I love travelling around Korea and have enjoyed figuring out to get places on my own (as opposed to travelling with a tour group). One of my recent 'local' trips was to Kanghwado, a picturesque island with cloud-topped mountains, flower-lined rice fields, and orange and blue rooftops dotting the horizon. With a smorgasbord of places to go and things to do and located just ninety minutes from Seoul, it’s a great place for a weekend getaway.
WHAT TO DO/SEE
Manisan (마니산): The first thing you should see in Kanghwado is Manisan. Not only is it the highest mountain on Manisan, at the peak you’ll find Chamseongdan (참성단), an ancient stone altar said to have been built and used by Dangun, the mythological first Korean who was originally a bear. It’s an aerobic three-kilometer walk up some 1004 (but who’s counting?) steps, some of which are quite steep. If you’re expecting to actually see the altar when you reach the summit, you might be disappointed as the altar is only open to the public on some holidays. Still, it’s a good workout, and there’s a nice view of mountains and sea from lookout points near the peak.
Jeondeungsa (전등사): After hiking Manisan, make your way to Jeondeungsa. Jeondeungsa is a temple within a fortress, and, like most Korean temples it’s beautiful and provides a lot of photo opportunities, but, ironically, you won’t be able to see what Jeondeungsa is most famous for, which is the Triptaka Koreana, a set of eighty thousand plus wooden blocks with Buddhist scriptures carved at Jeondeungsa between 1235 and 1251. The Triptaka Koreana is now at Haeinsa (해인사), a temple near Daegu.
Bugeunni Dolmen (부근리 고인들): Next on your list ought to be the Bugeunni Dolmen (부근리 고인들). As the largest dolmen on Kanghwado—in fact, the largest one in South Korea—Bugeunni is a must-see. You’ll find this ancient table-style dolmen situated in the center of a grassy expanse (a tourist attraction strangely calm and absent of souvenir and bundaegi [번데기] vendors). On the edge of the dolmen park are replicas of Stonehenge and Easter Island statues. Take pictures next to these replicas and fool your family and friends into thinking you vacationed at Stonehenge and Easter Island.
Ganghwa History Hall (강화 역사관): After visiting Bugeunni Dolmen, go to Kanghwa History Hall. This is where you get completely educated about Kanghwado’s history from prehistoric times to the modern era. The museum is divided into four rooms: the first one focusing on ancient Korean history; the second one focusing on the culture of Kanghwado; and the last two focusing on the wars of Kanghwado. Information about each exhibit is translated into English.
In addition to the above places, there are many fortresses to visit, camping grounds to camp at, special sunset places to view the sunset at, beaches to swim at, palace sites to view… in short, to many places to mention here. Admission to all the places listed above and to other tourist attractions on the island is just a pittance—generally less than 2,000 for an adult ticket.
WHAT TO BUY: If you are a ginseng afficionado, then Kanghwado is the place for you. The ginseng in Kanghwado is reputed to be of high quality because of exceptional soil. Another Kanghwado special product is hwamunseok ( 화문석). A hwamunseok is a large reed floor mat with traditional designs. Hwamunseok are quite beautiful, but a little pricey. If you’re not up for the financial and spatial commitment of a hwamunseok, you can buy smaller products made of reed, such a small baskets and handbags. Look for locally grown ginseng products and goods made from reed at the local product center (토산품센터) near the bus terminal.
WHAT TO EAT: Like most islands in Korea, fresh seafood is where it’s at, and there is no shortage of seafood restaurants on the island. Kanghwado specialties are grilled eel (장어 구이) and large-eyed herring sashimi (밴댕이회). If you’re not up for seafood, though, there are plenty Korean restaurants and supermarkets on the island.
WHERE TO STAY: Kanghwa-do is loaded with pensions and minbaks. Of special recommendation is Sigol Jeep (call 011-447-4520/ www.manisancottage.com ), a traditional-style Korean house with a great atmosphere and very friendly English-speaking owners. You’ll also find plenty of motels near the bus station.
WHERE TO FIND BROCHURES/MAPS: The tourist information center is in the bus terminal. You can pick up a pamphlet (with a map) there, but it is in Korean. However, other tourist sites such as Manisan provide a bilingual booklet with excellent information about sightseeing places on Kanghwado.
HOW TO GET THERE: From Sinchon Bus Terminal take bus 3000 to Kanghwa Bus Terminal or bus 3100 further inland to the Hwado (화도) Bus Terminal. The fare is about 4,000 won per person. Travel time is approximately ninety minutes. Find out more about Kanghwado at www.ganghwa.incheon.kr.
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