Korean Destination: Korea’s Emerald Isle Ulleungdo

Words and shots by Jim Cheney
* courtesy of Ulleungdo County Office ulleung.go.kr/tour

As the crystal-clear turquoise waters swirled below, I continued to follow the path. Ahead of me, the serpentine trail clung precariously to the mountainside, twisting and turning along the rocky coast. Water droplets streaming down my brow, I looked up at the mountains above. Like a shy child scared to show her face to a stranger, the peaks hid themselves behind a thick veil of fog.

It had only been a few rain-soaked hours since I had arrived on Isle Ulleungdo, a small speck of land in the middle of the East Sea; however, when you have come so far, you can’t let a little rain stop you. So onward I trudged, following the coastal path until it disappeared into the forests of Ulleungdo.

Ultimately, the trail ended at Dodong Lighthouse. Standing on the peak looking over the village of Haengnam, I was able to finally appreciate the magic of Ulleungdo. Peering down through the afternoon fog at the village far below, the forested peaks awash in various shades of green, I felt truly fortunate to have arrived on this Emerald Isle.

Ask any Korean what they know about Ulleungdo, and you are likely to hear one of two words in response: Dokdo or cuttlefish. Travel to Ulleungdo, however, and you will discover that there is so much more to the island.

Unlike Jeju, Ulleungdo has yet to be heavily changed by tourism. Outside of the main village and port of Dodong, the island consists of numerous small fishing villages that occupy tiny parcels of land between the sea and the mountains. While Ulleungdo may be overshadowed by Jeju’s selection as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the smaller island is every bit as unique and enchanting.

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Things to See and Do  

When visiting Ulleungdo, there are several ways to see the sights: public mini-bus, taxi, or rental car. By far the cheapest option is the local buses, and with bus stops at every village, getting around this way is likely the best option for budget travelers.

In general, the sights consist of offshore rocks jutting out of the water that more or less resemble various figures. Some of these formations are quite impressive, including the Three Angels. Located near the far end of the road, this trio of rocks emerges from the water and reaches toward the sky as if longing to return to the heavens. Also worth seeing is Elephant Rock, which, if viewed from the pier, looks eerily similar to an elephant dipping its trunk into the ocean for a nice long drink.

Other attractions require a trip into the mountainous heart of the island. Nari Basin sits at the end of an impossibly steep and windy road. Created by avolcanic eruption many thousands of years ago, Nari Basin is the only inhabited volcanic crater in all of Asia. After climbing so high into the mountains of the island, it’s amazing to see such a large, flat area. Filled with farms, as well as replicas of traditional houses, the basin is definitely worth a brief stop.

It’s also possible to take a trip to the well-known island of Dokdo from Ulleungdo. Leaving daily from the ferry terminal in Dodong, the 3-hour tour allows you to get a glimpse of the islands. You may even get to step foot on the islands if the sea is calm enough.

Getting There  
Getting to Ulleungdo is quite time-consuming. Unless you begin your journey close to the ferry departure points of Pohang or Mukho, you will need at least three days to visit the island. The three-hour ferry ride leaves in the morning from the mainland and in the mid-afternoon from Ulleungdo. Motion sickness medicine can be purchased in the convenience store at the harbor and is recommended if you are at all prone to seasickness. Also, keep in mind that ferries can be canceled in the event of poor weather, leaving you stranded on the island until the weather improves.

Top 5 Things to Taste on Ulleungdo
Pumpkin Makkgeolli 호박막걸리
Served at only one restaurant, which sits on the second floor of the building facing the port’s tourism kiosk, Ulleungdo’s famous pumpkin adds a distinct taste to the rice wine. This is worth trying even for non-pumpkin lovers.

Mussel Rice 홍합밥
Available at many local restaurants, mussel rice looks very similar to bibimbap but is sweeter. It’s an excellent way to get some of the island’s seafood on a budget.

Dried Cuttlefish 마른오징어
Available at nearly every store, Ulleundgo’s dried cuttlefish is famous throughout Korea.

Pumpkin Candy 호박엿
Also available at most stores on the island, this pumpkin-based candy has a taffy-like consistency. If you are eating this, make sure that you don’t lose any dental fixtures as it tends to be very sticky and hard.

Spring Water 생수
Just below the entrance to the cable car and the Dokdo Museum in Dodong is a small park that features Ulleungdo spring water. Naturally carbonated and tasting slightly fruity, you’ll either love it or hate it.


Jim Cheney is a freelance writer and photographer with a passion for helping people travel on a budget. His website is Tripologist.com.


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