Not to be confused with an easy-to-reach destination, Ulleungdo (pronounced ‘ool-leung-doh’) is perhaps a final frontier as Korea goes. You can travel most anywhere on the mainland in a matter of hours, but this far-off island requires a three-hour ferry ride that may only run once a day. This is off-the-beaten-path.
Start your journey from Donghae (in Gangwon-do) or Pohang (in Gyeongsangbuk-do), and have your passport handy just in case you’re asked for it. After arriving, you’ll likely be approached by a number of ajumma offering their guesthouses (called minbak in Korean). Even though you’ll need a place to stay, hold out – unless you’ve arrived in the middle of the high season, there’s plenty of hotels.
Unlike the disputed islands diplomatically called the Liancourt Rocks, Ulleung-do has been Korean territory for over 1,500 years. There’s very little flat land on this extinct volcano, and the narrow road spiral around at times to compensate for the differences in elevation.
Pro Tip: the ‘bus terminal’ is just up from the harbor. There’s only a small handful of routes across the island, and they typically stick to the perimeter of the island.
Your first destination is Seonghasindang Shrine (성하신당 전설), a tribute to the first permanent settlement from the 15th century. The story isn’t told on-site, but commander Kim Inu was charged with clearing the island and bringing residents back to the mainland. Before he left, the commander had a dream – the god of the East Sea commanded him to leave behind one couple.
He forgot this dream, and when departing found that storms prevented their departure. After several days of stormy weather, he chose a young couple and ordered them to remain behind. The seas became calm, but the commander couldn’t help but wonder – what happened to that couple? 8 years later, he returned to the island and found the couple – dead in an embrace. He built the shrine to console their spirits and to repent for his sin. From that time, people pray to this shrine whenever a new ship is built.
From here, take a walk on the wild side – along the cliffs:
Walk as long as you like – there’s kilometers worth of cliffs to meander. This really is one of the best areas on the island to get your photos.
While not the best place to get dinner (it’s overpriced), the harbor area features the only night life on the island. Some local musicians and some dancers come out along the harbor:
You’ll be hearing trot (pronounced troht) – traditional Korean music – and yes, alcohol does play a factor into people choosing to dance… Stick around, or meander around the well-lit hiking trails nearby the harbor.
The next morning, walk 10 minutes up the hill towards Yaksu Park (약수공원):
Natural flowing mineral water, anyone? It’s free to taste, slightly carbonated, and a little bitter. Also here is a museum about the island’s history – well worth a half hour.
One final destination to take in is the Bongrae / Bongnae waterfall (봉래폭포). On the way up, you’ll find a ‘wind cave’, where the temperature drops significantly. It’s a very welcome feeling in the summer months.
On the way down, you might even see some folks playing… croquet? Yep. Croquet. Watch if they’re playing, or shimmy down to the harbor for your ride back to the peninsula.
It’s another three hours or so back to the mainland – a perfect time to look back to your photos or take a nap. Whether you choose stay a single night or several, there’s plenty to see to make it worth your while.