With nearly 70 percent of the nation covered by mountains and winter temperatures that hover at a chilly 28 degrees, South Korea seems like a natural destination for alpine sports. Yet, while Korea’s winters are long and cold, they’re also dry — leaving little in the way of fresh powder on its forested peaks. And while those mountains may have inspired poets and painters for hundreds of years, they’re relatively small: The nation’s highest peak, the 6,398-foot Hallasan, is well below the smallest of the Swiss Alps and only slightly taller than New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The arrival of modern snow-making equipment in the 1970s changed all that. Korea’s many resorts are easily reachable from its cities, and thanks to its long, dry winters, says Skiing Around the World author Jimmy Petterson, “skiers looking for a fair-weather ski holiday probably have a better chance in Korea than anywhere else in the world.”
Korea’s transformation into a ski destination is no accident. The nation has steadily improved its winter sports facilities as part of Pyeong Chang’s bids for the Winter Olympics in 2010 and 2014; the county is currently making a push for the 2018 games. The mountainous province of Gangwon-do, home of several of the nation’s top winter resorts, hosted the Asian Winter Games in 1999. Most recently, Seoul played host to the Snowboard Big Air World Cup, building a jump 112 feet high and 328 feet long in the heart of the capital for the December 2009 competition.
“You’re going to see Korea continuing to build resorts and facilities for skiing and snowboarding, in part so that the country can win these kinds of bids,” says Jessica Herring, marketing manager for the Korea Tourism Organization’s New York office.
Yet those who visit Korea searching for the equivalent of a European or American ski resort are in for a few surprises. Many Korean resorts are year-round theme parks, with golf courses, spas, restaurants and shopping malls, as well as a dozen or more trails of varying difficulty. Daemyung Vivaldi Park in Gangwon-do province, for example, includes discotheques, a golf course and Ocean World, an underground water park designed to resemble Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The new High 1 Resort combines skiing, snowboarding and golf with the Kangwon Land Casino — the only casino in the nation open to Korean residents as well as foreign visitors — along with a performance venue for Russian and Chinese circus troupes and a rotating mountaintop restaurant.
There’s also the Korean tradition of following a strenuous mountain hike or day on the slopes with a soak in a hot-spring spa. Korean spas range from the pampered indoor environments familiar to many Westerners to centuries-old bubbling springs renowned for their medicinal properties, and they’re located near every major resort. Many are crafted from rare materials believed to have medicinal powers, such as yellow clay, jade, elvan or hinoki wood; and spa attendants sweeten the mood by adding fragrant jasmine, tangerine or sweet flag herb to the steaming waters. “To go outside and lounge in a hot spring while the snow is falling is a really cool experience,” Herring says.
Don’t let these extras fool you into thinking Koreans are anything but passionate about their skiing. Several resorts, especially those located close to metropolitan Seoul, offer 24-hour access to the trails, with different pricing structures for those who ski at different hours. “Because the lift tickets are computer scanned, the machines can tell when you’ve purchased and let you through the line accordingly,” says John Buckley, who brought his snowboard to the High 1 Resort in January.
Those who visit the resorts are serious about their skiing and snowboarding and expect to find a challenge. “There’s a good variation in lengths and difficulty,” says Lee Farrand, an Australian student pursuing a Ph.D. at Seoul National University who recently visited the Muju Resort, one of the nation’s largest. “There are some very difficult runs for advanced skiers, but most are quite leisurely.”
Snowboarders and skiers share slopes on most of Korea’s mountains, though a few resorts, such as Phoenix Park and Sungwoo, favor snowboarders. That’s not surprising: Hyundai’s Sungwoo Resort recorded a ratio of 85 snowboarders to 15 skiers during the 2008–09 season, and events like the Burton Classic — at 10 years old, the nation’s most venerable snowboarding competition — draw large crowds. While few resorts provide opportunities for off-piste boarding (due in part to the lack of natural snow), almost all offer well-maintained half-pipes and other freestyle facilities.
Most resorts are all-ages, though a few go out of their way to attract a younger clientele: Phoenix Park invites Korea’s top DJs to perform in its nightclub; and Daemyung Vivaldi Park, where the slopes are named “Hip-Hop,” “Techno” and “Funky,” encourages young couples to propose to each other on a large, multi-vision screen. With so many young people around, beginner slopes can become crowded, especially around the winter holidays. But busy runs rarely lead to bad feelings, says Buckley, a skier and snowboarder.
“Korea is a bustling society, at least in the cities,” says Buckley, who grew up on the slopes of Vail, Colo., and is currently teaching English in South Korea. “In the subways and walking around, people are always bumping into each other and it raises no eyebrows. The same goes on the slopes. The beginner slopes can be incredibly crowded, and it is literally almost like bumper cars. But rather than erupting in fights, which might happen in the States, people kind of laugh, shrug it off and move on.”
Getting to the mountains is easy. Several destinations are located near Seoul in Gyeonggi province; the Konjiam Resort is only 40 minutes from the capital. Yet even the larger resorts in Gangwon-do are fairly close by. YongPyong Resort, one of the nation’s oldest and most celebrated, is about 124 miles, or a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Visitors can board a tour bus to any of the major resorts from Seoul; the price typically includes transportation, a lift ticket and even equipment rentals.
Seoul’s sizzling restaurant scene has yet to reach the mountains, where food courts and fast food make up much of the available cuisine. “The ski resorts have kitchens, and people normally cook their own food,” says Joe McPherson, host of the Korean dining site ZenKimchi.com. Yet unexpected delights can pop up anywhere, says author Paul Pomerleau, who recommends the comfort food available from street vendors.
“Vendors heat cast-iron forms in gas fires. They pour pancake batter into cups on the cast-iron mold, and let that cook for a moment,” Pomerleau says. “Then, dropping a raw egg onto one half of each mold, they close the sides together and let the egg cook between the still-finishing pancake batter. A minute or so later, they hand you a piping-hot, beautifully formed, indulgently tasty egg sandwich — all for about 500 won, which is approximately 50 cents. They know their fresh, hot winter food.”
Most resorts offer accommodations ranging from youth hostels to condominiums to luxurious guestrooms. It’s worth inquiring whether your room is heated using an ondo, a traditional Korean system located under the floor. Sleeping side-by-side on the floor with fellow guests may not be for everyone, but as author Petterson reports, it can be a terrific way to weather those brisk Korean winter nights: “The combination of the thin mattresses laid out over the heated floors resulted in my pillow being drenched with sweat the next morning.”
Known for its Silk Road Slope, the longest run (3.8 miles) with the highest altitude in Korea, the Muju Resort has become one of the nation’s most popular ski and snowboarding destinations. The 1,700-acre resort is divided between two bases: the 11-trail Manseon and the six-trail Seolcheon. In addition to cross-country trails, a sledding hill, indoor and outdoor skating rinks and an outdoor spa, Muju provides an open-air shopping district for its visitors. (San 43–15, Samgok-ri, Seolcheon-myeon, Muju-gun, tel 82 063 322 9000)
Ask a group of snowboarders about Korea, and the first words out of their mouths are likely to be “Phoenix Park.” The PyeongChang County resort’s 12 valley-style trails provide mini-pipes for beginners, super pipes for experts and an “extreme park” for those who want to push their limits. While the resort’s nightclub, shopping mall and karaoke rooms are aimed at younger visitors, those of all ages are likely to appreciate its 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. (1095 Myeonon-ri, Bongpyeong-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, tel 82 033 333 6000)
The first Korean ski resort to keep its trails open 24 hours, Daemyung Vivaldi Park on Mount Maebong has something for everyone: a golf course, a sledding slope, supermarkets, beauty salons, an underground water park and 12 trails. The resort’s youth hostel and condominium complex provide up to 1,278 guestrooms. (San 125–16, Palbong-ri, Seo-myeon, Hongcheon-gun, tel 82 033 434 8311)
Opening in 1975 as Korea’s first modern ski resort, the 4,300-acre YongPyong later became the showpiece for PyeongChang County’s bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics; the site previously welcomed the World Cup Ski Competition in 1998 and 2000, as well as the Winter Asian Games in 1999. In addition to 31 trails and 15 lifts, including the 591-foot Dragon Slope, YongPyong features an extended pipe and terrain park for snowboarders. The resort is also home to three golf courses, 20 banquet halls and seminar rooms and accommodations for up to 18,000 guests. (130 Yongsan-ri, Doam-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, tel 82 033 335 5769)
While it receives less snow and fewer skiers than Gangwon-do, Gyeonggi province is considerably closer to Seoul, making its mountains an ideal destination for residents and visitors looking for a ski getaway. In fact, the Konjiam Resort, the province’s largest, is so popular that its owners have limited admission to 7,000 visitors per day. In addition to 11 trails, the resort includes a golf course, condominium complex and a restaurant designed to resemble a California winery. (23–1 San, Doung-ri, Docheok-myeon, Gwangju-si, Gyeonggido, tel 82 023 777 2100)
Built in a former coal mine district, the High 1 Resort now includes 18 trails served by five lifts named after the Greek gods, as well as the Kangwon Land Casino, Korea’s largest. At 4,396 feet above sea level, the Top of the Top restaurant rotates to give diners views of three different mountain ranges. Those who can’t wait can participate in “Sky Dining,” a meal served aboard the gondola linking the trails and restaurant. High 1 is Korea’s first resort to be accessible by train; the nearby Jeongseon Station receives resort-only trains from both Seoul and Busan. (17 San, Gohan-ri, Gohan-eup, Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon-do, tel 82 033 590 7700)
While Korea’s ski season lasts from late November through March, a particularly good time to visit is during one of the nation’s many
winter festivals. Each January, hundreds of thousands of Koreans visit the Hwacheon region for its Sancheoneo Ice Festival. In addition to ice fishing — sancheoneo is a type of mountain trout — the festival features a Winter City Plaza of ice sculptures and rides on a traditional Korean sled, a wooden board with metal runners on which riders propel themselves using pointed wooden sticks. Visitors can decide for themselves whether they want to take part in the “barehanded fishing” contest while dressed in shorts and T-shirts, or to sample their catch at the festival’s Raw Fish Center. A similar event, the Inje Ice Fish Festival, takes place on the vast artificial Soyang Lake during the month of February. While guests are encouraged to try fresh, whole smelt dipped in red pepper paste, there’s also the option of ice sledding, ice football, riding in a horse-drawn carriage and shopping for local crafts.
To qualify as a health spa in Korea, the proprietor must prove that the water temperature is always above 95 degrees and that both the spa waters and the surrounding environment offer proven health benefits. Only two of the nation’s spas meet that criteria; at one, Seorak Waterpia (24–1 Jangsa-dong, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do, tel 82 033 1588 2299) in Gangwon-do province, the hot spring waters are said to assuage mental fatigue, sleep deprivation, high blood pressure and neuralgia in addition to being good for the skin. Seorak now uses those waters in a variety of water rides, including a 131-foot-long wave pool and outdoor thermal spa baths with names like “Lovers’ Bath,” “Rock Bath” and “Prickle Bath.”
Info to Go
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (ICN) is about two and a half hours from the ski resorts of Gyeonggi-do province and three hours from the resorts of Gangwon-do province. Shuttle buses to the major resorts are available from downtown Seoul. The High 1 Resort is also linked by rail to Seoul’s Cheongnyangni Station. For more information, visit the Korea Tourism Office.
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