I decided to travel to South Korea not because of a travel agent's advice or a guidebook. Nope – an enthusiastic pitch from a waiter at a local Korean restaurant sealed the deal.
My wife and I were eating our way through bi bim bap and banchan when the waiter asked if we'd ever been to South Korea. We hadn't, so he launched into his spiel. We'd been in many times, so he knew us well enough to have a grasp (mostly!) on things we like.
Here what he said:
You might not think of travel to South Korea if you're a hiker. I know I didn't. But South Koreans love hiking, and they have trails everywhere. Even in a sprawling ubercity like Busan, you're a subway ride from more trails than you can hike in a single day. We saw ancient rock walls made to repel Chinese invaders, temples and 360-degree views of a city of staggering size.
The hiking in Jeju, an island off the south coast, was also a revelation. You can hike to the top of a volcano, and you'll find many other short hikes no matter where you go. There's even some underground hiking: The Manjanggul lava tube is also very cool, if overdeveloped. The scope of the cave – a UNESCO World Heritage site – still blew me away, so I'll forgive the over-paving. And it makes me wonder what other lava tubes lurk out there for those with time, patience and a sense of adventure.
It makes sense: If you like Korean food, travel to South Korea for the real thing. Here's what I learned: The Korean food is tasty and varied, but the Korean spins on American foods and desserts fall flat.
Even on our Asiana Airlines flight, the food was shockingly good â€¦ by a long shot the freshest, healthiest, best-tasting airline food ever. Korean Airlines has a fare special to Seoul (and other Asian cities), and I’ve heard its in-flight meals are great, too.
Once on the ground, we tried the usual staples like bulgogi. But was also ate abalone that had been alive moments before (tastes like ear cartilage to me) and boiled silkworm larvae. Definitely get into into the street food – one of my favorites was some sort of fried dough with what appeared to be black bean paste.
As for desserts, many will look pretty. But they'll be dry and bland. Just as a novelty, be sure to try something from a South Korean Dunkin' Donuts. It's sure to confuse you.
Our friendly waiter insists that spas (aka jim jil bang are a top reason to travel to South Korea. You know what? We agree. There's a place in Busan called Spa Land that is now one of my favorite places on the planet. It's a massive glass-and-steel structure packing just about every sort of sauna you've ever imagined into several floors.
It cost us about $15 for a four-hour stay. I could go on a lot longer about South Korean spas – but my earlier blog post will give you an idea of what to expect.
Karaoke (I didn’t consider this a good reason …)
OK, our waiter friend struck out on this one. Sure, I was in a metal band for nearly a decade. But as a guitarist, not a singer. So you won't find me singing karaoke â€¦ and I won't travel to South Korea to hit the karaoke bars.
That said, if karaoke is your thing, you'll find no shortage of places to indulge yourself. And if you're Caucasian in appearance, you'll probably cause a stir and gain some admirers. So go have fun!
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