The mountains, valleys and rocky coastline of Gangwon Province, South Korea, have been a well-kept secret. But with the arrival of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, a county in this eastern region, Korea’s rural pleasures are a secret no more.
If South Korea conjures an image for the traveler, it is likely to be one of high-tech cities abuzz with neon and K-pop. Indeed, it is a highly urbanized country, and an impressively modern one.
Seoul’s Chabad house, which is hosting a pop-up kosher eatery for the Olympics (see story on page 36), serves a cosmopolitan crowd of roughly 1,000 Jewish expats, students and military, along with a growing number of Jewish tourists drawn to a land with virtually no anti-Semitism.
Just a few hours’ drive north of Seoul, Gangwon Province offers a bucolic retreat from the capital — a gentle, rolling landscape of mountains, ancient forests, caves full of stalagmites and hinterlands dotted with Buddhist temples.
Naturally, it will be a little less bucolic this month. If your dream is to see the world’s top athletes — Israeli phenom Alexei Bychenko and American Jason Brown (an alternate) are among the many Jewish figure skaters — then the crowds and costs of attending the Olympics are worthwhile.
But one of my favorite strategies is to explore a place in the months just following such an event. Countries typically overhaul transportation networks, add lodging capacity, spruce up major sights and enhance English signage.
Olympic skaters compete in the coastal city of Gangneung, a provincial resort on the Sea of Japan and a fine starting point for a Gangwon sojourn. In summertime, it’s the hub of a craggy, pine-dotted shoreline that boasts sandy beaches and the kind of convenient infrastructure that makes exploring a breeze.
Boardwalks and promenades string out along the sea, dotted with parks, cafés and fish restaurants. At some beaches, you can rent a bike or an electric moped-type conveyance.
Drivers can take a flat, easy-to-drive coastal road that wends around rocky curves at water’s edge. If you’d prefer to go by train, the station at Jeongdongjin lets you off directly on the beach. Just south of Gangneung, Jeongdongjin is a favorite spot to watch the sun rise and is a Korean destination for New Year’s Day.
Perched on a cliff above Jeongdongjin, you’ll find Haslla Art World, a combination art museum and sculpture park. The quirky exhibits include marionettes, themed gardens and a children’s play space, along with a mod hotel and a café with gorgeous sea views.
The Olympic outdoor events take place in the mountains of PyeongChang county, beloved for their softer inclines. In winter, they are a magnet for snow sports, with numerous ski festivals; in summer, hikers appreciate the gentler slopes, flocking to trails through forests of fir and yew.
A few miles inland from Gangneung is Odaesan National Park, where the enclaves tucked into a five-peak mountain range are home to flora and fauna ranging from wild boar to native ginseng and thick fir groves that date back a half-millennium. It is no wonder that Buddhist monks considered the forests’ waterfalls and streams to have mystical powers and established the practice of Zen here.
Of the many temples that date from past eras — before Christianity took hold as Korea’s dominant faith — Woljeongsa is especially popular. Woljeongsa Temple is actually a complex of pagodas, worship halls, gardens and trails; its setting, on a river deep in a fir-tree forest, is so picturesque that it has long been a movie-maker’s favorite. Snowy and scenic in winter, verdant and ideal for hiking in summer, Woljeongsa greets the visitor with a riot of colorful lanterns and a fairy-tale footbridge.
Newly restored for the Olympic crowds are rooms full of brightly colored folk art and religious statuary, including huge golden Buddhas and walls lavished with ornate Korean motifs. Many visitors use the complex as a base for trekking, picnicking and cultural tours.
For more perspective on the Korean countryside, spend some time at one of the many traditional ranches and farms that welcome visitors, or stop by a “cultural village,” where folklore and history are preserved as patrimony. Not far from Woljeongsa Temple is Lee Hyo-seok Culture Village, the birthplace of Korean writer Lee Hyo-seok and the setting for his celebrated story “When the Buckwheat Blossoms.”
The writer’s birth house is now a national landmark, open for touring alongside the buckwheat fields — site of magnificent springtime blooms, and numerous summertime festivals — and a museum that explores Korean rural life.