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Beyond Squid Game: South Korea’s Highlights

South Korea has long been famous for the uniqueness of its cultural arts, breathtaking seasonal scenery, and its rapid rise as a technology powerhouse. But if we talk about South Korea today, our conversations are often filled with the latest gossip from K-Pop culture, the fashion, brands and style trends hitting the streets of Seoul, or perhaps currently your conversations are filled with the latest South Korean craze in Netflix, the bizarre TV phenomenon that is Squid Game. This dystopian drama has put South Korea on the must-travel maps of millions of Squid Game fans around the world with its desperate story of debt-ridden people competing in deadly games to win a massive cash prize and solve their financial woes. Squid Game is the most-watched drama series in the history of Netflix, hitting the number 1 spot in the 94 countries where it has been aired. A truly incredible success, following on from the similarly successful Oscar winning Korean movie, Parasite. South Korea’s entertainment media has really come of age.

With South Korea very much in the spotlight we are sure many folks around the world are starting to plan their trips to the land of Squid Game. Travel restrictions are still in place however, with visitors from most regions of the world required to complete a 10-day quarantine on arrival, making holiday visits rather impractical for the time being. But quarantine free travel is now possible for fully vaccinated travelers between Singapore and South Korea under the VTL Travel Bubble scheme. And plans for a similar scheme already on the table between Australia, Japan and South Korea. So with the door to international travel to South Korea creaking open, now is a good time to start making plans and beat the inevitable rush once the country fully opens.

In this week’s newsletter we are pleased to share this amazing destination with you via our South Korea holiday itineraries. A fascinating destination with a wealth of experiences to share with visitors. There’s a Chinese flair to the Buddhist-era temples and a rich history, and a coastline of volcanic geology you’d more typically associate with Indonesia. From K-Pop to fashion and Gangnam-Style to ancient style, South Korea can hold its own on the popular culture front and it clearly doesn’t wish to mirror anywhere else in the region. Explore these unique experiences in one of our South Korea travel itineraries. With a carefully curated Secret Retreats Korea travel itinerary you will experience some of the most interesting places in South Korea with the added benefit of our curators taking the hard work out of researching and planning your trip for you.

For History Lovers: Gyeongbokgung Palace

This “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was the center of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) and was the heart of Korea. Built in 1395, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and greatest of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace is a complex of buildings—a throne hall, the king’s living quarters and more—a sort of city inside a city and complemented by beautifully manicured gardens and carefully positioned pavilions to share the best views of the surrounding landscapes. The Japanese destroyed the palace in the 1590s, and the site remained a ruin until a complete reconstruction in 1867 brought back more than 500 buildings. Today, the palace grounds are filled with lotus ponds, gardens, and ornate statues, and offer a lovely place to spend the afternoon. Don’t miss the Throne Hall, the Royal Banquet Hall, and Hyangwonjeong – a two-story pavilion on a small island in the center of a pond. And remember to stand under the palace roof and look up—you’ll be dazzled by the intricate patterns of red, blue, and green painted on the eaves.

Head South to Busan and the Beautiful Jeju Island

Next stop is Busan, South Korea’s largest port and second largest metropolis. En route there, stop at Korea’s largest temple, the impressive Tongdosa Temple. This bustling port at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula gracefully balances big city life with community charm. During your stay in Busan, visit Haeundae Beach, the Nurimaru APEC House, an imposing and beautiful meeting centre located on an island, the Busan Aquarium and the UN Memorial Cemetery located in a serene park which honours soldiers from 16 countries killed during the Korean War. Then one more stop at the unique Yongungsa Seaside Temple.

Fly from Busan to Jeju Island, a place of myths and legends. According to legend, three demi-gods emerged from Samgseonghyeol – 3 Clan’s Holes, literally 3 large holes in the ground on Jeju Island – and founded the Tamna Kingdom in 2400BC. The holes are still visible today and are today a shrine, and one of the oldest historical sites in South Korea. One in five people on the island earn their living from the sea, and in many families, the women have been divers for generations. Jeju is also home to South Korea’s highest mountain, Mount Hallasan. At 1,950m this impressive mountain is in fact a shield volcano that essentially gave birth to the island of Jeju. The mountain is considered sacred by the people of the island, a home to numerous gods and spirits. While Hallasan is still considered an active volcano, its last rumblings were more than 5,000years ago.

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Travel Back In Time: Stay in a Traditional Hanok

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a city of contrasts where the new and the old co-exist in perfect harmony. Ancient palaces and noble residences live alongside a modernity filled with cutting edge 21st century tech. And you can experience this contrast in a boutique hotel where Korean traditional culture comes alive, in a stay in a traditional Hanok.

A Hanok is a traditional Korean house, typically a home set within carefully positioned courtyards and gardens ensuring privacy for the residents, contemplative spaces and creating a living space that works in harmony with the environment. The design and build ensures the rooms are cool in summer and warm in winter while also creating a space that shares restful and beautiful views for the residents wherever their gaze may fall. Put simply, a Hanok home is a beautiful living space.

Secret Retreats shares 2 of the most renowned and most beautiful Hanok homes with guests, with one located in the heart of old Seoul and the other in rural Andong. Our Hanok in Seoul is located in Bukchon, this area of the city is located on a hill between the palaces of Gyeongbok and Changdeok and is where noble families have, for more than 600years, made their homes. The area is often referred to as the Bukchon Hanok Village. The perfect base for a stay in Seoul, experience the ancient and modern stories of the city with a stay in this beautiful 130-year-old 5 guest room boutique hotel. And pair your stay here with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Hahoe Folk Village, Andong, where our other Hanok is located.

Hahoe village was established more than 500years ago, and time seems to have stood still since then. Many of the original structures are still standing preserving Joseon period architecture and the rural lifestyles that continue in the traditional way still today. Taking this journey to the heart of the traditional Korea with Secret Retreats is a rare opportunity to encounter a ‘secret’ Korea, unavailable elsewhere, through the traditional cuisine, immersion in South Korea’s magnificent natural scenery, and experiencing an ancient and traditional Korean home while staying at our comfortable and uniquely South Korean Hanok accommodation.

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From Seoul to the DMZ

A trip to visit Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the weapon-free buffer zone between North and South Korea. The area was established on July 27 1953 when the Armistice Agreement was signed between the warring sides after the Korean War. It is a 2km-wide stretch of land on either side of the border between north and south Korea.

The zone has been protected from human disturbance for more than 6 decades and has unintentionally become a haven for wildlife, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and bird watchers. Embark in a fascinating trip with Secret Retreats from Seoul with a guided tour of the sights along the south side of the DMZ.

Start from Dora Observatory, the northernmost observatory on the western section of the DMZ. The binoculars offer views of the city of Gaeseong, the Songaksan Mountain, and the Statue of Kim Il-sung in North Korea. As the area beyond the observatory is within a military outpost command, photography is strictly prohibited here. The nearby Dorasan Station is one of the northernmost railway stations on the Gyeongui Line which connects Seoul to Sinuiju in North Korea and is seen as a symbol of the efforts to achieve a unified Korea. The Dorasan Peace Park houses an exhibition hall that tells the stories of the Dorasan Station and DMZ’s unique and accidental ecosystem. The Unification Bridge is another must visit site of the DMZ. It is located in the Joint Security Area (JSA), poetically known as the ‘Bridge of No Return’ the Unification Bridge crosses the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) between North and South Korea. It was first used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Finally a trip to the village of Panmunjeom is not to be missed. The ‘Truce Village’ is located within the DMZ, in No Man’s Land, set aside as a place where officials of both North and South Korea could meet. Overlooked by the United Nations, the village is divided into 2 halves, with one half under North Korea’s jurisdiction and the other under South Korea’s jurisdiction. The demarcation line through the village is marked by a low concrete step, cross uninvited at your peril. That said the village has been the site of many defections over the years and some serious violence between North and South. In 1976 two green fingered American soldiers made the mistake of stepping over the demarcation to prune a tree and were hacked to death by North Korean soldiers with their own gardening tools. And as recently as 2017 a North Korean soldier made a successful dash under a hail of bullets for the south. Four North Korean bullets found their mark, but after 2 operations the soldier made a full recovery in his new home in the south. Visits to the truce village are only possible with approved guides and tours, which Secret Retreats can provide.

Experience Korea Bite by Bite

Take a journey to the heart of Korea through their unique cuisine. South Korean food culture has rapidly taken over, perhaps aided by the country’s newfound fame on the silver screen.Today Korean cuisine has become trendy in many cities across the world. You may have noticed Korean cuisine becoming more prevalent in your neighborhood in the past few years whether in the instant noodle or pickle sections of your local supermarket or in offerings on restaurant menus. The Kpop star Psy, with his (let’s be honest here) one hit wonder “Gangnam Style” brought the media gaze to South Korea back in 2013. This opened the door to more Korean TV dramas and music finding an audience beyond Asia. Through this greater exposure putting all things South Korea on the map many people have found themselves exploring Korean food in ways they never had before. No longer is it a poor man’s Japanese, Korean food is standing firmly on its own two feet and gaining a cult like following. Beyond the spicy probiotic wonder of Kimchi (typically, spiced pickled cabbage) and the ubiquitous instant noodles there is a great variety of styles and flavours to enjoy in Korean cuisine. Largely a rice-based cuisine, as with most of Asia, a traditional meal consists of a bowl of rice and a soup, served with anything from 2 to 12 side dishes, or ‘banchan’. There is a great variety of banchan, mostly vegetable, with many dishes specific to the different regions of Korea where the banchan were created from the produce that was locally available. Dining is also seasonal, the best way to dine, assuring the best and freshest flavours throughout the year as produce comes into season. Fermented foods adorn every table, typically kimchi, of which there are many varieties, and every locality has its own source for the ‘best kimchi’. Kimchi accompanies every meal. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish are all eaten too. Grills and barbeques are popular dining choices where groups of friends enjoy fatty pork belly and thinly sliced marinated beef, with a range of side dishes washed down with beer or soju – Korea’s national (very) alcoholic beverage. Be sure to put bibimbap on your list of foods to enjoy. Best made and served in a stone bowl, the rice against the bowl crisps up, the rice above is soft and fluffy, and all topped off with beef, fried egg, and a variety of typically 6 different veggies. Kimchi stew, a traditional dish that was always a great way to use up aging kimchi, served hot the aged kimchi is cooked up and stewed with tofu, pork belly and mushrooms and makes one of Korea’s most popular dishes. Ox bone soup is another great choice, and for chicken lovers try stuffed chicken with ginseng soup. South Korean cuisine has a meal for every occasion and for every season.

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With our carefully curated portfolio of unique properties and experiences throughout Asia – including stylish boutique hotels, cruises on the great rivers of Asia or luxury private yacht charters, and creatively-Asian restaurants – Secret Retreats is uniquely positioned to offer an exclusive collection of highly localized itineraries, special offers and packages across the Asian continent. The Asian holiday itineraries offer the intriguing promise of discovering ‘secret spots,’ known only to those who live in the region, and introducing the sights, sounds, tastes and beauty of local life beyond the beaten path of mass tourism.

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