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(Yonhap Feature) Tongyeong: Endless seascape of blue, heavenly paradise for island hopping

All Headlines 09:00 August 25, 2016

(Editor's note: This article is the 12th in our feature series on South Korea's lesser-known tourist spots.)
By Woo Jae-yeon

TONGYEONG, South Korea, Aug. 25 (Yonhap) -- The southern port city of Tongyeong feels like a box of carefully chosen assorted cookies. It wouldn't take long before any traveler realizes what the city can offer is beyond what one could ever want for vacation; deep blue-green oceans, countless islands, cliffs, beaches, trails and, of course, food.

All year round, trekkers, adventurers and vacationers are drawn to the mild-weathered city to scale mountains of modest height, hop nearby islands and check out seafood markets where you can feast on local delicacies, especially fresh, reasonably-priced seafood.

Or better yet, just simply sit idle on the beach, breaking free of an hectic city life to bask in the rare luxury of doing nothing and watch seagulls swooping down to peck your lunch before they hurriedly take off into the dazzlingly blue sky.

Among the unparalleled charms of the city, one activity that would never fail you is to hop on a ferry to adventure to nearby islands.

Part of the Hallyeohaesang National Park, among 21 such parks around the country, the city looks like an array of bluish and greenish dots from above, randomly strewn over the turquoise waters. It has a total of 150 islands -- 41 inhabited and 109 not.

A ferry ride for 30 minutes to an hour from the two terminals -- Tongyeong Coastal Ferry Terminal and Samdeok Port -- is enough to take you to adjacent islands popular with tourists. And some of the islands are connected with a bridge, making island hopping more convenient and time-efficient.

While all the islands are equally worth a visit, this piece will introduce three never-to-miss destinations -- Hansan, Yokji and Yeonhwa islands -- not only for their historic importance but also for stunning views and physical proximity to travel all three in two or three days from Tongyeong.

Hansan Island, biggest among the three, is the nearest from Tongyeong, only a 30-minute ferry ride away. Unlike choppy waters in the East Sea where medicine for seasickness is essential, the ferry effortlessly gilded over relatively calm, smooth waters on the southern coast of the peninsula.

Sitting on the outdoor deck to watch uninhibited islands passing by is one of many refreshing experiences you can enjoy from island hopping. Squinting in the harsh glare of the summer sun was soon offset by ocean breeze and sea spray.

Historic importance of the island adds yet another reason for a visit: It houses Jeseungdang, the command center of Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), Korea's most admired naval commander from the Joseon Dynasty who beat arch rival Japan even in the most unfavorable circumstances.

The peaceful seaside road, about 2 kilometers-long, connects the ferry dock with Jeseungdang. Walking along the pathway lined with orange-colored flower trees on one side and glittering aquamarine sea on the other felt so different from anywhere else in Korea.

With the sun beating down hard, tourists chilled out under the shade of a tree or drank water from the drinking fountain that looked like Geobukseon, or the Turtle Ship, the famous naval warship designed by the admiral, with a dragon-shaped head.

The pavilion of Jeseungdang, where Admiral Yi is said to look out to sea and draw up a battle plan, gave way to a bunch of tourists sitting on the floor, vigorously fanning themselves to dry the sweat off.

About 30 kilometers southwest of Tongyeong is located Yokji Island. Yokji means "covet knowledge" in Korean, an unlikely name for an island that came across so free of worldly thoughts and ideas.

Matching its reputation for being a paradise for hikers, the 43-kilometer stretch of well-maintained trails with stunning ocean views traverses and circles around the island, hailing from wanderers to backpackers to explorers.

"I come here relatively often for fishing and every time I do, I regret not having stayed longer," said Park Jin-woo who traveled down here from Masan, South Gyeongsang Province, with his colleagues. "The beautiful scenery is the biggest reason to come. Plus, you can see the stars so clearly at night."

Hwang Jung-hee, one of his colleagues, who visited the island for the first time, said she was surprised that the island was much bigger than she thought. "The trip here has been so far so good. I would definitely come back again."

Once you are on the island, the best local food worth a try is raw mackerel, a kind of shiny fish normally consumed cooked and known to be extremely hard to eat raw since it spoils soon after it gets caught.

But the island has one of the country's biggest mackerel fish farms, which makes it possible to enjoy it in its freshest form. While the Japanese normally preserves it in salt for a few hours before eating, you can order a plateful of the fish, pulled out from the farm and chopped and served in bite-size pieces.

Heading out, content with the heavy meal, toward the ocean trail, craggy cliffs jutted out from the waters. A wooden suspension bridge entertained thrilled travelers who looked down at the deep blue ocean, shuddering at the cliff's head-spinning height.

Dabbing beads of sweat from her forehead with her handkerchief, Eom Hye-kyung was taking in the amazing view of the endless ocean, listening to the waves crashing against the craggy coastline. After she was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, it was her first long-haul trip from her hometown Seoul, she said.

"It's been quite a while since I've traveled this far. Just looking at the scenery makes me want to sing. The air is so crisp and clean," said Eom who was going to stay overnight on the island and board a ferry to Yeonhwa Island the next day.

Yeonhwa Island, located a 30-minute ferry ride east of Yokji, hardly known for mainland Koreans, is tranquil and peaceful. Its name, lotus of the sea in Korean, is said to take its root from its shape that looks like fallen lotus petals floating over the sea.

The island has two temples, Yeonhwa and Bodeok, for a population of a mere 200, suggesting the deep religious faith in Buddhism by local islanders and its historic significance that revered monks practiced asceticism there.

From Yeonhwa Temple, a narrow trail, lined with pale sky-blue hydrangea, leads to the giant statue of Buddha situated at the peak of Mount Nakga -- the biggest mountain on the island.

Trudging up the dusty road leading up to the summit and carrying a huge backpack, Kim Hyo-jung panted heavily when she arrived at the Buddha statue.

From Daegu, she said she had been hopping islands on the southern coast and her next trip would be to nearby Woo Island. "Walking up here from the ferry terminal has been so hard, but the fatigue melt away to see this gorgeous view."

Indeed. The stunning seascape was in full view, with a cluster of rocky islets rising up from the waters resembling the spiked tail of a gigantic dragon. Soon, you will find yourself considering when to make the next trip back to the heavenly island.

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
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