Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Visiting Ulleungdo: Korea's "Mysterious" Island

Continuing in the vein of Things I Should've Blogged About Months Ago, here's another overdue entry: Ulleungdo. I still dream about this island, and I'm planning at least one photo blog as a follow-up to this entry. It was just so, so beautiful and I kind of wish I could live there. Sigh.


This past year, Korea's Chuseok holiday fell on a Thursday, meaning we would have Wednesday-Friday off from work. A glorious 5-day weekend is a rare thing, so I was resolved to go somewhere. As I watched airplane tickets to international destinations steadily climb in price, I looked to domestic spots. Ulleungdo, an island off of Korea's east coast, was high on my Korea Bucket List, and the Chuseok weekend seemed like a prime opportunity.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

I'd been drooling over pictures of Ulleungdo for over a year by the time I finally found the opportunity to go. As it's a bit of a trek away from Incheon, most holiday weekends weren't every quite long enough -- driving across the peninsula takes a good chunk of time, and that's without the ferry ride out into the East Sea to reach the island.

As if to further encourage my decision to finally head out to Ulleungdo, Adventure Korea had a special holiday trip to the island, which included pretty much everything -- transportation there and back, three nights in a hotel, various activities, as well as most of our meals. It all looked amazing and the price was right, so some friends and I booked our spots and started obsessively Googling the island.  

Ulleungdo, without a doubt, is breathtakingly beautiful, and aptly nicknamed the "mysterious" island because of its stunning scenery. Over and over I've read articles and blogs that claim Ulleungdo is actually better than Jeju. The two islands are similar in that they're both the result of volcanic activity, so both have striking land formations and great hiking paths. I've been to Jeju since this Ulleungdo trip, and since it was in late January, it wasn't exactly prime weather to fully appreciate Jeju's beauty. I'm reserving my final judgment for a time when I can see Jeju when it's lush and green, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Ulleungdo is actually prettier. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandCan I just live here?

Our Adventure Korea guides also insisted that Ulleungdo is better than Jeju, largely because they feel like Ulleungdo has yet to be overrun with tourists. While tourism is Ulleungdo's largest industry, it's less developed, so it still feels like a small island full of fishing villages. Island people just seem to move at a slower pace, which definitely makes for an appealing, relaxing vacation.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

We left for the island on Tuesday night from Seoul, filling a couple buses that drove all night to the east coast. We stopped at a beach to watch the sunrise before heading to the ferry terminal. Our ferry left from Mukho harbor and took about 3 1/2 hours to reach Ulleungdo. Luckily, we had mostly clear skies to and from the island, but be warned that a ferry's voyage depends entirely on the weather. While it wasn't an issue for us, Adventure Korea wisely scheduled the return to the mainland on a Saturday just to allow for the potential delay due to bad weather. Also, should you be worried about seasickness, medicine can be purchased easily at your local pharmacy or in the ferry terminal itself. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandOur ride to the island: the Sunflower 2.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandThe inside of the ferry felt a lot like an airplane with sections of lettered and numbered assigned seats.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandFirst glimpses of the island from the ferry window.

About 125 people were on the Adventure Korea trip, so they rented out what I assume must've been the majority of a hotel with traditional floor-mat sleeping. Our meals were largely in the hotel restaurant, which served a variety of Korean food buffet-style. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandSimple but comfortable. 

We spent our days on the island wandering around, following the seaside paths and various hiking trails to points that revealed gorgeous views of the island and deep turquoise blue water. The volcanic eruptions formed some really amazing caves, particularly right along the waterfront, through which walking paths have been built. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandI feel like this would be a lovely picnic spot.

Also included in our tour package was a cable car ride, which was a really spectacular way to get a bird's eye view on one of the villages. From the peak, we were able to look into some binoculars and see the nearby, and hotly contested, Dokdo

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandDodong, where we were staying, from above.

On our second morning we had the option of a three hour bus tour, which drove along the coast and stopped at most of the picturesque sites, giving us time to wander around. This was especially awesome because our last day was largely free time, so the bus tour gave us a nice preview of areas that we might want to revisit. 

I went completely crazy taking pictures -- Korea in general is extremely photogenic with its mountains and palaces and neon lights, but Ulleungdo is on an entirely different level. I feel like it's actually a challenge to take a bad picture of this place. (Sorting through my 200+ pictures to choose a handful for this photo-heavy blog entry was hard!)

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandTurtle Rock, which was one of my favorite spots.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandSamseonam Rock sticking up in the distance.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandAnother seaside walking path along/above/through the rocks.

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

Ulleungdo is well-known for two things: pumpkins and squid. Pumpkin candies, pumpkin bread, pumpkin jelly, and pumpkin makgeolli were everywhere, the latter being my personal favorite. Definitely something to hunt down when on the island. It was de-licious, especially when served up with some pajeon.

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandHobak (pumpkins) as far as the eye can see! 

Their famous squid was literally everywhere. Racks of it were leaning up against every other house or restaurant, stretched out on a popsicle stick for drying. You could also eat squid in nearly every form: raw, semi-dried, totally dried, grilled, in soup... the list goes on and on. We didn't get a chance to sample the raw squid, but we did try a couple different varieties of the dried and had a really delicious squid soup for lunch. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious island

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandMelt-in-your-mouth delicious squid. 

One thing Ulleungdo lacks is the traditional sandy beaches. The beaches they do have are rocky, which left us really wishing we'd thought to bring water shoes. The rocky beaches did not, however, stop us from jumping in and swimming around. The water was cool and salty and felt amazing after a warm day of hiking around the island. (Though keep an eye out for jellyfish!)

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandThere are a few spots where you can even jump into the water from a bridge or dock!

Ulleungdo is a small island, but there are so many other attractions we didn't get around to doing. There's a monorail, more seaside paths, tons of hiking, beautiful forests, and quite a few other rocky beaches. You can even take a ferry out to Dokdo and see it in person, should you care about that kind of thing. (I don't... Sorry, Korea.)

My typical go-getter approach to a vacation in a new place was heavily curbed by my need to relax -- I wanted to stroll along the shoreline, eat good food, collect bits of seaglass, and just soak up the sunshine and nature. 

ulleungdo korea mysterious islandPosing with Ulleungdo's happy little pumpkin and squid mascots.

Although I have a decent amount of time left in Korea and a lot of places left to check out, I already know that Ulleungdo is one of my favorite places that I have seen or will see. 

I think that going without a tour group wouldn't be as difficult as I'd initially thought from what I've read online, but it was definitely nice to have transportation and activities all arranged for us. (Though if you can go to Ulleungdo and have a car, you'll be golden. We had buses that drove us around and we used taxis a couple times, but being able to drive yourself would be ideal.) If you're looking for a pre-organized trip, I highly recommend Adventure Korea's annual Chuseok trip, so if you're already planning for this year's holiday, keep it in mind.

Between the rural, quiet fishing village vibe and the awe-inspiring scenery, I can't emphasize enough that you all need to go visit this island. You won't regret it. 


  1. Wow, it looks like a hidden gem of Korea. Is it budget friendly place at all?

    1. It really is a hidden gem -- so many people just don't know about this island, going instead to the popular (and also beautiful) Jeju.

      I would say it's as budget friendly as the rest of Korea, which can be quite cheap if you do it right. Since most of our trip was organized by a tour company, I'm not sure of the individual costs of each part of the trip, unfortunately. However, the meals that we did eat separate of the tour group were inexpensive and even the souvenir shopping was quite reasonable.

  2. ulleungdo looks great - we found your site again, but this time on the Expat Blog. We've been doing research on what we want to do the last 6 months and this is definitely one of them. The pictures of the pumpkins made us laugh at the randomness. Pictures look georgous and its good to know theres a tour to compare prices! Nice post.

    1. you -definitely- need to go. this island is just stupidly beautiful.

      and thanks! :)

  3. Do any ferries allow you to take a motorcycle on board?

    1. I recall an entire area of the ferry that was for vehicles, so I think you can.

  4. I visited Ulleungdo Island in July 2015. It is full of natural beauty and has many tourist attractions. An amazing island to go on a 3 day trip.