Some friends told me there was this island in Korea unlike any they had seen before. They said it reminded them of something out of Jurassic Park or Lord of The Rings. I’d heard overblown comparisons before: the Hawaii of this or Santorini of that. Then the Lonely Planet included Ulleungdo in its 2012 list of “The Worlds Best Secret Islands.” If The Holy Blue Guide says it’s good then it must be. Sarcasm aside, I bought a ferry ticket, packed my bags, and then there was a typhoon. Boat canceled. I tried a month later. Ferry canceled again due to rough seas. Finally, a year later on my third try I made it.
Even before my foot touched land I was hooked. As our ferry arrived, I could see the languid port town of Dodong running up a ravine between two hills. Dare I say Dodong is the Monterroso of Korea, a seaside village reminiscent of Cinque Terre in Italy, but without the pastel-colored houses, pesto, and puttanesca? A 4×4 taxi sat lazily by the port. On its door was written, “Welcome to the mysterious island. ULLEUNGDO” How I wished it had a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton logo too.
Ulleungdo is a 73 sq km (28 sq mi) volcanic island last erupted almost 10,000 years ago. It sits 130km east of the Korean peninsula, and 87km west of Dokdo Island. In the middle of the island is Holy Peak or Seonginbong. It rises almost 1,000 meters (approx. 3,280 feet) above the sea. It’s been inhabited for centuries. The first historical record of Ulleungdo dates back to the year 512, during the reign of King Jijeung of the Silla Dynasty.
Few people, Koreans and foreigners alike, ever visit the island. It’s not easy to get to. But that’s what makes the island so special. Isolation has saved it from the Disneyland effect. You won’t find any museum or theme park dedicated to teddy bears, sex, Africa, tea, squid or pumpkins. In fact, the only museum on the whole island is the Dokdo Museum. The intrepid traveler is left with virgin forest, dramatic seaside cliffs, seagulls, squid, and silence. A mysterious volcanic playground in the middle of the East Sea really does exist.
Behind The Lens
All of the photos in this post were taken back in 2012 with my old Nikon D90 – one of the best cameras I’ve ever owned. Even though I was using some solid gear, photographing islands presents its own case of unique challenges. It’s hard to take pictures of something when you’re standing on it. As travel photographer Steve McCurry says, you need to ask yourself, “Where’s the best vantage point to make this picture?” For me, the main story of Ulleungdo was its natural beauty and raw landscape. I felt like the best vantage point to tell that story was by getting off the island. I tried to take a few photos when our ferry arrived, but I only saw a fraction of the island. So I joined the round-island boat tour to get a better vantage point. If you are really serious (and have money to burn) you might want to try hiring a local fisherman to take you out on his boat for an hour or two.
- The best way to appreciate Ulleungdo’s unique topography is to take a boat tour around the island. The Ulleungdo Cruise Ship Assoc. runs a 2-hour tour (T: 054 791-4468; 25,000 won). Grab the boat at New Ulleung Port, 10 minutes by bus from Dodong.
- Camp in the Nari Basin. Bring your own gear though.
- Most people don’t know that Ulleung has some of the best hiking in Korea. The 5-hour hike from the Nari Basin, up to Seonginbong Peak, and down to Dodong is awesome.
- Many people who visit Ulleungdo take the additional 3-4 hours (round trip) ferry to Dokdo Island. I didn’t make the trip myself, but most people I spoke with said it wasn’t worth it because either they got sick in the boat along the way or that they weren’t allowed to get off the boat onto Dokdo because the seas were too rough. Don’t let that stop you though if you really want to go. (T: 054-791-8111; about 45,000 won).
- Fish. Some people around the port rent fishing rods.
- Ride the cable car to Manghyangbong Peak. On a clear day you can see Dokdo from the observatory.
- Scuba diving in Ulleungdo is said to be good although there are strong currents in the area.
Where to Stay: Tourists visiting the island usually stay in Dodong. It has the most hotels, restaurants, and is the launching point for buses around the island. Unfortunately, quality lodging is limited and often overpriced. Many motels don’t have beds, and the bathrooms consist of a toilet and showerhead – sans sink. There are a few gems to be found though. The nicest place to stay is the W-Hotel (w-hotel.kr, T: 054 791-2728, about 70,000 won per night), a modern 18-room hotel, opened in the summer of 2012. It has some rooms with beds, so you don’t have to sleep on the floor. Bumsoo Kim and his family run it. They’ve lived on the island for 5 generations. Another option is Shinbisom Pension (T: 054 791-4460; around 80,000 in low season and 120-150,000 won in high season), which has 10 individual wooden huts on the side of a hill, each with their own picnic table.
Where to Eat: In Dodong, just below the W-Hotel, is Busan Restaurant. There you can order one of the island’s most famous dishes: Honghap Bap or rice with mussels. If you like munching on spaghetti-like strips of chewy raw squid, head down to the port and order some fresh off the boat. Of course, raw fish restaurants are everywhere too. When you’ve had enough seafood, Mamma Park’s Pizza, also in Dodong, (T: 054 791-8484) is a savior. The Crazy Duck pizza is legendary. Ulleungdo’s other signature dish is Sanche Bibimbap or rice with wild greens. San Maeul Restaurant (T: 054 791-4643) in the Nari Basin is probably the most rustic and original place to eat on the island. Wash it all down with a couple bowls of dongdongju or rice liquor.
Getting There: You can reach Ulleungdo by ferry from two different ports. The closest to Seoul is in Mukho and takes about 3 hours one way (T: 033 531-5891; 49,000 won one way). Further south is the ferry terminal in Pohang, which also takes 3 hours (T: 054 242-5111; 57,300 won one way).
Getting Around the Island: Public buses leave every half-hour from Dodong. You can hire a car at E Rent Car (erentcar.co.kr, T: 054 791-7272) in Dodong. Keep in mind that gas is much more expensive than on the mainland. You really don’t need a car.
For more info check out the island’s official website.