Site of the Winter Olympics
Things were considerably more upbeat at the site of the 2018 Winter Olympiad in the ski-resort town of
Pyeongchang (Pyeong means "peace" and Chang means "prosperity"), located almost 112 miles east of Seoul in the Taebaek Mountains.
South Korea's Games will be the first of three straight Olympiads to be held in Asia, joining the Tokyo Summer Games in 2020 and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022. Korea hopes to surpass the success it enjoyed with the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and the men's 2002 World Cup soccer championship, which were co-hosted with Japan.
After two failed bids to bring the 2018 Olympic Games to this former agricultural province, the third time in 2011 was the charm, and South Korea beat out Germany and France in a landslide.
Nearly 90% of the construction work is already completed in and around Pyeongchang, and a new high-speed KTX rail line that will reduce travel time to Seoul from three hours to one.
The nearly two-square-mile Alpensia Resort, dubbed the Alps in Asia, will be the site of the opening ceremony and the nerve center of the games. Opened in 2010, it is home to the five-star InterContinental and four-star Holiday Inn.
Organizers are hoping the games will encourage tourism, burnish the country's image, foster economic development and nurture talent for Korea to become a leading winter-sports destination.
"If the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games were a coming-out party for Korea," Cho told me, "then I hope the Pyeongchang Games, to be hosted 30 years later, will serve as an opportunity to promote Korea as a culturally advanced country."
While the skiing and ski jump competitions will take place in and around Pyeongchang, all the ice sports competitions will be held nearly 40 miles east in the coastal city of Gangneung.
In preparation for the Winter Olympics and intended to be transformative of the region, Pritzker Prize-winning American architect Richard Meier created his first project in South Korea, the 15-story, 150-room Seamarq Hotel, overlooking the East Sea. It may well be the most architecturally significant of all the new construction happening in the Olympic zone.
Curious to find a glimpse of the old Korea that can still be found in the mountainous countryside, I drove south to the province of Andong and the small but well-known historical village of Hahoe. More than 200 residents still live in this cluster of centuries-old wooden homes built during the Joseon Dynasty.
Dirt roads meander past small garden plots and a school playground, while rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see. The village had its moments of fame when the U.K.'s Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1999, followed by U.S. president George Bush in 2005.
We arrived at night at a small, modest inn reminiscent of the old-style ryokans of Japan, with thin but comfortable bedding on the floor, kept toasty by an underfloor heating system still used today.
We woke up to the fresh morning air. When the mist lifted, it revealed a pine forest across the road and a view of the river that wraps around Hahoe on three sides.
Gyeongju lived up to its reputation as a "museum without walls," but a tight schedule limited us to just two highlights of this once flourishing capital of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to 935).
Bulguksa Temple is commonly considered Korea's most famous (and most visited) and the crowning glory of sophisticated Silla architecture. We joined busloads of Korean visitors and school groups to wander amid a timeless scenario of garden-lined ponds, stone pagodas and national-treasure bridges.
The impressive sitting Buddha at the heart of the Seokguram Grotto has long been regarded as a protector of the country. Surrounded by deities and guardians and protected by a vaulted dome, it is a showcase of workmanship and engineering as outstanding today as it was at its creation in the eighth century.
With a flight to the subtropical island of Jeju departing the following day, we continued on to Busan, South Korea's second-largest city, for some whirlwind sightseeing (though it was also chosen for its proximity to its airport).
From my hotel room's floor-to-ceiling windows at the Park Hyatt Busan, I could take in the Marine City neighborhood-in-progress, high-rise-backed sandy beaches and the suspension Diamond (Gwangan) Bridge, a city icon since its completion in 2003. The Park Hyatt has a prominent presence in Seoul, but this 33-story sister property designed by Pritzker-prize winner Daniel Libeskind has been a stunning addition to this coastal city since its opening in 2013.
Busan is known for its port, growing in popularity as a cruise line port of call and for its bounty of seafood, which is on display in its busy Jagalchi Fish Market, the largest in the country. An early morning visit is reminiscent of Tokyo's Tsukiji.
I passed on the Guinness Book of Records-accredited world's largest department store, with more than 680 stores and an ice-skating rink, in exchange for a somber visit to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan. The burial ground of U.N. soldiers of the Korean War from the 16 countries that sent combat troops, the U.S. presence looms large, although just 36 Americans are buried here. The rest were returned to the U.S. for interment.
South Koreans talk about the island of Jeju, the country's largest, as if it were the promised land. And it promises a lot as the preferred domestic holiday destination, popular with the Chinese and Japanese as well as honeymooners, nature lovers, families, beach buffs and frazzled seekers of R & R.
Volcanic -- it boasts the world's longest lava tube and the dormant volcano Hallasan, the country's highest peak -- Jeju is also semitropical and commonly dubbed the Korean Hawaii, and it offers plenty of natural wonders to keep outdoor enthusiasts busy.
Walkers following the Olle Trails have 26 routes to choose from. The routes link up to circle the entire island, but they differ in length and difficulty.
Coastal treks can bring you to Sunrise Peak and a cove where Jeju's famous haenyeo, or female divers, show up most days to sell the day's catch of sea urchins, conch or baby octopus. Now a dying breed, often in their 60s and 70s, they dive without equipment and are able to hold their breath for up to two minutes.
From this idyllic escapist island, it was just an hour's flight to Seoul and my connecting Asiana flight back to New York. As for the 13.5-hour flight back to the U.S., it was spent enjoying a repeat loop of meal-nap-film, with lots of catch-up reading while in the lap of business class. Travel to the Far East has never been so comfortable.