Spirited South Korea: Savour modern local food and nature-infused spaces with VTL travel

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

(Clockwise from top left) Rooftop bar Ugly Society and Deoksugung, or Deoksu Palace, in Seoul, and Songdo Central Park in Incheon.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – It is only 4pm in Incheon, but the setting sun is already casting a golden glow as our water taxi slices through the man-made waterway in Songdo Central Park.

The autumn air is crisp, the sky a captivating azure, and skyscrapers gleam on the horizon. Families are strolling about with their young children and pet dogs, while couples are cruising in crescent-shaped motorboats.

South Korea is my first overseas destination in 20 months. Until I boarded the inaugural vaccinated travel lane flight on Korean Air from Singapore to Incheon on Nov 15, I had suppressed all excitement for fear of jinxing the arrangement between the countries (such is the paranoia after the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble burst once too often).

The dream: swift check-ins, fast-flowing immigration lanes and zipping out of the airport terminal ready to pound the streets.

The reality: multiple documents to fill, print and save into cloud drives (with a constant fear of missing an important detail or writing something that might cause me to be detained), repeated checks of said documents, and an hour’s queue from the disembarkation gate through various checkpoints before collecting our luggage at the carousel, thanks to a delayed flight before ours.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

A rental motorboat coasts along the man-made waterway in Songdo Central Park, a popular spot for Incheon’s young families and couples. PHOTO: GRACE MA

Then it was off to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test centre to get our swabs done. By the time I checked into my hotel room to await the test results – nearly four hours after landing – I was exhausted, grumpy and wondering why we were in relatively laid-back Incheon for two days instead of heading straight into bustling Seoul.

If I had continued that pity party, I would have missed out on an underrated gem.

Besides the beautiful Songdo Central Park, the Yeongjong Seaside Rail Bike is another scenic experience, this time along South Korea’s west coast as you cycle 5.6km from Wolmido Island to Incheon Bridge.

For historical and cultural insights, go on an Open Port Story tour in an electric vintage car with Joeun Tour.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

The stops on the Open Port Story tour in Incheon include the historical Jemulpo Club for foreigners, where the K-drama Goblin (2016) was filmed. PHOTO: GRACE MA

Interesting stops include the Incheon Art Platform cultural centre housed in restored red-brick buildings constructed in the 1930s and 1940s, the first Japanese bank branches in the country, streets lined with Chinese murals and the Jjajangmyeon Museum, detailing the birthplace of Korea’s famous black bean sauce noodles.

Wolmi Cultural Street, which is lined with seafood restaurants, cafes and shops, was quiet on the Tuesday afternoon we visited. The sea breeze was invigorating and the spacious promenade refreshing in its lack of crowds.

We were told the area gets more bustling on weekends, especially at the nearby Wolmi Theme Park. A two-storey Viking Ship ride, Tagada Disco and a 70m Hyper Shoot Drop are among the thrills at this site, which has seen the filming of variety shows such as We Got Married (2008 to 2017) and Running Man (2010 to present).

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

Wolmi Cultural Street in Incheon is lined with seafood restaurants, cafes and shops. It is busier on weekends, especially at the nearby Wolmi Theme Park. PHOTO: GRACE MA

Even at our next stop, Seoul, where we spent three nights, nature was never far away.

The Haneul Sky Park, once a landfill, is now resplendent with tall silvergrass. It is the perfect setting for walk-in-the-field shots, especially in autumn, when the silvergrass is in bloom and you get a quilted backdrop of golds, browns and greens.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

The grassy Haneul Sky Park in Seoul, once a landfill, is a popular photo site. PHOTO: GRACE MA

When we visited, it was a hazy day of “unhealthy” levels, according to the weather app. On a clear one, you can capture sweeping vistas of the city at various vantage points. Take the shuttle bus if 291 steps up the Haneul Park Stair feels too much.

The Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower, is another place for panoramic views. Get a good 30- to 40-minute workout walking from the National Theatre of Korea, Namsan Public Library or the Sam-soon Steps, or hop into the Namsan Cable Car for a less breathless ride up.

Here, you will find many padlocks tied to railings by couples and families hopeful for love and harmony in their relationships.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

Namsan Seoul Tower bears padlocks tied to railings by those hoping for love. PHOTO: GRACE MA

Fans of Netflix drama Squid Game can sign up for a day excursion that includes playing “Ojeok-Eo” games at the Korean Folk Village.

Depending on the sign-ups, you can challenge other participants or members of your tour group in the ddakji tile game, tug-of-war, dalgona candy and red-light-green-light activities. Spoiler: None of the tips in the series, like licking the candy, worked. I tried.

But what is the thrill of travel without venturing a little off the beaten path?

I did just that by taking the South Korean subway for the first time to meet an acquaintance I had communicated with only via Instagram and KakaoTalk, the preferred local chat app.

The crowded stations during the 6pm rush hour caused some anxiety as I realised how much my personal space had unconsciously shrunk due to the pandemic.

But when two young Korean women enthusiastically tried to help me as I stood there figuring out directions, I relaxed a little. Between my close-to-zero grasp of Korean and their limited English, we managed to understand one another and connected over a good laugh.

My acquaintance Ms Cho Eun-sun, a local, brought me to her rooftop bar in Itaewon, which was bustling with Koreans in their 20s to 40s enjoying pretty tipples and hearty plates such as pasta and pizza. The prices were wallet-friendly (from 10,000 won, or S$11.40, for a mojito cocktail), the vibes were chill and the owners’ pet dogs were cute.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

Pretty tipples and a hearty plate of lasagna at Itaewon bar Ugly Society. PHOTO: UGLY SOCIETY

“We’ve actually been doing quite well these two years,” said Ms Cho, whose English was quite good. “People like wide open spaces. And the sunset views here are beautiful.”

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

Rooftop bar Ugly Society overlooks Seoul’s Itaewon district. PHOTO: UGLY SOCIETY

The night’s adventure had begun. I had no clue where she was taking me, but we had hit it off from the start. Her friend Min-yeong joined us and we went to Ahn Se-won, a secret cafe in Hannam that publicises itself only via Instagram.

Ms Cho called it her happy place where she comes to free her mind from stress and find peace. That was exactly what the owner, whose cafe bears his name, wanted the cafe to be. He explained: “Ahn Se-won means ‘a hill where people can relax’, that is why I opened this coffee shop. I wanted to give comfort to people and provide a happy time in it, not just selling coffee.”

At 9.30pm, customers were still lingering in the remodelled hanok (traditional Korean house) and playing with Mr Ahn’s friendly golden retriever, Anna. The menu includes dog treats besides signature brews such as the thick and sweet One Mocha with two layers of espresso and cream.

Restaurants and bars have taken a more innovative turn since the pandemic began. And, with the loosening of restrictions, most are open till the wee hours of the morning. Popular, often packed spots are cosy pasta and tapas places, and natural wine bars.

At Pussyfoot Saloon, customers venture beyond the classics and enjoy sweet and sour cocktails.

As we soaked in the bar’s high- energy vibes, we sipped their latest signature cocktails – a spicy, smoky New Deli Fashioned with whiffs of cardamon, mustard seeds and ginger; and a Gamcheon Holiday, a gin fat-washed with olive oil, garnished with an olive wrapped in gold leaf, and served on a 3D model of an Italian hand gesture.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

Customers enjoying sweet and sour cocktails at Seoul’s Pussyfoot Saloon. PHOTO: PUSSYFOOT SALON

At nearly midnight, we hit the last stop: Zest, which opened in December last year. The bar has a zero-waste philosophy for its cocktails, which riff on traditional Korean beverages such as a clear, heady version of the sweet rice drink sikhye with soju.

This modern twist on local fare is also echoed in places like Tokki Bar and Wildflower, which I visited on separate occasions.

All the cocktails in the Brooklyn neighbourhood-styled Tokki Bar, which is open from 11am to 6am, are made using the bar’s own locally distilled Tokki soju, gin and vodka. It also serves small and large plates such as calamari, chicken parma and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) prime steak.

At Wildflower, Jeju sea urchin, butterbur and littleneck clams give a savoury spin to the usual pastas. Minari, a watercress typical of everyday Korean meals, brings a homely touch to steaks.

Injeolmi meringue made of soya bean powder is combined with swiss chard (a leafy vegetable) ice cream, soya bean cream and apple compote to create a refreshingly delectable dessert.

I went back after each meal with my heart warmed by the hospitality, the lively conversations and the comforting flavours.

Travel has changed with more uncertainty and myriad swab tests (I had four for this six-day trip), but its joys remain. Serendipitous connections and unexpected friendships enveloped in local vibes – these are truly the best kind of holidays.

an Open Port Story tour, Haneul Sky Park,, Namsan Seoul Tower, or N Tower,, Netflix drama Squid Game, Korean Folk Village., her rooftop bar in Itaewon,, via Instagram., Pussyfoot Saloon,, Zest,, Tokki Bar, Wildflower,, the Safe2Go portal,, Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

The grounds of Deoksugung, or Deoksu Palace, offer a moment of respite from the fast pace of Seoul. PHOTO: GRACE MA

Tips for the trip

• Before flying from Singapore, prepare hard and soft copies of these documents: K-ETA (electronic travel authorisation), vaccination certificate, travel insurance policy and brochure, pre-departure polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results, test reservation confirmation from the Safe2Go portal, and on-arrival PCR test booking at Changi Airport. Keep the hard copies easily accessible as you will be taking them out often.

• The Subway Korea app is useful for getting around Seoul and Incheon. Another useful app is Naver Maps, but it often requires the address in Korean characters. As a last resort, ask the hotel concierge to help you call a taxi. You can pay by cash or credit card when you complete the journey.

• Before you take the pre-departure PCR or professionally administered antigen rapid test (ART) to enter Singapore – or Day 6 or 7 PCR test – check the opening times of the clinic or hospital. They may not open on Sundays or operate for only half a day on Saturdays.

Note that a Korean phone number is required. This can be from a local friend or tour guide. Singapore mobile numbers are currently not accepted. There is a separate cost for collecting the test certificate, which has to be collected in person the next day.

PCR tests in Korea generally cost from $150 to $200. I did my pre-departure test at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, which cost 109,080 won ($125).

The pre-departure PCR test or professionally administered ART in Seoul can be taken at the airport to save time. ART results can be received within an hour, but there is a chance of a false positive. If that happens, the passenger cannot board the flight on the same day because he or she must take a PCR test and get a negative before he or she can depart. Weigh your options carefully.

Where to stay

Paradise City Hotel & Resort, Incheon

This sprawling 330,000 sq m integrated resort with luxurious rooms has something for everyone: from the indoor amusement park Wonderbox for young families to the modern Cimer spa complex complete with LED media art for wellness junkies. Wake up early to savour the generous spread of international and local dishes at breakfast at the On The Plate restaurant.

Info: Paradise City Hotel & Resort, Incheon website

Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul

Located close to several museums and the must-visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, Four Seasons Hotel is a convenient base to start your Seoul adventure in stylish luxury.

Its Maru dining lounge serves elevated Korean classics such as kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) and bingsu with premium Jeju apple mangoes and Shine muscat grapes. At hidden basement bar Charles H, ranked 13th on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, creative cocktails include the Korea Colada, which contains local makgeolli and malt gin.

Info: Four Seasons Hotel, Seoul website

  • Grace Ma is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who enjoys nature walks and locavore dining on her vacations.
  • This trip was hosted by the Korea Tourism Organisation.
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