Naju Waterpark – Jungheung Gold Spa & Resort (중흥 골드스파 & 리조트)

The third Sunday of September saw us heading out to check a big item off our bucket list before it was too late. When we decided to stay another year, we jotted down a bunch of things we wanted to see/do in Korea before we departed. One of those was visit the Naju waterpark we had heard about and seen advertising for.

Tamara did a bit of research and learned that, during the summer season, there is a free shuttle bus that departs from U-square and takes a direct 50 minute shot out to the park. All well and good, but we ran into a bit of hiccup when we attempted to catch the 10:00 bus. We asked at the U-square information desk where the bus stops and were informed that we had to go out the front and then turn left and walk for about five minutes to where the shuttle buses stopped. From this we made an educated guess that the shuttle bus stop must be an area in front of the adjacent Kia motors factory where we often saw buses waiting. Not so. We waited past 10:00 and then called the Korean tourism line to get a bit more information. Turns out that you actually catch the bus at the west end of the meridian where the city buses stop – about a one minute walk from the information kiosk.

In the end, we managed to catch the 12:00 bus, which we had all to ourselves. The park entry fee is 33,700₩ each, but that only gets you in the door and allows you to use the racing slides and the pools. It does not include any of the bigger, more exciting rides. For those you have to put money on your watch/key thing that they give you when you pay your entry fee. Most of the rides are about a thousand won per person. We put on 15,000 each and that was more than enough even with a few snacks.

Sadly, when we got inside we discovered that fully half the park had shut down the week before. Apparently this happens at different times each year depending on the weather, but, because beach season in Korea is only July and August, it seems a safe bet that it happens in the first two weeks of September every year. On the up side, there were no line-ups!

We started with a little Dr.Fish, which would usually cost 3,000₩ but the guy watching it let us have five minutes for free. We think he was just really bored and wanted some company.

After that we tried out the speed slides…

Followed by the huge toilet-bowl-shaped one that sends you way up the sides before spitting you out the far end.

Two major rides were closed – the water slide roller coaster and what appeared to be a really long, complicated tunnel slide. What was still open was the dock for water skiing, tubing, wake boarding, and banana rides. We headed down there to take a look, but a tube ride (about 5-7 minutes based on how long a water skier we saw was out) would cost 20,000₩, so we opted not to.

We did get in a bit of suntanning on the recliners along the pool though. Apparently, these also require a rental fee during high season, but they didn’t seem to care if we used them.

Apparently you usually have to rent these.

Apparently you usually have to rent these.

Just before we headed out, we tried to head into the main wave pool for a quick dip. We only got in waist deep before the lifeguards starting shouting and blowing their whistles at us to get back to the pool deck. You can’t go in without life jackets. Never mind that it is never more than 1.5 meters deep and we can swim. Interestingly, we were also warned by others, prior to visiting the park, that we would need to wear either swim caps or some sort of hats in the pool. Thus, you can see us sporting them in the pictures. However, we personally witnessed several Koreans in the wave pool without them, and we were asked to take them off on the rides, so… Who knows?!

This is as deep as they let us go.

This is as deep as they let us go.

 

This is the indoor play area primarily for kids. It is also the way in to the change rooms.

This is the indoor play area primarily for kids. It is also the way in to the change rooms.

We caught the 4:20 shuttle bus back to Gwangju and settled back to enjoy very scenic cruise back home in time to meet friends for dinner.

We found that the three hours we were there was more than enough. However, there were no line-ups and half the park was closed, so for anyone planning on going in high season it will likely take all day to get in a few runs on each. From the photos we have seen, a sunny August day turns the place into a sardine can. It was a lot of fun though, and we would recommend that anyone with a free day in the summer give it a try.

 

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On Buses In Gwangju

As we careened along one of Gwangju’s major arteries near the bus terminal and squealed around a corner on two wheels, I reached out and grabbed the handle in front of me to stop myself from tumbling into the aisle. This was by far one of the fastest bus rides we had had the fortune (good or bad remained to be seen) of encountering. Once I had prevented my forehead from smashing into the seatback in front of me at the next light, I turned to check on Tamara. She had carefully wedged her feet in between the seat in front of her and the side of the bus to prevent herself from catapulting into the exit stairway at every traffic light. Her hands were braced against her seat to stabilize herself for the wild swings around cars, pedestrians, puddles, and even the occasional corner. The world’s strangest roller coaster ride. And it got me thinking about how many different experiences the phrase ‘riding a bus’ captures – at least in Korea. As I caught my breath, I thought I might put together a list of a few types of rides we have run across and a few stand-alone events that tend to make bus rides in Korea just a little more interesting.
We were on an extreme version of a ‘last-run-of-the-night bus ride’. The last bus leaves the end of each route between 10 and 11 o’clock depending on the route number. Usually, this means that if you catch any bus after about 9:45 you are on that driver’s last run of the night. When this is over, he can begin the process of extricating himself from work and heading for home. Given the horrific traffic conditions in Korea, this must be incredibly appealing. What this often means is that any run after 9:45 is done at absolute top speed. The driver throws his bus around the road like a high performance race car, screeching around corners, running red lights, and slamming on the breaks when someone rings the bell for a stop. These late night roller coasters are a little nerve wracking, but at least you get home quickly.
Then there is the ‘rush hour special’. This is the bus that takes three times as long as usual to wend its way through rush hour traffic. Because public transit is so widely used, it is also usually a ‘sardine can’.
The ‘sardine can’ is somewhat self-explanatory, but I want to remind my Canadian readers that personal space is not really a thing in Korea. So, that point when a bus at home is considered packed? Yeah, that is the cue for people to actually start pushing from the front to compress the crowd and squeeze a few more people onto the entrance stairs. The result is that you are forced to stand with you face inches away from the stranger who is doing their best to ignore your presence. That, or maybe they are just so used to people being so close that they really don’t notice how uncomfortable things have become.
If you are really lucky, your ‘rush hour special’ will include a ‘sardine can’ and be exacerbated by a ‘warm spring day’. That’s right, it’s not just weather. A ‘warm spring day’ is the result of Korean reluctance to turn on the AC any time before about July. Never mind that it’s like thirty-five degrees, it’s still technically spring and we don’t need AC in the spring. The result is a stifling heat that has the foreigners drenched with sweat in minutes and on a particularly bad day can even dampen the brow of the occasional Korean.
If you are really unlucky your ‘warm spring day’ will coincide with an especially nasty ‘market day surprise’. And what a surprise they can be, ranging from completely innocuous to downright stomach turning. They usually occur on routes that pass by a major traditional market (incidentally fun places to kill an afternoon people watching) and are most common at off-peak times. What happens is someone, often and ajumma, boards the bus with their day’s shopping. Now, if it’s a normal cart of veggies you help her get it up and down the stairs and that’s the end of it. No harm, no foul. But occasionally you run into the lady who has just purchased a massive cart of imperfectly bagged kimchi or, the worst case I ever encountered, fish that smelled like it was on it’s last legs. These types of items can stink up a bus in a big hurry. If combined with a ‘warm spring day’, ‘sardine can’, and/or ‘rush hour special,’ this can be grounds for disembarking and waiting for the next bus.
One of my personal favourites is the ‘ajeossi seatmate’. This one is a bit of a hit and miss event, but if you throw in a bit of soju the results are almost a foregone conclusion. Ajeossis rank quite high in the social hierarchy of Korea so people tend to defer to them in most things, including whether or not they really need one and a half or one and three quarters of a seat on the bus. These guys like to spread out. Legs wide open and protruding into your seat and generally just taking up space. I even watched one guy who occupied one seat with his backpack in a bus full of people standing in the aisle. Riding with one of these guys, especially if properly pickled in soju, is a constant battle for space to avoid being pushed into the aisle or out the window. And you can forget about maintaining anything resembling personal space.
‘Ajumma elbows’ are something that almost anyone who has lived in Korea for more than a few weeks has probably experienced. In short, they are right at kidney level, bony as hell, and these ladies aren’t afraid to apply them liberally in aid of getting where they are going.
So those are a few of the interesting little twists that are covered under the phrase ‘bus ride’ in Korea. As we braced ourselves for the remainder of the ride, I figured “at least it’s never boring.”
These are only a few of the city bus experiences that we have had. I know there are many that have escaped mention here, so any friends with a good story of their own about riding the city bus in Korea, feel free to throw it in the comments.

Gageodo (가거도): The Second Instalment

Despite weather forecasts to the contrary, our second full day on Gageodo dawned beautiful and clear. All four of us really wanted to see what was on the far end of the island, but after hiking more than 15 km the day before we did not want to undertake a 20+ km round trip on foot. Instead we chose to hire a boat to take us to the lighthouse on the northwestern tip of Gageodo. After a quick breakfast in our room, we headed downstairs and spoke with one of the men that had offered us a fishing charter the previous day. With Tamara’s Korean skills we were able to communicate that we only wanted to be dropped at the far end and we would hike back. He charged us 50,000/person which, considering it was Chuseok day, we thought was more than reasonable.

Our ride around the island.

Our ride around the island.

As it turned out, he was not just taking us to the end of the island. He was also giving us a tour of the coastline. It was really beautiful to look up at the cliffs we had walked above the day before and to get some idea of what the coast actually looks like.

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The ride took 20-30 minutes and we were dropped at a small pier with a boathouse and a set of steps leading up to the lighthouse complex. The lighthouse complex is government run and is a very tidy area. It is also the only set of buildings on the island that is not connected to the main port by road. Through trails or by boat is the only way to access it. Given that we had asked only to be dropped off, we knew we would be walking the rest of the rest of the way home.

 

There are three trail options. One leads back down the west coast to the second village, one goes straight up and over the main mountain, and one goes around to the third village on the north eastern coast. We chose to head around and see the third village. It was almost immediately apparent that these trails were nothing like those we had experienced elsewhere in Korea. We headed into a bamboo tunnel and the brush just kept closing in. Apparently all the trails on the island are like this. Given that one guy we talked to had already seen a snake that day and all the rocks were covered in moss and dew, it was a bit of a hairy 2 km trek to the village.

When we did reach the village, we found it strangely deserted. Not one villager was seen, yet there was an AC unit running beside one of the houses and Tamara caught a whiff of something cooking. We settled into a shady area on the pier and had a mini lunch after attempting to wash out the various cuts and scrapes accumulated on the trail. During lunch, we decided that our best bet was to head back on the road through the centre of the island (yes it is there even though naver and google don’t show it) rather than taking on the trail that swings out along the coast. Given the condition of the first trail and what we could see of the second one, we would have been cut to pieces by the time we made it back to our pension.

After a quick look around the village we started up the switchbacks. All the roads on the island are concrete rather than asphalt and the reflect heat like crazy so we were all pretty soaked by the time we broke onto the ridgeline just south of the mountain summit.

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There is a gazebo at the crossroads and we settled into the shade for a brief rest. From the Gazebo there is a road to the main village, a road to the summit, a trail that follows the ridgeline back to the main village, and the road we had just walked up from village three. Given that we were so close, we couldn’t pass up the summit so we left Pat and Mel resting at the gazebo and headed up to check it out.

It was the strangest summit we had ever seen. After walking about 500 meters up the road we hit a military guard post. The entire top of the mountain is a military base. The guard at the gate (police) checked us in taking our names and addresses before waving us up the wooden stairs to the summit. On the summit we were greeted by another policeman coming out of a guard hut. He indicated the summit marker to our left and made it quite clear that we were only allowed to take photos of an area about a meter square around the marker. He even took the picture for us. We were then ushered back down the stairs and checked out at the gate. Very odd.

The extent of the photography area on the summit.

The extent of the photography area on the summit.

After rejoining Pat and Mel, we headed down the road towards the main village. The road crosses the ridge running the length of the island so we were walking above the coastal road from the day before.

It was a surprisingly short walk back to the village and we got there before 3:00. We headed straight to the mart for ice cream and then back to the room to dump our gear, grab swimsuits and head for the beach. When we first arrived, there were several Korean families just finishing off a picnic. We headed down to the other end of the beach. From there it was straight into the water. And boy did that draw some shocked looks from the Koreans! We lounged on the rocks for a bit before heading back to the pension.

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Dinner was once again fish-centric, but this time it was anchovy soup with tofu and a large dried fish of some kind as the centrepiece. It was actually really delicious.

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We followed this up with a moonlight walk around town and out to the beaches. It was a full moon, or close enough that we couldn’t tell the difference, and a beautiful clear night.

Moon over the harbour.

Moon over the harbour.

Moon over the beach.

Moon over the beach.

Our final morning on Gageodo was slightly overcast, but that didn’t slow us down much. After a leisurely breakfast in the room and some reading time at the village gazebo, we headed back to the beach for one last dip. It was the first time we had been there when the tide was coming in. We found that there was a section of smooth, sloping rock (the same ones we had reclined on the day before) where the waves were washing quite strongly. The rocks were so smooth that we could ride the waves in and out across them without any difficulty. Great ride.

Sadly, we had to get to town for lunch, to settle the room, get our tickets and board the ferry home. Gageodo was an amazing trip – one of the top trips we have taken in Korea. There were so few people, great beaches, and decent hiking. It was easy to just relax and enjoy our time there. Such a great place.

Logistics and Advice

Let’s start by saying these are just suggestions and we are far from authorities on this stuff.

Getting there takes a while, but is not that complicated. Buses from Gwangju to Mokpo start at 5:20 AM and run regularly throughout the day for a little under ₩6,000. From the bus terminal it’s about a ₩6,000 cab ride to the ferry terminal. That’s when things start to get pricey. There is only one ferry to and from Gageodo each day. It leaves Mokpo at 8:10 and makes several stops along the way and costs over ₩60,000. Coming back, the ferry leaves Gageodo at 13:00 and costs slightly less. It takes between four and five hours. The ticket office opens at 11:30 and is located just behind the police building on the waterfront.

There are several different accommodation options in the main village including minbak, motels, and pensions. There is also a minbak at the second village. We think there is one at the third village as well, but the deserted feel to the place would suggest that it may not be operational. We paid ₩60,000 for the room we rented that had more than enough space for two couples. We looked at another room in the pension for ₩40,000 that would have comfortably held only one couple.

Once you’re on the island, getting around is largely by boat or on foot. It may be possible to hitch a ride. We were offered one as we climbed the hill out of the village on the first day, but we chose not to accept so we can’t say if there would have been a cost involved. For our boat trip, to the end of the island we paid ₩50,000 per person. Trails on the island are, in general, poorly maintained and overgrown with some nasty thorn bushes. Those who plan on hiking them will need long pants and should probably wear light long sleeves as well. There are roads, albeit narrow ones, to all three villages and the mountain summit, but not to the lighthouse.

Basic map of Gageodo trails. Note that the lighthouse is actually the northern tip rather than the western as suggested by the island's orientation on this sign.

Basic map of Gageodo trails. Note that the lighthouse is actually the northern tip rather than the western as suggested by the island’s orientation on this sign.

Travelling the islands we learned that you should bring your own breakfast, unless of course you are OK with Korean style rice, fish, and kimchi for breakfast. This trip we brought oatmeal, trail mix and a bit of fruit. We also brought trail food for when we are out and about, including energy bars, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Basically, we only planned to eat out for dinners, and even one of those was made up of mostly ramyeon. If you don’t like fish, bring a lot of food, because it is hard to find anything else. Just because it’s on the menu doesn’t mean you can order it. The first night we ordered samgyupsal (which was listed on the side of the building) and were served maeuntang: spicy fish soup. It was a case of shut-up and eat or go hungry.

Bring cash to the islands. As much as you think you will need to cover all your costs. Some places might accept cards and some islands might have an atm. But there are no guarantees they will have them or that the machines will be working. There is not a lot of English on the islands, so be ready and willing to try Korean and get by with hand gestures. While we were snubbed pretty hard a few times, people generally seem more friendly and more willing to try to talk to you, laugh with you, and welcome you.

 

Gageodo (가거도): The First Instalment

Last year on Chuseok we opted to head out to Heuksando and Hongdo and had a fantastic time, so this year we thought we’d join Pat and Mel for a trip to an even more remote island: Gageodo. It takes roughly four hours to get from Mokpo to Gageodo, including a stop at Heuksando.

We caught the earliest bus from Gwangju to Mokpo and were on the ferry heading out to sea just after 8:00. We landed at Gageodo shortly after 12:00. The main village on the island is set back among several high rocks behind a high seawall. Aside from the (apparently) recent addition of a huge orange dry-dock structure.

 

Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

A view of the village from above.

A view of the village from above.

The island is remote, rocky, and sparsely populated. Perfect for a quiet getaway from the noise and people usually associated with travel on mainland Korea and especially amplified on Chuseok.

First order of business was to find a place to stay for the weekend. There are several minbak and motels available on the main street of the village, but we opted for a pension. The first one that presented itself to us was 제일 펜션 (Best Pension). We had a look at a few of the rooms and opted to share one on the third floor looking out over the harbour for 60,000₩/night. Once we were settled in we had a few snacks before heading out in search of a beach.

There is a public beach just across a headland from the harbour, but we opted to explore a little farther can found one that is a bit more secluded and is surrounded by high cliffs. Gorgeous. It also has large rocks that are nice and smooth for sunbathing or taking a nap in between dips in the ocean. Pat headed off birding but the three of us opted to lounge on the beach and swim. Despite the fact that beach season is officially over in Korea, the water was really warm and relaxing.

After a long and relaxing time on the beach, Pat rejoined us with some fantastic news; he had spotted his 700th species of bird. We will leave the birding side of the trip for Pat to deal with on his blog here. We headed back to the pension to change, explore the town, grab some beer to celebrate, and find some dinner. Given that we had all been up before 4:00 AM, we suffered a slight setback in our plans.

Tired? Whose tired?

Tired? Who’s tired?

However, we did eventually manage to head out into the village for a bit of exploration. There are only two roads in the village, one along the waterfront and one across the top of the village to the school. Everything in between are these little alley-like paths and stairs. They are actually really neat.

There are two small stores on the main street. One, the one with a green awning, serves as something of a gathering place in the village. Throughout our stay, there were always people sitting outside the door or drinking and playing cards inside. We had dinner at the restaurant in the bottom of our pension — 매운탕 — spicy fish (bone) soup. When you’re on the islands, fish is the centrepiece of pretty well every meal. We wrapped up our evening with celebratory beers under the light house and were passed out by 9:00.

The village as seen from the lighthouse

The village as seen from the lighthouse.

Our first full day on the island, we headed up the road behind the village and out along the west coast. At the hill above the village the road forks, running high and low along the side of the mountain. The high road eventually crosses over the ridge to the other side of the island, but the low road goes along hillside overlooking the ocean and cliffs until it terminates at the second village about 6 KM away.

Hangri village sits in a low point between the main island and a large peninsula. There is a minbak and a restaurant (not selling food on Chuseok) that basically make up the entire village. There was also a goat which Tamara could not resist doting on. When we hiked into the hills on the peninsula we discovered several small herds of goats grazing. In some ways, the entire area feels like it could be on the coast of Scotland or the east coast of Canada.

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After a short time, we headed back down to the 2nd village and down a series of steps to the beach where we found a sheltered little nook, had lunch and then swam for the better part of two hours. It was amazing to be able to relax and swim and not be surrounded by other people. This is probably the most amazing part about Gageodo: you can actually get away from the people and the noise and the lights and just relax.

On our way back we stopped at the minbak to ask if we could fill our waterbottles. They were more than accommodating and just as we were leaving the lady came out and offered us a huge platter of japchae (made from noodles and vegetables) apparently in the spirit of Chuseok. We sat outside on a raised platform overlooking a gorgeous harbour and coastline while devouring the delicious dish.

After we thanked our hosts we headed back along the road to the main village for a bite in our room before crashing in short order.