemporary ‘how to’ pieces and current data trends on the topic from across the world. Even the bathrooms are clearly marked! The displays were as entertaining as they were informative and definitely worth the price of admission. In the same area as the museum is Sabangsan Mountain Carbonated Hot Springs (Naver Maps), which we had planned on going to before learning that our hotel had multiple hot tubs. The weather was too nice to stay inside and from the museum we took a 15 min bus ride to Sagye Beach (Naver Maps). We took our time basking in the sun with our feet in the sand as we traversed the beach as part of the Olle Trail until we arrived to the bottom of Songaksan Mountain (Naver Maps). The area was bustling with tourists who were sitting down at pop-up tents that featured seafood freshly harvested from the ocean by Hanyeo (traditional women divers). We walked the staircases that hugged the tiered cliff sides of Songnaksan Mt which jutted out into the sea drenched in cobalt.

Come Again

If you live in Korea, Jeju is simple to get to and navigate with plenty of beauty and activities to keep you coming back. When travel opens up again and quarantines become a thing of our past, I would highly recommend Jeju for international travelers as well. The splendid destination comes with a simplicity, affordability, and interconnectedness with locals compared with other island spots that are more tailored to tourists.

Yeosu and Islands Abound

From Jirisan, we drove just over an hour to the southern end of the Korean peninsula and crossed the bridge over to Yeosu island. Our pension (Naver Maps), was located 3 floors up from a fishing pier falling off into the south sea. Yeosu boasts over 350 islands in the area and it seemed we could see every one of them in their entirety from our room. To have the ability to travel from mountains as magnificent in Jirisan to a sea of serenity in just over an hour speaks to limitless geographical diversity of Korea. We enjoyed a couple rolls of Gimbap with cocktails and wine while marveling at the sun cutting diamonds across the water. That evening we were treated to one of those sunsets that made us forget about everything else going on in the world. Fragments of clouds folded over mountains that were bursting out of the ocean. The chain of islands that stretched out across our view were coated in a pastel haze. At one point, as the sun was taking its final breath, the caldron of colors poured over into an explosion that ignited the sky. The moon began to crawl out from its cave and soon the sphere was full and bathing the sea a milky white. Families, enjoying the final day of Chuseok, had their vehicles parked on the pier with grills sizzling meat and kids fighting with their shadows. Roman candles started blasting off from the beach and the fireworks shuddered in the show that nature had just orchestrated.

The next day we followed a series of fascinating bridges linking a series of forested islands over to Goheung Island. Because our pension was located on the southern tip of Yeosu, the drive was only 30 min to the start of our hike in Dadohaehaesnag National Park (Naver Maps). When staring up at the ridge line from Nunggasa Temple, we had no idea on the intensity of the traverse that lay ahead of us. Maybe this naivety came from the grounds around the temple invoking a peaceful feeling or it could be that aside from looking at a map, we had done little research around the hike (All Trails). The stone path that meandered through the woods took on a playful feeling. There were no steps and the incline was gradual as we weaved through the stands of Korean maple and cedar trees. We stopped for a break at a pagoda and were amazed to find that we were less than a kilometer from the top. I knew from the map that we would gain close to 3,000 ft and cruise along a bumpy ridge but, it did not seem like we had climbed enough. The trail finally turned to the dreaded steps that are found on mountains all across Korea. We were commenting that they were still the least we had encountered and felt solid on reaching the first peak. There were a few other couples who we shared the top with and we would get to know them over the course of the day by taking pictures of each other. The view was incredible as we could see all the hundreds of islands that were scattered like beads spilling out into the sea.

We did not fully grasp the enormity the ridge until we studied the picture posted at the saddle and counted 8 more of these prominent rock outcroppings that we would be scaling that day. The first set of stairs resembled more of a ladder and from that point on we were hiking and scrambling hand over hand. In the US, we would have needed to sign a waiver, hire a guide, and be hooked up to a rope and harness. I did not take as many pictures as I would’ve liked as there were times we could not risk stopping or taking a hand off the railing. To comfort myself, I tried to imagine the team of people that constructed those steps bolted into the mountainsides as the most highly qualified group of engineers in Korea.

Every time we reached one of the pinnacles, we were greeted by the other members of our ragtag hiking party. One of the groups we saw taking a Makgeoli and cigarette breaks in the shade and another couple was hiking in jeans. The woman who essentially became our personal photographer spoke enough English to tell us the names of the summits and which trail to follow. I’m guessing by their surprised reactions that hey had not seen many foreigners in this area and maybe felt a little responsible for our safety. We were very grateful for their kindness and compassion on that section as the exposure we felt on the ridge definitely created some vulnerability. Our adrenaline was coursing through our bodies as we held on tight and carefully measured the placement of our feet with each step. As we came down from the last spike jutting into the sky and dipped back into the forest, we felt a collective sigh. The ridge we crawled across was less than a half a mile in distance but had provided one of the more thrilling sections of hiking I’ve experienced. We capped off the day with a fantastic dinner at a Korean BBQ joint (Naver Maps) that featured beef rather than the typical pork.

Once discovering that sunrises are worth the early wake up, the mornings become even more unique. The next day we drove the 90min through the dark to the other side of Yeosu and crossed one of the many bridges interconnecting the islands to Dolsando Island and arrived at Hyangiram Hermitage Site (Naver Maps). As we were parking, the the sun was starting to blossom and bloom pedals of clouds stained in violet. We walked up the steps as fast as we could to reach the temple just as the sun was breaking the horizon. There were about 12 other people at the stunning overlook and 4 of those appeared to be part of a film crew capturing a model/actress as she occupied the prime photo spot. She came equipped with a photographer, videographer, drone operator, and someone frantically directing all of the traffic. I was not sure how to ask if we could get a shot in there, so, I simply started taking pictures of her as well. Who knows, maybe she’s famous or the woman could simply be an influencer hopeful.

Everyone who had woken up for the sunrise started slipping back to their vehicles and we seemingly had the temple grounds to ourselves. We hiked up to the top of a rocky point that offered spectacular views of the vast chain of islands. The temple was originally built 1500 years ago and then again restructured after much of it was destroyed during the Korean War.

From the temple we went to Mangseongni Geomen Morae beach (Naver Maps) which is one of the few black sand beaches in Korea. Because it was still early in the morning there was no one else around. We were basically trying to kill some time before places opened up for lunch and Ashlee found a street on the hills overlooking Yeosu which was covered in murals and shique cafes (Naver Maps). We wandered around before scooping up some Gimbap (Naver Maps)on our way back to our place.

We came to the conclusion that we should plan to have dinner back in our room so that we would be guaranteed a sunset view. The evening sky seemed to be perfectly stitched together in a tapestry weaved with a stunning spectacle of the world rotating on its axis. Claw marks gashed through the blue sky and lava flows seemed to bleed out into the ocean. The falling sun sliced across the sea and embossed the water in bronze crystals. The ridge that we had hiked the day before sat perfectly silhouetted in the shadows of the horizon. Along the beach, families had set up tents and were barbecuing an assortment of meat while enjoying what nature was serving. It had been a long day that could not have produced a more prefect ending.

Our location on the southern tip of Yeosu provided quick access to take the ferry from Baegyado Island (Naver Maps) over to Geumodo Island (Naver Maps). The Bireong-gil trail (All Trails) covers a 13 mi stretch on the West side of Geumodo and there is something that adds to the adventure when you have to take a boat to access the trailhead. The water taxi took about 45min and it was an ideal day to sit on the top deck and marvel at the islands that weaved through the cobalt colored water. Although we took our car on the ferry, there was no need as once we de-boarded at Geumodo, we simply parked our vehicle and started walking. There are 5 different sections to the trail with established access points and a bus that frequents those spots. We elected to hike the 1st course of the trail which offered absolutely stunning views of the prominent coastline of Geumodo. The trail winds through a sturdy bamboo forest and pine trees which then spit you out into viewpoints that offer the full magnitude of the South Sea. Sun bleached cliffs with conifers clutching to their existence peered over forested mounds bathing in the turquoise splashes of liquid jade. Halfway through our hike we stopped at a shack of a restaurant that sat overlooking the water and I enjoyed a seafood stuffed Pajeon (Korean Pancake) while Ashlee was regulated to a bowl of buckwheat noodles. Although the older gentleman pushed their shop’s homemade Makgeolli (famous in Yeosu), we abstained as the day along the coastline was intoxicating all on its own. With an early start, one could definitely cover the entire trail in a day or there are several options to stay along the trail including camping on Ando Beach (Naver Maps). Although there are buses which have frequent stops around the entry points of the trail, they were not running on a Friday in late September and fortunately there was a number to call for a ‘cab’ that took us back to the ferry port. Geumodo is a destination in its own right that deserves several days of exploration. Unfortunately, our vacation was coming to an end and we had a 4.5 hour drive back to Seoul awaiting us the following day.

‘Traveling is About People’

-Nogodan Guesthouse

With a week off from school for Chuseok, we woke up at 5am to try to beat the Seoul traffic, but found the roads cluttered with other holiday bound travelers. After about 4 hours in the car we arrived at the Nogodan Guest House near the town of Guryre. There must have been a downpour right before we pulled up as the array of wildflowers had beads of sweat dripping from their pedals. We immediately felt a sense of peace at the base of the mountain range. Our room was not ready so we decided to explore the area and stumbled upon Jirisan Garden (Naver Map). Because it was chuseok holiday and everyone was visiting their family home to remember their ancestors there was no one around. I’m unsure if the garden was temporary closed for the holiday or due to COVID, but we found complete solitude wondering around the park. Sometimes your soul does not realize you have been deprived of nature until you are to breathe in the replenishing air. We settled back into our guest house and found that our host had been trekking all around the world. In 2014 they hosted in Iron Man competition and all of the competitors stayed at the Nogodan Guest House (Naver Map). The room was a simple box, with a small fridge, large tv, and a firm mattress. We did not need much as we planned on spending the next 4 days in the area hiking around in the mountains. Our accommodations boasted a reception area that had books and pictures from out host’s travels, an attached cafe that served up Korean style BBQ, and a roof top deck that peered up at the lush ridges scaling across the sky @nogodan_guesthouse (Instagram).

After a chance encounter on the rooftop, we found ourselves having dinner with Mike and Jiyoung. They lived outside of Busan in Yongman and were celebrating Mike’s recent retirement with a trip to Jirisan. Jiyoung had organized a sunrise hike up Nogodan peak and when I told her we had planned on hiking there as well, she told me we needed reservations. When Jiyoung checked the site on her phone, she found all of the spots had been booked. This was a recent COVID related precaution and one that caught us off guard. Jiyoung called over to the host of the guesthouse and he confirmed it was not possible to hike. Earlier that day we had noticed in one of his many pictures of global trekking adventures, that he had been to Nepal. So, I proceeded to show him a picture of when Ashlee and I had hiked to the base camp of Anna Purna and he looked at us in a different light. Through Jiyung’s translation, he explained that he was leading a trip that was leaving at 350am and we could join. With our bloodstreams infused with a mixture of makgeolli and plum wine, we happily agreed.

As imagined at 3am when our alarms sounded, the plan seemed less than ideal but we were pot committed. We piled into our host’s van along with a family of 4 and two women. The curvy drive to the parking lot had the previous nights alcohol swirling around in our stomachs and we could not get outside quick enough. Once we started moving and breathing in the soothing air our bodies adjusted to what our minds had previoulsy concocted under the influence. The site of the stars beating in the sky stopped us in our tracks as they were perfectly cluttered in contrived shapes centered in the galaxy. On the walk, our host Mr. Jung, talked about loving hiking since he was a little boy and how he opened up his guesthouse with the dream of sharing that with others. Over the first 6 years in operation, tourists from Germany, France, the UK, and US as well as Koreans flocked to his establishment as a base camp to Jirisan. These days that has slowed to a stagnant stall and he relies solely on Korean travelers to maintain his operation.

Mr. Jung had timed everything on our hike down to the minute as we reached the summit as the sun was smoldering in the valley below. The peaks of Jirisan were glowing in a sea of embers on one side of Nogodon and on the other was what Koreans call Ullhe, meaning Ocean Clouds. There could not be a better description as we were seemingly gazing down on sirrius whites caps pressing up around lush islands that dotted the sea. The 7 and 10 year old children who were ready to hike at 330am without any sign of protest were still jumping for pictures. The two women turned out to be professional hikers and left us to traverse the ridge connecting the nearby peaks. Ashlee and I reflected that for the first time since last Chuseok, we truly felt like we were traveling. Random conversations with strangers sharing a common desire to find adventure led us to connect and create a experience that would stay imprinted in our lives.

After our 3am wake up the morning before, we were in no rush to leave Nogodon Guesthouse. We found a hike that was shaped like a horseshoe and would allow us to climb to the top of Baraebong and Segeolsan (All Trails). The start of our hike came with complimentary bug dope as there was a machine with two spray nozzles distributing a concoction that would keep us safe from the local ticks and mosquitoes. A former road was converted to a walking path that was lined with cobblestones. Unlike previous hikes in Korea, we found only a few flights of stairs at the very top of Baraebong. We were at a lower elevation than Nogodon and were surrounded by shoulder high bunches of grass fluttering in the breeze and the occasional wildflowers that dotted the hillsides. The size of the stone signifying the summit must reflect the amount of people as we were alone at the top. The forested mountains of Jirisan encircled us and whisky clouds were draped over the ridge lines. We have become very fond of hiking with gimbap and had picked up some fatty rolls at Gimbap Cheongug (Naver Map) in Gurye.

We crept back into the woods and traversed through thick brush and bamboo over to Seoglsan. In Korea, we have become accustomed to sharing the trails with the masses and found significant solitude on this route. With bears and boars known to be in the area, we tried to make a little more noise as our legs were being thrashed by the foliage that had overgrown the path. Although we were following a ridge line, we were mainly kept undercover and occasionally porpoised through the vegetation for air and a view. To our astonishment we found a summit without a stone on the peak of Segeolsan and took a break in the clearing before heading making our way down. We slowly meandered through the woods until popping out ‘a youth training center.’ I’m unsure what this facility is used for, but there was a state of an art obstacle course that included a zip line.

Our original plan was to arrange for a taxi using our Kakao app as soon as our feet hit pavement. However, all of requests failed and so we walked down the road until we reached a farming community and it became very apparent there were no taxis that stretched this far! To say we stuck out as foreigners with backpacks would probably be an understatement but no one paid us any mind. I have learned to appreciate that about Korean people as unless you appear to be in distress or reach out, Koreans simply let you go about your way. After stumbling through fields of chili peppers and pumpkins, we eventually landed on a random bus stop. We jumped on the next bus that happened to swing through and in a round about way, we wound up back in the town of Unbong where we then walked back to our car. By the time we had reached Jeongsan Village we were more than ready for dinner. Unfortunately, my Korean leaves something be desired and instead of ordering dakgalbi we received dakmari which is the entire chicken. It was still incredibly good as they sautéed up all the pieces of the chicken with hot chilies and onions. The cook then made a rich broth with all of the bones, green onions, turnips, and more spice. We did our best but the spice overcame us and we had to concede the meal.

The remnants of a typhoon poured into the area that morning so we sat around drinking coffee and talking about traveling with Mr. Jung. I showed him pictures form our hike the day before and he showed me albums from his time in Nepal which included treks to Annapurna and Everest Base Camp as well as his summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Mr. Jung had worked at Shinhan bank for 24 years before retiring and moving down to Jirisan. Even though that was 9 years ago, I believe he actually looks younger today as he has invested in his passions. We stopped and warmed our souls with piping hot bowl of gamjatang which succulent pork bone soup at this spot (Naver Map). On our way out of town we went for a rejuvenating soak at the K Hotel which has a public spa piping in the healing waters of the thermal springs around Jirisan. We found it difficult to leave Jirisan, but the idea of traveling to a new place was just as thrilling!

Soaking in Sokcho- A Traveler’s Guide

Whether you are wanting to break free from the bustle of Seoul or are visiting Korea in the near future, Sokcho is a prime destination that features the grand splendor of mountain ridges peering down on a pounding surf.  In the short time living in Korea, we have grown to love this spot as a way to enjoy the culture and landscape of the area that provides amazing opportunities in the outdoors.

Sights of Seoraksan

Biryong Falls (All Trails App): If you decide that you want to turn this into a run, begin with the sun rise for more solitude.  From the park entrance, head up the paved path and cross the bridge on your left.   The trail climbs through the deciduous forest that lines the water of the Ssangcheon.  In mid Fall, the golden foliage of maple leaves the size of my face were sprinkled in with singed flora dropping from trees.  The route ascends up a ravine cut by a clear running stream and soon opens up to views of the river valley that spreads through the mountains.  After about 2.5miles from entering Seorasksan National Park you reach our turnaround at Biryong Waterfall.  The water in the Fall was at a minimal flow as the summer rains had ceased and any snow melt had been distributed to the lower elevation’s months ago.  The pacifying sound of water sliding off the granite cliff and plunging into the pool carved into a bowl from the cascading creek will connect you to natures creation.

Mount Daecheongbong (All Trails App): As so many of the trails in Korea, the path is void of switchbacks and heads straight up.  When we hiked this in mid-October, the vibrant Fall colors we had seen on our drive to the Trailhead dissipated into exposed limbs cleaned of their dressing.  Without foliage, the views of the peaks and ridges which encircled us were unobstructed.  There are less staircases than other hikes in Korea and the trail is more rocky and rugged.  The pace is slower than normal as you traverse over boulders that are stacked on the ridge.  After being in a cloudy haze that morning, the day began to clear offering the splendid site of Seoraksan.

Ulsanbawi (All Trails App): If you are limited on time or simply looking for a half day venture, I highly recommend hiking to the top of Ulsanbawi.  The trail starts off gradual and then reaches a serene Buddhist temple carved into the sides of the mountain.  From there, you enter into a steady dose of staircases that lead to the knife edge of the summit.  Probably one of the more awe inspiring views of the area as you can truly grasp the magnitude of the mountains rising out of the sea.

On the Water

Burger Place (Naver Maps):They serve up an amazing classic burger and fries that pairs nicely with a Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Sit on the top deck for spectacular sunset views of the East Sea.

Boardwalk Stroll (Naver Maps): Start anywhere along Sokcho Beach and head south.  Eventually the paved path or sand turns into a boardwalk that wraps around a headland that juts into the sea.  I believe this goes all the way to Oenchihang Port, but part of the hillside had caved in and destroyed the boardwalk.  There are historical sites along the way which point to the area’s complicated relationship with North Korea.  

Singlefin Aleworks (Naver Maps): The laid-back establishment produces my favorite IPA that I’ve tasted in Korea.  They also have a canning machine on site which allows them to pour right from their taps for beer to go.  On the shelf of empty bottles for collection, they had Ninkasi’s Total Domination from my hometown in Eugene, OR. Pizza, chicken wings, and fries will ensure you won’t go hungry.

Surfy Beach (Naver Maps): Take a sun-soaked stroll from Hajodae to Surfy Beach and you may have the stretch of sand to yourselves to meander and pick up sea shells along the way.  Surfy Beach is a fantastic attempt at replicating a resort in Mexico with thatched bungalows, a surf shop, and the only beer they serve is Corona.  I have to give them credit that they have stuck with their marketing niche even in the midst of the novel Coronavirus. 

In Between

Matsu (Naver Maps): I absolutely love this Italian place as it is in full on Christmas décor year-round with a tree coming out of the middle of the room and tacky decorations piled high. They serve an amazing seafood pasta teeming with more shellfish than noodles and have an attractive set meal for a very reasonable price.

Casa Seoraksan (Naver Maps): We have stayed at 3 different places in Sokcho and allow me to save you the trouble of looking any further than Casa Seoraksan.  The location is tough to beat as you are a 15min walk to the ocean or a 10min drive to the entrance of the National Park. Matsu Italian Restaurant is also only a 3min walk which makes for a nice option to enjoy wine without the hassle of driving or taking a cab.  The rooms all come with a hot tub and have splendid views of the mountains or ocean.  The host prepares a legitimate breakfast that is delivered to your room in the morning and the full kitchen boasts a hand coffee grinder, if the brew in the lobby is not to your liking.

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Summit to Sea to Table in Jeollabuk-do (The Westside)

On my drive from Jirisan to Naejangsan, I left solitude in the rearview mirror and began to settle into loneliness. The midpoint of my week-long road trip had me longing for a little conversation or some laughter to break up the constant introspection.  Tom Petty is a solid co-pilot while driving, but he’s not necessarily writing new music these days.  Fortunately, I had plenty of gorgeous scenery to keep me company as I weaved through the lanes of cherry trees that lined the roads pulling into Naejangsan.  So much is made of the cherry blossoms in Japan, making it a major tourist destination in the Spring.  However, I could not imagine anything outshining the stunning blooms that I witnessed in Jeollabuk.  I had entered a tunnel of limbs that were flowering into bursts of powder creating clouds of crystalized pedals that filled the sky.  I avoided hitting the people that were posing for photos in the road and pulled into a completely vacant parking lot at Gain Campground (Naver).  There was one other tent in the entire site and I set up my camp in a spot that bordered a babbling creek and had views of the mountains.  I walked into the village that fringed the entrance of the National Park looking for a spot to grab dinner.  I did not have a clue what I was looking for, so I picked the busiest spot figuring all of those patrons were on to something.  When I walked onto the patio of Gongwon Minsok Restaurant (Naver), the woman began talking to me and the only word I understood was bimbibap.  I shook my head yes and then she seated me on the edge of the parking lot.  Apparently, the only dish she served was bimbibap and even though this is traditional Korean food, in Jeollabuk they are known to specialize in making it exceptionally well as it customary to serve it with 10 different sides in this region.  The area is one of the more fertile in Korea and the bimbibap varies on the season and what has been foraged on the forest floor.  The spread looked like I was eating for a family of four and I sweated my way through the spice filled culinary encounter that was one of my favorite meals in Korea. 

The following morning I was packing up my tent again to move on to the next adventure.  As I was walking out with my bag, a woman who had been staying in the other tent with her husband approached me.  She had made me an iced coffee in a to-go cup and presented me with a bag of, what I would later discover, the juiciest oranges I’ve tasted!   The kindness that Korean people showed me on my travels became a constant theme.  I do not believe it is common to see people traveling alone in Korea as they have such a strong sense of family and I believe some may have felt sorry for me.  I gladly welcomed the gestures of good will which served as a reminder of even when you are feeling totally isolated, you are not completely alone.  Leaving the campground, I followed the windy road that snaked through the mountains to the Naejangsan National Park Visitor Center (Naver) where I started a hike.  The path (All Trails) followed a purring stream in Wonjeok Valley, in an openly wooded area, before passing through a temple and ascending Bulcholbong.  Many of the temples have been constucted in the mountains stemming from Korea’s spiritual roots in Shamanism.  Over 40,000 years ago, Shamanism came to the peninsula and still exists in many aspects of Korean culture.  This is an incredibly fluid spiritual practice that is closely tied to nature and was very accepting when Buddhism was introduced during the 3rdcentury.  When Buddhism was suppressed in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) many of the Buddhist monks found sanctuary in the mountains.  Therefore, on just about every hike we have been on in Korea, there is some form of a temple or acknowledgment of the site where a temple had been burned down during the Korean War.  Once on top of Bulcholbong, I could see the vastness of the fields and farmland created by Dongjingang River and Naejangho Lake that existed beyond the mountains.  This particular trail followed the knife edge that traversed over the Manghaebong, Kkacibong, and Yeonjabong.  The ridge formed a perfect horseshoe shaped amphitheater that had me feeling like I was walking on the scales on the back of a dragon’s curled up into a ball.

Amazingly, I was only an hour’s drive from the West coast of Korea in Byeonsan-bando National Park where I soon had my feet, that were locked in hiking boots, cooling in the sand at Gosapo Beach (Naver). The West side of the peninsula is protected by the Asian continent meaning the waves do not have the same power that they do on the East coast.  Because the surf is not pounding the coastline of the Yellow Sea, the strands of beaches are much shallower and therefore have dramatic tidal shifts.  With the shoreline waxing and waning with the currents, the one constant in my vision of the horizon was Haseom Island.  The picturesque plateau was perched like a beacon in the distance with the sun fragmenting in a prism through the clouds. Even when I headed back to my campsite to cook up dinner, the magnitude of the view was amplified as the sun crawled down the skyline.  There were a few more people camping in this area and their tents were decked out with lights, comfy padded chairs, and full-sized outdoor kitchens.  I felt small with my one burner stove and our backpacking tent that was a spec in the footprint of my assigned site.  One car pulled in fairly late that evening and I noticed the person struggling to set up their tent in the dark.  I went over there to help him as wrestling with a heap of nylon and tangled poles at night is a difficult exercise in mindfulness.  The next morning the man sheepishly came over with a can of tea and a packaged pastry.  He was a professor at Seoul University and explained that it is customary to provide a gift to someone who is visiting and was sorry that he did not have more to offer.  I spent the start of the day hiking along the shore, that had grown in size, collecting all types of shells and beach glass that were exposed from the receding waterline.  As my fingers rubbed over the beach glass I mused how it starts off as a broken object with sharp and jagged edges.  After being tossed around in the salty sea, it survives by being buried deep in the sand until rising to the surface.  Through this process, something that was once so fragile is strengthened, smoothed over, and luminates in the natural light.  I probably would have stayed on the coast for another couple of days if I did not book a place in Jeonju.  As I was having my lunch at a picnic table, an older couple brought me filberts and strawberries to add to my meal.  I decided that the next time I travel in Korea, I will not need to bring anything as all the strangers I come across would provide me with everything I need!

Jeonju is the capital of Jeollabuk province and is where the Joseon Empire was founded.  I rented a space in the traditional Hanok Village amongst the wooden homes tightly wound in a maze of alleys, shops, and eateries.  Over the next two days, I did my best to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible as I waddled around in the steady rain that settled into the area.  Because Korea is incredibly mountainous, people were more isolated from each other and so specific regions established their own specialties in food based on what was readily available. The first evening in Jeonju I wandered upon a rooftop café that had splendid views of the tiled gables and nearby hillsides dusted with sprouting cherry blooms.  From there I gladly settled for another version of Bimbibap, this one with pork ribs, and a bottle of Moju which is more healthy than boozy.  The following morning presented a break in the rain, motivating me t I wonder up to Wansan park (Naver).  Along with being the high point on a ridge that overlooks the city, Wansan park is also the site of the Tonghak Battle where a group of farmers and pheasants staged an uprising and overthrew the King in 1894.  From the pagoda perched on the butte, I could see the next wave of storm clouds marching in. Accompanied with the front, the wind was whipping around and redistributing the blossoms from the trees and piling them up into snow drifts of pink pedals.  Just as I was coming out of the forest, the rain came down with a thundering force.  I was looking to escape the downpour and stumbled into a restaurant called Veteran (Naver).  I had a marvelous of bowl of Kalguksu soup which was bursting with flavor as noodles were soaked in a sesame oil and seed broth.  They took the spice down due to my whiteness, but, I was still sniffling and sweating along with everyone else in the fogged-up shop.  Later that afternoon I enjoyed another café, Gonggan Bom (Naver), with a groovy atmosphere, piping hot churros, and a comforting glass of soothing mulled wine to relieve the afternoon chill.  I finished off my day of eating with a bag full of dumplings from Daurang (Naver) where the steamed morsels of tender goodness were stuffed with every magical culinary combination one could imagine.  Jeonju is a foodie’s paradise and after a week of camping and hiking, I could not think of a better way to finish off a trip than to indulge in the local fare like an absolute glutton for gastronomy!

Solitude and Loneliness in Jeollabuk-do (The East Side)

Over the past 20 years, I have become aware that there is a fine line between solitude and loneliness.  I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins as they often bleed into each other.  So often when being in the outdoors, we seek the solitude necessary to truly become in tune with our natural environment.  And then, if you find yourself immersed in too much isolation, seclusion settles in and we ultimately feel more empty than fulfilled.  During those times, self-reflection can be at its peak, taking us in an array of different directions in our minds, and embarking on an internal journey to the unknown.  Over Spring Break, Ashlee needed to fly back to Texas for a family emergency and I was left with the dilemma of traveling down that lonesome road or staying in the comfort of a familiar place.  Ever since Ashlee and I met, we have made the most of every opportunity to engage in travel and adventure.  So, in her absence I was motivated to honor ‘us’ by launching into a week trip in the Jeollabuk province.  Through my healthy obsession with maps, I had located 4 National Parks that would make for a fantastic loop.  

The Town of Muju

Although I had an idea of my general route, I did not start planning until the Saturday after we were let out of school for Spring Break.  There was heavy rain across the peninsula and I figured that would make for a good day to solidify my route.  With maps and books spread across the table, groceries covering the kitchen counter, and camping gear cluttering the floor, I identified hikes as well as reserved campgrounds and rooms that would take me on a week-long tour through Jellobuk-do.  I left early the next morning in order to get ahead of the weekend traffic and with the hopes that the rain would subside in time for my hike.  I arrived to the township of Muju and was thrilled to encounter an empty parking lot (Naver Map). Muju, located in the Northeast corner of Jeollabuk province, is a ski area in the wintertime and boasts the most natural snow in Korea due to its relatively high elevation.  In the summer, the spring melt fills the Gucheong River and warm weather creates a water themed atmosphere.  To say that this was the ‘the shoulder season’ in Muju would not truly capture the vacancy that existed in the town during my stay.  I had no complaints as my hike to Deogyusan Mountain was incredibly peaceful.  Note: When hiking in Korea, I typically use ALL Trails and have provided links through that app for my routes.

The trail tightly followed the Gucheong which was gushing through the canyon walls, sliding over the granite riverbed, and tumbling off drops before plunging into cavernous pools.  I had not been around a waterway like this since arriving in Korea and realized how thirsty I was for a pristine mountain stream.  Although the rain had ceased earlier that morning, the budding vegetation was still sweating with the dew and when I reached Baengnyeonsa Temple, I found it eerily shrouded in in a cloudy mist.  The trail went from being a gradual incline to a straight shot to and climbed 2200 feet over the final 1.5 miles.  Fortunately, there was an older couple that I was playing a game of leapfrog with on the final stretch that reminded me the importance of doing what you love with the one with you love.  Although I could not understand what they were saying, I knew they were filled with joy as they chatted and giggled as they walked in the woods together.  The peak of Deogyusan (also Hyanjeokbong) was surprisingly cold as the clear weather at the bottom of the valley was a tease compared to the stormy summit.  Like with anywhere, people from all walks of life ramble along in the hills, but, I was especially taken back by one family.  They were clothed entirely in cotton, denim, wore converse sneakers and were without any bags, food, or even water.  I was dumfounded that what took me several hours to climb seemed to be a complete breeze for a family of four.  I shrugged it off that maybe they were born in the mountains and 30 min after I started my descent, the sun broke through and cleared the skies.  The light was at the perfect angle as it gashed through the trees and sliced across the water.  As I neared the end of my walk down, I crossed paths again with that family of four.  I had not seen them on the trail down and I could not figure out how this happened. Until, that is, the host at my completely unoccupied pension explained there is a chairlift on the side opposite the trail that goes to the top.

After a day of rest in Muju, specifically planned to watch the Ducks in the Sweet 16, I headed down to Jirisan National Park.  The stretch from Muju to Jirisan was the longest stretch of country road that I had been on in Korea.  My mind was twisting and turning with the paved path winding down from the mountains and into the valleys of blooming fruit trees. Jirisan is in the Southeast corner of the region, sits on the throne to the largest mountains in Korea, and there is a hut system which dots the ridges, allowing people to hike on multi-day trips. Since the huts were closed due to COVID, I had my sites set on Cheonwangbong.  There are multiple access points to some of the higher points in the range and this trail was on the same side of the park that I was going to camp.  

My walk started off in a grove of Cherry trees and quickly climbed through rock gardens and bamboo forests that bordered a rippling creek.  I encountered only a half dozen people before reaching the station below Beopgye Temple.  As I approached, a park ranger came flying out from his cabin and said something to me in Korean, which after being met by my puzzled look was followed by, ‘Are you a foreigner?’ He went on to tell me that they prevented people from accessing the summit if they are not at this point at 2:00pm. It was 2:30pm. The ranger than explained that on April 1st, that time changes to 3:00pm. It was March 30th.   A true dilemma for him and not one I saw myself advancing. As minor as these discrepancies may appear, I was resolved that I would be turning around.  Just for shits and giggles, I threw in, ‘I promise I will hike really fast.’ He looked me up and down as if I were at a stockyard and said, ‘ok, please hurry.’ My mindset for that section of the hike was similar to that of when encountering a bear: ‘You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the slowest person in your group.’ I figured that if I could pass one person in that final stretch, I would make good on my word to the ranger.  The trail ascended 1800 ft in the final mile and the peak produced gaping views of massive mountains piled on top of each other.  Although there was not a significant amount of room on the top, there was a huddled mass of hikers taking the obligatory selfie.

After passing back by the temple and purchasing some water from the ranger station, I decided to take a longer and more forgiving route down. As I was meandering through the woods in silence, two older men were gaining on me at a fairly quick pace and when they came out on a dirt road they broke into a light jog.  The thought of the Asiatic Black Bear that has been reintroduced to Jirisan National Park did flash in my mind, but then one of the men began shouting ‘bus, bus.’  Despite our best efforts, we arrived at the bus stop one minute after the scheduled pick up and there is no such thing as a late bus in Korea.  When I started to walk down the road, they started shouting towards me and motioned to me to sit with them.  The 4 men in their mid 60’s broke out a bottle of Makgeolli (a Korean Rice Wine that is synonymous with the Jeollabuk region), little paper cups, and anju (snacks traditionally must be served with alcohol) in the form of sardines.  The men then insisted on giving me Gimbap (Seaweed rolls stuffed with rice, meat, and veggies) along with bottles of water for the walk down.  Even though we were only about 3 miles from the parking lot, I believe they were concerned about me being alone and wanted to make sure that I had enough food and water to make it through the night.  After they escorted me down to my car and made sure I pulled out of the parking lot safely, I was on my way to Naewonsa Temple Campsite.

My Jirisan Guides

I rolled in just after dark and there were only two other tents set up in the entire area.  This would become a theme for my trip as I was traveling in the middle of the week and Korean schools were not on a break. The campground was well lit and I had no problem setting up my tent on the wooden platform.  I had inhaled a Gimbap roll on my drive and so I was satisfied with ramen soup as a quick snack.  As I was cooking, everything started glowing and I realized the moon was climbing over a nearby ridge and exposing its extensiveness in the valley.  The bloated vessel of space dust was illuminated from a distant sun as an unscathed disc and reflected dancing light on the creek splashing below. I could not imagine a more tranquil scene and slept hard through the night.  The next morning, I took my time laying around, drinking coffee, and playing the guitar. The weather was perfect and I easily could have stayed there all day soaking in the sun, but alas, adventure is a great motivator!  I took a short walk up to Naewonsa Temple before packing up camp and heading West to Naejangsan National Park.

Busan or Bust: A Traveler’s Guide

Busan has become one of my favorite cities to visit and whether you live in South Korea or are traveling in the region, I would move it to the top of your list! Boasting gorgeous beaches, coastline trails, an assortment of eateries, and an array of sightseeing opportunities, there are plenty of options to stay busy in Busan. We have traveled down to Busan on multiple occasions and I want to share some of our favorite spots. Because Google Maps is spotty in Korea, you will need to download Naver Maps to check out specific locations.

Outdoor Sights

Gajisan Mountain: If you are driving from Seoul, this is a great place to stop and go for a nice hike. You can walk this in a loop and in the Spring, the azalea bloom is supposed to be phenomenal.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple: One of the more spectacular Buddhist temples I’ve visited as there are gorgeous sculptures perched on the sea cliff with the waves crashing in.

Igidae Cliff Waterside Park: Marine headland trail that stretches along the water. Spectacular views spanning Suyeongnam Bay with Jangsan Mountain and Haeundae in the backdrop.

Moonwalk: There is a boardwalk that wraps along the South Sea, East of Haeundae Beach. A rail line is also available which floats above the walking path. You can take this all the way to Cheongsapo and then take dirt trails back through the woods around Wausan Mountain. It is easier to switch to Maps.me to follow the trail system.

Haeundae Beach: For good reason, this is the most famous beach in Korea. Walking up and down the strip of sand, no matter the hour, does not get old.

Undaesan Mountain: If you are looking for a sunset stroll with a little bit of incline, Undaesan is right off Haeundae Beach.

Food and Drink

Wave On Coffee Shop: The beach and views beneath the deck coming off this coffee shop make its worth the trip. There is a traditional Korean restaurant adjacent to Wave On that has you feeling like you’re sitting on top of the water.

Gorilla Brewing: There are plenty of good breweries in the Haundae area. Gorilla Brewing seemed to be open more than the others:) Their craft beers are also available at Motor City Pizza in Seoul.

Namaste: Some of the best Indian we’ve had outside of India! The family is originally from Dehli and there are even Bollywood music videos playing in the background.

Haemok: Incredible atmosphere with even better Tuna and Salmon!