Seoul and Jeju Island, SOUTH KOREA, October 9-11 – We awoke to a gorgeous sunny day in Seoul. Our group enjoying full breakfast with magnificent views all around on the 31st Floor of the elegant Club Lounge. We were headed to the nearby imperial palace of Gyeongbok on the edge of modern Seoul. The first Royal Palace was originally constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty. This was the dynasty that overthrew the original Korean Dynasty for which the country is named.
We split our small group into two smaller personal groups for sightseeing, each having a professional Korean guide. On our way to the palace, we drove by the ‘Blue House’ … home and entertaining complex of South Korea’s president. In the bright warm sunshine we watched the colorful Changing of the Guards at the Palace, a longstanding ceremonial tradition that happens daily. We walk through the extensive palace grounds and visit key palace buildings, with our excellent guides, Mr. And Mrs. Kim. This largest palace complex is one of five adjoining palace complexes, with the large palace buildings built of stone and wood and having extraordinary olden day central heating systems for the fiercely cold winters here. Each building is intricately carved and hand painted. The first Japanese invasion of Korea was in the early 1500s and all 5 magnificent palaces were completely burned to the ground … and then over time all 5 palaces rebuilt again. The Joseon Dynasty lasted until recent times, although the royal family was forced into exile in Japan during the more recent Japanese-Korean War.
From the palace, we walked over to the nearby and exceptional National Folklore Museum, a veritable treasure house of ancient exhibits and modern animation displays (depicting former lifestyles).
We drove up to the city’s center Namsan Hill City Park and a short walk uphill brings us to Namsan Tower. Here, a high speed elevator whisks us up to modern N Grill, about 80 stories high and a fine dining revolving restaurant. A stunning day for spectacular views all over Seoul … north city and south city divided by the large Han River. An incredibly delicious lunch of Korean specialties like creamy mushroom soup, bone marrow wrapped in cabbage leaves, grilled whole lobster & herb butter, Korean beef steak, and unusual delicious sweet deserts.
We headed down into the city where it’s all ‘colorful chaos’ due to the local public holiday festival celebration. Harvest festivals are very popular in Korea. We continued to a downtown theatre for a performance of locally renowned Nanta. This is South Korea’s most popular theatrical show – and it is unique – the small stage set in a kitchen where 5 performer chefs are preparing for a wedding banquet. It’s entirely mime and musical humor – no language barrier – all the music being performed on/with kitchen items, and singing, as well as the high energy dancing and acrobatics. Brilliantly presented and performed. We’re all wide awake with this show. The streets outside the theatre a mass of Koreans enjoying the cool Fall evening. We walked back through the holiday crowds to our nearby modern elegant hotel, Hotel Lotte Seoul.
This evening all of our guests were able to enjoy Lakani’s “Dine by Choice” program. This is throughout our Around the World trip. In each major city of our route, our guests get to choose whichever fine restaurant they wish to dine, either inside or outside the hotel. Fine dining is fine travel and Seoul proves to be a ‘wealth’ of excellent dining opportunities at the start of our exciting trip.
Our second day in Seoul is Lakani’s “Choose Your Day” with a couple of key choices offered for guest selection per their own preference.
One choice is to visit Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), dividing this Korean Peninsula between North and South. A fascinating experience in today’s world to travel from Seoul along the Han River on the only road in the entire country that connects the two countries (that were formerly the one). Railway connection has been discontinued, travel between the two neighboring countries is banned, and there is almost no interaction whatsoever between North and South Korea. At the Demilitarized Zone, we visited the final railway station of South Korea, we saw the destroyed railway bridge (rebuilt and destroyed several times over decades), we saw army barracks and Korean military everywhere, as well as miles of barbed wire high fences (160 miles in total as the entire border). We visited a lookout hill to see the country of North Korea … across a small river rolling hills and a small city in the distance, but we saw no people. We went down into ‘Third Tunnel’ … a large tunnel discovered in the 1970s (one of 4 tunnels discovered) that was dug & dynamited 75 feet underground from North Korea into South Korea, with the intention of allowing up to 30,000 North Korean soldiers to pass through in an hour and invade South Korea. An interesting but bizarre day and rather surreal visit of this most unusual place in our world today. Let there be Peace!
Another choice for our guests, closer to Seoul, is to visit the 18th century fortress city of Suwon. Here the Hwaseong Fortress was designated as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997. The great fortress wall surrounding the city was built in the latter 1700s by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. Surrounding the small city of Suwon, this fortress was being built to honor and house the remains of his father Prince Sado. Sado was executed by his own father by being locked inside a rice chest for disobeying his own father’s order to commit suicide. Within the vast fortress walls is the unfinished palace of Haenggung, being built for King Jeongjo.
Our smaller groups enjoyed traditional Korean feasts at nearby local restaurants to their respective destinations. On return to the city of Seoul, several guests took the opportunity with our local guides to visit Insadong Alley, a very busy pedestrian street representing a focal point of Korean traditional culture and crafts. At one time this was the largest market for antiques and artworks in Korea and filled with tea shops and modern galleries.
One of the great advantages of private jet travel is that, when appropriate, ‘bonus destinations’ can be quite easily included. On our way from Seoul, South Korea to the Imperial City of Hangzhou, China … there is no such commercial airlines flight routing, but it’s just over a one hour flight in our luxury private jet … so we have time to visit one more of Korea’s “jewels”, the island of Jeju. This we did. Departing from Seoul we flew to Jeju Island for a day of interesting exploration.
Jeju is just an hour’s flight south from Seoul, an island about the size of Oahu and with a central extinct volcano mountain (top covered in cloud). Jeju is an international tourist destination for the Chinese and Japanese. The island thrives on tourism but is unknown to us. Jeju is best known for its scenic beauty and black lava rocky coastlines. Our first stop was at the remarkable Jusangjeolli Cliffs, towering black lava rock formations that rise right out of the sea. We tried the Korean delicacy of sea squirt as well as the local delicious tangerines. At lunch we enjoyed a more familiar seafood platter as well as the local delicious fresh lobster and excellent Korean beef steak. Afternoon sightseeing brought us to one of the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “sunrise peak” known locally as Seongan Ilchulbong Peak … whose crown crater is the symbol of Jeju Island. We had glimpses of the ancient “old grandfather stone statues” – carved from lava rock – all across this island and of unknown history but thought to be totems to bring good luck and guard against bad spirits. A final late afternoon hike to a small crater (of which there are several of this old volcanic island), and we were on our way to the airport and our private “speedbird” waiting to whisk us away across the ocean on a short flight to the Imperial city of Hangzhou, and the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel West Lake.
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