(Editor's note: This article is the fifth in our feature series on South Korea's lesser-known tourist spots.)
By Kang Yoon-seung
ULLEUNG ISLAND, South Korea, July 5 (Yonhap) -- For most South Koreans, let alone overseas tourists, the eastern island of Ulleung is not an easy destination to travel to. But as isolated as the Galapagos Islands, Ulleung Island has a lot to offer from breathtaking ocean views to unique fauna and floras.
Officially a part of North Gyeongsang Province, the island with a population of around 10,000 is the country's ninth-largest island in terms of size at 72.9 square kilometers. The island is accessible by taking a ferry from Pohang, which normally takes around three hours. Regular ferries also operate from Gangwon Province as well.
For many South Koreans living on the peninsula, however, Ulleung is still an unfamiliar island. Some recognize the island as the top producer of dried squid or pumpkin taffies, one of Korea's key traditional delicacies, but not many people are aware that Ulleung Island can also be a fine travel destination that can match with the southernmost resort island of Jeju.
To explain what it is like to travel on Ulleung Island, residents normally say that the island does not have "three," but boasts "five." The three refers to thieves, pollution and snakes, while the five refers to water, beauty, stone, wind and juniper.
Preserved by the strong waves of the East Sea, Ulleung Island for sure boasts scenic views that are rarely found on the peninsula. There are 62 kinds of wild birds, 750 different plants, and various geological views which act as a living history book for geologists.
"I enjoyed hiking along Ulleung. This is my second time here," said Desiree Andersen from the United States. "I am actually studying ecology and botany, so I may come back to study little more."
While a month would still not be enough to enjoy every aspect of the island, a night or two is just right to take a glimpse of Ulleung, both for Koreans and foreigners.
"I especially liked the nature here," said Anais Eiermann, who came from France for a three-day visit. "I also plan to see the waterfall on the island. Although I had seasick, there were no barriers for me to enjoy everything on Ulleung, including languages."
Travelers usually arrive at Ulleung through Dodong Harbor, the main gate of the island. There is no airport, although the government has been making efforts to open one in several years.
The island is divided into three areas, namely Ulleung-eup, Seo-myeon and Buk-myeon. While tourists can bring their own car through Pohang, they can also choose to take buses that travel to most of the key destinations.
Travelers must not bring, however, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) automobiles as there are no charging facilities. They may take SUV-taxis, but the price hovers far above those in Seoul and thus not a recommended transportation for budget travelers.
Each district can easily be reached by bus, that also accepts transportation cards used in Seoul. The buses run along the coast, dropping residents and tourists at key spots. Although there are only one or two buses every hour, there are no problems for tourists to hop off a bus, savor the beauty of each spot, and hop on again.
Note that some buses provide English announcements for each stop, but others don't. But drivers and residents are more than happy to lend a hand to lost tourists. As Ulleung is a high-rising island from the ocean, there are many curves along the street, thus tourists must be cautious not to fall down.
The majority of the population lives at Ulleung-eup, where Dodong Harbor and the headquarters of the provincial government is also located. Most of tourists' journey also starts here.
While the harbor itself boasts excellent views and unique atmosphere of a typical Korean fishing town, travelers can also stroll through the district on foot to find various hidden spots.
Walking through the seaside street located right next to the harbor delivers a similar experience as Cinque Terre, located at the western coast of Italy, with an Asian touch. The seaside walk provides tourists with a chance to adjust themselves to the island and take a break from their seasickness, which would be unavoidable for first-time visitors.
The path, which stretches either way from Dodong, is enjoyable both day and night. Strolling through dusk while listening to the waves of East Sea may be slightly fearful, but one can still be amused at how great an untouched nature can be.
Chotdaeam, a high-rising stone located at Jeodong Harbor, just north of Dodong, boasts an excellent sunrise view, giving an impression of a candle on light. Legends tell that a daughter who waited for her father who never came back from the sea turned into stone.
While Dodong is more of a passenger-friendly harbor, Jeodong is a typical South Korean fishery town, where tens of small fishing boats come and go, supplying the island with fresh goods just caught from the East Sea.
If Ulleung Island feels not isolated enough, travelers can also choose to go Jukdo Island, accessible by ferries from Dodong in around 20 minutes. With only few residents, tourists can feel a short breakout from any touches of civilizations, and enjoy breathtaking landscapes.
Bongnae Waterfall is also one not-to-be-missed destination at Ulleung-eup, one of a few sources of sweet water on the island. It is accessible by foot from Jeodong Harbor or by bus from the main Dodong.
For those who want to enjoy the beauty of Ulleung-eup, but are too exhausted from the long boat ride, they can check out the Dokdo Observatory Cable Car. If the weather is good enough, tourists can also see Dokdo, South Korea's easternmost islets, from the horizon.
The cable car, however, is currently under maintenance through July 31.
A bus starts from Dodong and runs to Seo-myeon and Buk-myeon. While each stop along the way holding historical spots and distinguished beauty, those running short on time may get off at Namyang Harbor as the first stop in Seo-myeon.
At the bus station, the seaside path towards "Tugubong Peak" provides a breathtaking view. Legends tell when General Isabu of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-935 A.D.) conquered the island state of Usanguk in the East Sea, which was composed of modern-day Ulleung and Dokdo islands in 512, the king of Ulleung threw his helmet to admit the defeat, which became the high-rising peak.
Another short bus ride leads to Hakpo Harbor, which literally means the harbor where cranes seat. The area got its name as the stones rising from the ocean symbolize the beautiful birds.
At Buk-myeon, literally meaning the northern part of the island, travelers can be amazed at Hyeongpo Harbor, which is presumed to be the capital of Usanguk.
Near Hyeongpo stands Pyeong-ri, a town so small that there are no convenience facilities for tourists. But Mount Songgot looking down on the sea is not-to-be-missed scene there. Songgot, literally meaning gimlet, got its name for the unique shape that soars to the sky, surpassing all other stones around.
Kokkiribawi, meaning "elephant stone," stands below Mount Songgot and rises from the sea, adding to the breathtaking view.
Also located in the north is Samseonam, three stones rising from the sea. Residents believe three angels came down from the sky, but could not go back to their home in time after being amazed at the beauty of Ulleung Island. As such, finding stories behind each destination on Ulleung Island is also another fun moment about traveling here.
Accommodations on Ulleung Island are improving, but the quality still lacks slightly behind standards on the mainland despite the relatively higher price. The rating, however, seems fair considering how isolated the island is. Making reservations in advance is strongly recommended, as there may be no vacancies during high season upon arrival.
Ulleung Island also boasts excellent delicacies that allow no tourists to leave hungry.
The dishes found on Ulleung are a combination of South Korean traditions and the rich environment of the island that was isolated for many years. Even South Koreans traveling from the mainland will find the food as exotic as foreign foods. Residents say travelers from around the globe are happy with the cuisine.
"I like the seafood stew, as well as raw dishes sold at small shops on the coast," said Alexandre Rakowski, a tourist from France, adding that the unique dishes on Ulleung Island are suitable for Western tastes as well.
While there are many options, the two standouts are pumpkin and squid, which are what the island is known for.
Tourists arriving after a more than three-hour ferry ride from Pohang should start with pumpkin taffies that are sold at almost every corner of the island.
The taffies, called "yeot" in Korean, are especially popular on the island as pumpkins on the island are believed to be much sweeter than those from the mainland.
For tourists wishing to walk around the island and enjoy its beautiful scenery, pumpkin taffies are a great snack and energy booster.
"Taffies are made by combining grain syrup with pumpkin," said Han Sang-hwan, who runs a shop on Ulleung Island. Han said the shop has been running since his father opened it more than 50 years ago.
Pumpkin accounts for more than 25 percent of each piece of taffy, making the candies both nutritious and tasty, he added.
The other pillar of Ulleung's cuisine is squid, with the surrounding East Sea waters teeming with the animal. Squids can be consumed in various ways, including eating it raw.
Residents say there is "nothing to throw out" when it comes to squid. From that consensus comes squid intestines soup.
"We can obtain a lot of intestines after removing the flesh from the squids. Every part of the squid is edible. We make soup with them, while they are fresh," said Kim Geum-sook, who has been running a restaurant for 27 years on Ulleung Island. "With some spices, they can be made into a clear soup that is good for settling upset stomachs."
The high season for squid is from September to January, Kim said, but they are available on the island all year long.
Squid can also be eaten raw, sometimes mixed into a bowl with other kinds of fish. Along with a semi-frozen spicy sauce, squid can be a great "mulhoi," literally meaning, "water sushi."
For those not fond of eating raw seafood, they can try "squid bulgogi," referring to squid fried with vegetables and pepper sauce. Visitors can also eat pork-belly meat as well.
The island, however, has much more to offer other than pumpkins and squid, residents say.
One of the lesser-known foods on Ulleung is beef. According to the residents, cows on the island are given different kinds of herbs, making them healthier and giving them a new taste that cannot be experienced on the mainland.
Due to the rich environment of Ulleung, the island also has different kinds of wild greens. All dishes ordered at Ulleung restaurants come with different kinds of wild greens and kimchi.
The unique wild greens of Ulleung Island are used in its bibimbap, a typical Korean dish of rice topped with various vegetables, beef, egg and anything one would like, making it even more special.
A popular Ulleung produce enjoyed by South Koreans on the mainland is "myeong-yi" pickles.
Residents say "myeong-yi" pickles, with "myeong" meaning life in Korean, got their name as first-generation settlers survived on them during the winter after they ran out of food.
Due to the distance from the mainland and the limited number of tourists, eating out on Ulleung is relatively pricier than elsewhere in South Korea, including the capital city of Seoul.
Residents, however, say each kind of food is made with extra care, to make tourists want to come back.
"The food on Ulleung is great in that we can taste the true flavor of fresh ingredients without special spices," said Park Il-soo, a 27-year-old tourist from Seoul. "I feel I'm getting healthier with every bite."
With Ulleung's tourism industry in its beginnings, it may not be as fancy as Seoul, nor packed with tourism infrastructures as Jeju.
The perks of spending hours on ferries and enduring some challenges, however, are the privilege that one can enjoy the bluest view in South Korea. The island has its own uniqueness that are still waiting to be discovered by travelers.
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