Scrolling mindlessly through Instagram during my 5 month exchange program in Korea, I stopped at a photo of glistening turquoise blue waters.
“Ulleungdo Island”, the geotag read. Where was this enchanting island my friend had just been? Does a place like that really exist in Korea?
Yes, it does exist — a 3 hour bus ride followed by another 3 hour ferry ride from Seoul. That’s one hell of a trip to make there, but I was already hooked. I called up a few friends, and with some sloppy planning and last minute packing, we set off for Ulleungdo the next day.
Leaving Seoul for Ulleungdo
Peering out into the dark winter morning sky, I could barely see anything through the fogged glass window. We arrived at Gangneung Ferry Terminal, barely making it on time. I made a mental note to myself never to plan so last minute again.
Less than a minute into our 3 hour long ferry ride, I felt the seasickness engulf me whole. To my left and my right, my friends gripped the hand rest tightly as we were thrown around in our seats, pale-faced with pupils dilated. I willed myself to sleep through this ordeal.
3 hours later, we’ve never been more thankful to arrive on land, and even more thankful to have our Airbnb host pick us up from Ulleungdo’s Jeodong Ferry Terminal. Owned by a really pleasant couple who provided us with much help,
Beautiful Dokdo is a guest house that is newly refurbished and extremely homely. The couple could speak rather fluent English too!
They immediately told us that the weather was going to be bad the next few days and asked if we want to get on the return ferry immediately. The return ferries would be cancelled if the weather wasn’t good. After 6 hours of ordeal to get to this beautiful place, we were determined to stay.
We spent the day exploring the island and visiting many of their scenic attractions. Every place my feet tread on, left a mark deeper in my heart than the footprint I left behind. Every mountain, plain and tree; they seemed to grow more indispensable to my well-being.
Our favourite things to do in Ulleungdo
1) Drinking fresh water at Bongnae Waterfall & Wind Cave
Taking the local bus, we alighted at Jeodong Ferry Terminal and took a 2km hike up to a beautiful waterfall where the locals get their main source of drinking water. I took a deep breath and let the smell of nature fill my lungs. I enjoyed the quiet nature and took more photos to reminisce on. On our way down, we stopped by a really cool Wind Cave. Cool air from underground shot out of the hole from the rocks. It would’ve been a great cool off if we’re visiting in the summer, but winter warrants us to make our stop here snappy.
Cost: KRW 2,000
Opening hours: 6:00am – 7:00pm (Apr – Oct) ; 8:00am – 5:oopm (Nov – Mar)
2) Taking the Cable Car Up and Enjoying the Breeze at Dokdo Observatory
Dokdo Observatory is situated at the peak with two different lookouts. It can be easily accessed via the cable car. It was rather funny how we were the only tourists there and they opened the cable car for operation just for us! :’) Standing atop the observatory, the sound of waves crashing against the shore had a peculiar way of calming us. From Dokdo Observatory, we were presented with a breathtaking view of the town beneath, where we could also see Dokdo island nearby.
Cost: KRW 4,500
Operating hours: 5:30am – 8:00pm (Apr – Oct); 6:30am – 8:00pm (Nov – Dec)
3) Enjoying a panoramic view on the Hyangmok Observatory & Taeha (Ulleungdo) Lighthouse
We just had to go to this one. Hyangmok Observatory is listed as one of the “Top 10 Scenic Spots in Korea”. Standing by the lookout, we witnessed the panoramic view of waves crashing against the magnificent coastline along Buk-myeon. Hyangmok Observatory can be accessed via a monorail and a short scenic stroll through the forest. On our way up to Hyangmok Observatory, we also passed by Taeha Lighthouse. Another beauty.
Cost: KRW 4,000 (roundtrip)
Operating hours: 9:00am – 5:30pm
Address: 113 Taeha-ri, Seo-myeon, Ulleung-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Korea
4) Catching the sun on Naesujeon Sunrise Observatory
From Jeodong, we headed for the Naesujeon Sunrise Observatory and was greeted by the panoramic view of the East coast of Ulleungdo. From there, we also observed the Jeodong port and the islands just off the East coast. Although we were at the Sunrise Observatory during sunset, the view at Naesujeon Observatory was an equally pleasant visit.
5) Visiting an untouched traditional village at Nari Basin
Village and farms sprouted on the basin formed by a giant volcanic eruption 9,000 years ago. This flat area is now a lush farmland highly fertilised with ash soil, attracting many locals to grow medicinal plants. Nari Basin houses traditional villages from hundred of years ago, offering us a chance to explore these ancient gems. This dainty little area is one of the most untouched and quiet places in South Korea, and is also one of my favourites 🙂
6) Strolling along the pebble beaches & coastal walk
There are no sand beaches in Ulleungdo. Its shorelines are covered with steep cliffs and pebble beaches. We couldn’t swim in the ice cold waters in winter, but we could definitely admire the strikingly blue waters as we took a stroll along the pebble beaches and coastal walks. Jugam Mongdol Beach is said to be the most beautiful pebble beach in Ulleungdo, with Samseonam Rocks and Gwanneumdo nearby. Similarly, the coastal walk could be closed on days with bad weather.
7) Eating anything squid (O-jing-eo) and Pumpkin
Well-known for its squid harvest, Ulleungdo had the freshest squids we ever tasted! Cooked by all kinds of methods and in all kinds of dishes, squid lovers like us are in for a treat here. And not forgetting the other famous food in Ulleungdo – Pumpkins! From Pumpkin Candy to Pumpkin Makgeolli, we’re sure there’s no better place to try them out! And these treats are found only in Ulleungdo!
8 days sounds like a really long time on an island, but its really not. There were still so many things we haven’t done, so many places we haven’t gone. We didn’t stay long enough on the island to experience the heavy snowfall in the later part of Winter and we missed out on their Mountain Skiing Festival. Imagine the experience of countryback skiing against a beautiful backdrop of the deep blue sea… Well, I guess we can only leave that to our imaginations!
Missing the ferry back to Seoul
Eventually, we did miss the ferry the next day and as forecasted, the bad weather went on for the whole week! Though we were kind of bummed out, our spirits were soon lifted by our kind hosts who offered to drive us around the island for sightseeing! This explained how we were able to visit so many places in Ulleungdo. Nov/Dec is the lull period for tourism in Ulleungdo. Since we were the only tourists at the guesthouse, they took extremely great care of us. Warm home-cooked meals, fresh clothes, singing and laughter, and occasionally being our personal tour guide — Ulleungdo felt like home.
Although the unplanned trip left us stranded and penniless, it eventually became one of my best experience in Korea. We’ll never forget the kindness shown to us.
The warm and welcoming arms that were extended to us by every resident in Ulleungdo is certainly heart-wrenching to leave behind. How is it that everyone in Ulleungdo is so friendly?
Finally on the 8th day, the ferry docked on the island — a sight that has never been more assuring. We bid our farewells like a child to their parents and promised to visit again. Ulleungdo, you crazy, beautiful thing. I made another mental note to myself again: I’d come back to Ulleungdo again one day.
Getting to Ulleungdo from Seoul
Ulleungdo can be accessed through a few different ports – Gangneung , Pohang and Mukho Ferry Terminal. Since we had a rather spontaneous trip, our route was not as well planned out. I suggest setting aside about a week for planning!
From Seoul, we hopped on a cab in the wee hours of the morning and headed towards Seoul Express Bus Terminal (19-4, Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, Korea). We bought the 6.30am bus ticket at the ticket machine and set off on our 3h bus journey to Gangneung Ferry Terminal! (See bus schedule from Seoul to Gangneung)
Take note that your bus arrival time should coincide with the ferry departure timing! Do leave enough time for you to find the ferry terminal too. We took the Sea Star ferry operated by Seaspovill. You can check out their ferry departure timings. Ferry rides are approximately 55,000won to Ulleungdo, and takes roughly 2.5-3 hours, depending on the weather. The price and journey time will be roughly the same to and fro.
As for the return ferry ticket, you can purchase it at the ticket counter when you reach Ulleungdo, or through the same Seaspovill website. Limited seats available on each ferry ride. So you might wanna buy early to secure a ticket.
Tips to note
1) Check the weather
The weather is rather erratic in Ulleungdo. A 2D1N trip became an 8D7N trip for us because we didn’t check the weather conditions before going to Ulleungdo. The sea condition turned unfavourable and ferries couldn’t operate due to strong winds and rain. This went on for the whole week, leaving us stranded on Ulleungdo until the ferry resumed operations!
2) Get an island map & local bus schedule
The first thing to do when you arrive at Ulleungdo is to get the island map and local bus schedule at the tourist counter. They’re extremely useful and has lots of details regarding the places to visit and websites for references.
3) Best time to visit
Some activities and attractions may be closed during the winter and autumn seasons due to bad weather — scuba diving, snorkelling, underwater observatory and coastal walks. Go during the warmer seasons if you intend to try out these activities! Weather conditions tend to be calmer then too.
4) Plan your activities around the bus schedule
There’s only one bus route around the island and they follow a fixed schedule. So do take note of the bus schedule and plan your sightseeing activities around it! There are also taxis around but they aren’t frequently spotted if you’re at the far end of the island. So make sure you don’t miss the last bus back!
5) Avoiding sea sickness
The sea conditions are usually extremely rough and choppy. So if you’re worried about getting seasick, grab some medicine off the shelf from pharmacies or from the ferry terminal. Just ask for 멀미 (mol-me), they should understand you. Trust me, you’ll be thankful if you sleep through the entire ferry ride.