The Weekend on Ulleungdo

On Friday night, after Bryan rushed home, we all loaded into the car and drove west!  I had the vehicle packed, the kids fed and bathed, and jammies on.  Time for another family adventure.  This time we were headed to Korea’s remotest of islands: Ulleungdo.

It took about 3.5 hours to drive from Songtan to Donghae on the east coast of South Korea.  It was mostly freeway, and we did stop once for some caffeine and toilets.  As an aside, I LOVE Korean rest stops…they are amazing with immaculate bathrooms, kiddo toilets, a cafeteria, shops, gas station, game areas, etc… this country knows how to rest.  stop.  Once we arrived in Donghae (or just north of it) we drove just up the hill from the ferry terminal to seek out a motel for the evening.  I spotted a cluster of wavy-lined ‘sauna’ signs which we drove toward and parked in front of DMotel.  I ran in to check rates, and at ₩40,000 it was perfect for us!  It’s nice to find a motel that has a sauna, because the sauna is usually free to use for motel guests.  Like other ‘love’ motels this certainly had the young-couple-in-love atmosphere; lots of LED lighting, glammed up wallpaper, a fancy HDTV, and a computer. The lady who ran the place was stoked to have us and put a couple Korean style floor mattresses in for the kiddo’s… assuming Bryan and I would use the western style bed.  In the end the kids and I were on the bed with Bryan on the heated ondol floor.  It was warm, too, so we slept with the window open. The port area is nice and quiet at night!

In the morning we woke early, so Zoe suggested going to the sauna.  A Korean sauna is like a public bathhouse – similar to the jjimjilbang I’ve posted about, but with out the unisex jjimjil areas.  She and I scrubbed ourselves in the crowded bathing area and then chilled out in the hot tub for a while.  Later, Bryan reported that the men’s sauna was nearly empty and that Avi had fun playing in a water basin.  By 7:30 we were back up in the room, packed, and ready to go.   I had called the ferry company last week and booked our seats using my awesome Korean language skills, so I wanted to arrive early and make sure we actually had tickets.  Parking at the terminal was super easy and well-signed, so we got there quicker than expected.  Communicating with the desk personnel was tough, but when I finally wrote down my name and phone number they easily found my reservation…. it was for the 9am Sea Flower ferry.  There was an 8:20 big Sunflower 2 ferry leaving sooner, and we got mixed up attempting to board that. I agreed we could change tix if there was room, but it was going to cost another ₩20,000 on top of the ₩165,000 I already paid so I declined and we waited the half hour for the smaller boat.  Both kids got seasick!  Not enough to puke, but yucky!!!  The boat was really nice, too. I paid up for the business class with bigger cushy seats, nice windows, and a higher view.  Even I felt yuck after visiting the bathroom.  Without a window, the rocking and front-back surging made my belly turn.  Avi fussed alot until finally falling asleep, while Zoe just laid down and napped. After about 2 1/2 hours we were waking up and feeling a bit better, and could see the island!  Avi seemed to feel great, ate some snacks from the snack bar, and was back to his crazy antics driving his digger from seat to seat.  Zoe was feeling fine until she went to the bathroom and then needed to rest on Bryan’s lap for the rest of the trip.

When the ferry pulled into the dock I was worried!  This did NOT look like the quaint fishing village of Dodong.  Nope, this was a stone parking lot, a brand new terminal building, and a few tour buses.  ugh.  We got off, and I was able to get the gist from a girl in the terminal that this is the alternate dock and that Dodong is up the road a bit.  Well, crap!  I’m glad I printed out a few rough maps from online, because we really needed the English tourist map from the info booth in Dodong.  The girl at the terminal did print off a Korean bus schedule for me, and said the next bus is soon.  So we hustled!  Zoe finished up buying some shrimp chips from an old lady, we shoved Avi in the stroller and ran up that huge stone parking lot to the main road.  Then we sat, and sat, and sat with our backpacks.  For this trip we have both our backpacking packs with minimal camping gear, a bit of food, and the little umbrella stroller.  Just when we had flagged down a taxi and I was trying to see how much to Dodong, the bus pulled up!  What luck!!!  We hopped on and headed around the island – away from Dodong.  Our destination was not actually that was, but the opposite and we didn’t want to go all the way into town for just a map.  So, for only ₩3000 we all took a beautiful bus ride around to Cheonbu on the other side of the island.  Ulleungdo is a giant volcanic island that still looks like a volcano, but with a forest covering it.  It plunges deep into the East Sea, so the road has been carved out of the edge where the land meets the water.  In some places the cliff is just to cliffy and the road goes up and over instead.  The scenery is incredible with cliffs falling into the sea, rocky inlets, and the huge mountain inland.  Once we reached the tiny fishing village of Cheonbu we had just under an hour to walk around, get some snacks, and get back to the bus stop for our second bus up into the volcano!

Nari-bunji or Nari Basin is at the center of Ulleungdo island.  It is the old caldera – the flat center part left over after the volcano blew it’s top.  It is also very high up!  Our bus drove up some insanely steep and narrow switchbacks before going over a low pass from which we could see the whole gorgeous basin.  The bus driver seemed super excited to have non-Koreans on his bus and even took the time to search for his “American music” tape to pop into the stereo.  It was a fun ride up up up singing along to Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World’ and then feeling like it was a junior high dance with Chicago’s ‘Hard to say I’m sorry’.  From the pass we could see the entire basin.  It’s a circular area roughly a mile in diameter.  In the center are a few small homes and some fields, otherwise the edges up to the steep mountains surrounding the valley are forested.  The sun was shining, the trees were still green, and we could see out the back all the way down to the sea.  This felt remote!  Our bus driver happily dropped us at the campground.  But, the campground was closed.  WHAT!? 

So, in all my research there was only mention of how beautiful Nari campground was, how free it was, how peaceful, and how it’s a ‘must do’ on Ulleungdo.  No mention that it would close after this past August for, well, I don’t know why or how long it will be closed the sign was in Korean.  The only other camping on the island is on the few modol (stone) ‘beaches’ which are not truly beaches but simply a place where medium sized rocks have a more gradual decent into the sea – where it isn’t a cliff.  Lucky for us the parking area at the campground entry had an amazing playground, so Zoe and Avi ran off to play while we figured stuff out. They had such a long day between the hotel, the boat, and the bus that it was extra nice for them to run around.  After speaking to a few folks, and getting an offer for a ride back to Dodong, we decided to just camp anyway.  We got some grub at the local outdoor restaurant and then walked back the dirt road to the campground.  The campground is really two grassy meadows carved out of the forest.  The first meadow had signs and was roped off, but the second wasn’t.  So, we picked a spot farthest from the road tucked back in the trees.  It was so quiet, peaceful, and wonderful.  Zoe and Avi amused themselves by playing ‘lion’.  They would run out into the meadow and fall down in the tall grass so we couldn’t see them.  Then they would stalk us – edging closer and closer.  Zoe led, of course, and was pretty good at keeping hidden. Avi followed and kept crunching grass and falling over, but had a blast.  Bryan and I, sitting on the bench, would have a genteel conversation and then be suddenly surprised by the two stalking beasts!  By this time, the sun was getting low but we ventured along the road past the campground.  The kids found a long adult-sized obstacle course and had fun trying all the obstacles.  Zoe especially enjoyed scaling the tall wall-with-a-rope and Avi loved the balance beams.  We then continued our exploratory hike down the road-cum-path and found ourselves heading down, very down, and eventually coming out to a view of the sea!  Of course, Ulleungdo is still in Korea so we had a great cell signal and found ourselves on google maps (not apple maps, which SUCKS and is really making me frustrated).  If we continued down this road it would end up at the sea.  Well, another day, maybe.

Back at camp we were sleepy.  We snuggled into the tent for some books and bedtime.  The only sounds were the shushsshshsh of the wind in the trees.  The only lights were the moon and stars. I don’t believe we will another camp site quite so peaceful in Korea, maybe even in the states.  I slept great until Avi started coughing.  He has had a runny nose and cough.  Once we forced some medicine into him he dozed again.

In the morning we packed up and walked out to the playground for a bit, then the bus stop.  Took a short detour to see the traditional Korean thatched house until a mob of teenage girls were dropped by bus.  Luckily, our bus arrived, surprisingly on time, with our same happy bus driver to take us down the sketchy switchbacks hill to Cheonbu.  Our timing was better now that I had figured out how to read the bus schedule and we only had 10 minutes to wait for the route 1 – round the island – bus.  We were looking forward to another scenic ride along this route, but were in for a shock with the worst driver ever!  His technique was to driver really fast and then ‘Oh Sh**’ BREAK!’  Seriously, it was like the entire route was a shock to him.  tunnel – “‘Oh Sh**’ BREAK!”,   construction vehicle –  ‘Oh Sh**’ BREAK!”, people waiting at the bus stop that you can see for a half mile – ‘Oh Sh**’ BREAK!’  It was insane!  Zoe and Avi had wanted to sit together, but we couldn’t let them as Avi kept getting launched.  So, I held him in my lap instead.  The bus ride did seem quicker than the day prior, and in an hour we reached Dodong.  Finally!  Dodong.  Where we should have been dropped off.  It’s a great small town tucked into a natural cove.  There are lots of restaurants, a couple convenience stores, a few souvenir shops, and lots of old ladies selling dried squid.  It’s squid time of year, so all the little villages along the shore have had squid hanging on racks to dry. mmmm… squid.  nope.  But, we did enjoy the OTHER Ullengdo delicacy – pumpkin candy.  It comes as taffy or gummy.  Bryan and Zoe liked the taffy.  Avi and I favored the gummy.  

The bus dropped us off in town, so we wandered down the hill to secure an English map from the info booth.  It is a great map!  Most Korean maps are hideous, but this is an awesome one.  We also checked into the terminal – which is back up the hill, across from the bus stop, on the second floor of the parking garage – to verify our ferry time and reservation for tomorrow.  Weekdays there is only one ferry in and one ferry out.  Don’t want to mess that up.  Logistics worked out we decided to do the second ‘must do’ in Ullengdo:  the Seaside walk.  With Avi in the stroller and Zoe on foot we went back down the hill a block to the port and followed the dock around the left side up some spiral stairs and onto the famous seaside walk.  This is a walkway carved out of the cliff between the town of Dodong and the next town Jeodong.  The road has to switch-back up and over the mountain between the two, but pedestrians can walk the 4km along the cliff face.  The scenery was impressive, and got better and better as we walked.  Zoe got super excited about passing sea caves, and even walking through a few of them.  Avi thought it was funny that Bryan had to carry him up and down carved-out stairs on occasion.  The walkway also goes over numerous metal bridges, but the stroller wheels would fall in the metal grid, so Bryan carried him then as well.  Good thing it’s the tiny lightweight stroller.  Bryan go many Korean ladies telling him to stop with the stroller, that it was not possible, and he should go back.  But the men, on the other hand, mostly gave him an approving you-are-a-manly-man-and-a-daddy thumbs up. The water was very crystal clear and in the sun was a beautiful turquoise blue color.  After about 1km there was, of course, a small restaurant, and after another km there was another.  At this point the trail splits – you can hike up and out to the lighthouse on the point on top of the cliff, or you can hike up through the ridge saddle and continue along the seaside to Jeodong.  We skipped the lighthouse.  Backpacks, stroller, nope.

There was a great little picnic area, too.  So we stopped for a long lunch.  Fired up the stove to cook some ramen and my thrive food.  The kids ran around.  Zoe and I hung out our socks and shoes to dry.  They had gotten soaked in the surf at one point when we were checking out a tide pool and the ferry rode by.  I enjoyed sitting in the sun.  The weather has been beautiful and sunny.  70 degrees feels chilly, though, in the shade with a strong sea breeze.  From there Bryan packed up the stroller, lashed it to his backpack and let Avi ride in style on his shoulders. Up to the saddle of the ridge wasn’t very far, but it was steep and ran through a cool canyon made of a bamboo forest. As Bryan got to the top his jaw dropped and he simply said, “oh wow”.  YES.  Oh WOW.  We were at the top of the cliff with a long spiral stairway down and an amazing view of the next 2 km along the coast.  Cliffs covered in green forest and dripping with vegetation falling straight down into an azure blue sea.  The sight rivaled the view of the Napali coast in Kaui!  Of course, it isn’t warm and tropical water, or fruit laden tropical jungle.  But, it’s instead a mixed wood temperate forest and cold East sea.  It’s one of those views that just looks fake.  The sun shining made it even more beautiful.  We eased our way down that spiral stair.  It made Zoe nervous, so she held my hand and Bryan carried Avi.  At the bottom we continued our walk along the bottom of the cliff.  From here there were numerous sea-cave inlets in the cliff, so a rainbow selection of bridges was built to walk over.  Zoe LOVED that they were in reverse rainbow-color order, and had fun predicting the next color.  All along the hike people have been amazed at her and how she walked the whole thing on her own.  It’s not a difficult walk, but a bit precarious.  Many Koreans have been giving the kiddo’s pumpkin candy, so that is motivating!

At the end of the seaside walkway you go through a little tunnel and pop out again at another smaller port.  The town of Jeodong.  It’s cute and for a little bit we considered staying here the night. We had thought of catching the bus from here just up the road for an attempt at camping on the rocky beach, but decided that would suck.  We wandered Jeodong for a bit, got some snacks.  Zoe finally tried a huge Korean pear and it wasn’t good.  We took the bus back to Dodong and asked at a few motels about prices.  The going rate seemed to be ₩60,000 for motel, or ₩50,000 for a minbak – a room in someones house.  Since the hotels did not have sauna’s (at least the few we checked), and the kids were getting tired, we opted for a nice minbak.  It was on the second floor of the hostesses house and had a shared kitchen with another room-renter, but a private bath.  perfect. aaaaaahhhh, rest time.  We relaxed, watched some TV, and then got restless.

As evening approached we wandered up the town hill to the Mineral spring park, visiting the local temple, checking out the local historical museum, and climbing the steps to try the healing mineral spring.  Zoe was pooped after a day of walking, so it was her turn to be pushed UP in the stroller.  Avi ran up the hill!  He ran around the museum.  He run up to the spring, grabbed a water dipper, and tasted some.  “hmmm…. “‘ was his response.  Zoe gave a resounding, “yuck”.  And Bryan had a surprised, “wow, it tastes like Gerolsteiner” and he filled his bottle.  I concur with Zoe. We explored down by the port as the sun set and walked along a mini seaside walk that goes out to a restaurant/bar on the water.  The Korean guys who were finishing off another bottle of soju invited us to join them.  They loved the kids, and gave each a ₩1000 and got pictures. For dinner we found a fried chicken place. Avi found a new food he likes:  tiny salty crunchy fish.  They are served with peanuts as a snacky-munchy while-you-wait food.  Unfortunately, he chocked on one.  Bad.  He was hacking so I didn’t Heimlich, but I was ready.  He coughed and hacked, his eyes watered, and eventually his body vomited.  He was so scared.  So were Bryan and I.  I swooped in his mouth, and he had gotten it up, but still coughed a lot.  I think it scratched his throat.  Couldn’t get him to drink water, but he tried a gummy candy and vomited it up too.  Too soon.  He just sat and cried on me for a while, poor guy.  Then, as if nothing happened, grabbed his water and bounced back.  whew!  we looked in with a flashlight and didn’t see anything, and didn’t see bleeding or anything.  Still….no more crunchy fish for him.  Avi needs to chew better. 

Back at the hotel we watched a bit of TV and snuggled on the floor to bed.  A minbak is usually an ondol room – which means roll out mattresses on the heated floor for everyone.  It was cozy.  In the morning we just stayed for a while in the room, went for a little morning walk about to the local school playground, popped down to the port to see the goings on and feed the birds, and then retrieved our stuff from the minbak.  We stopped into the ferry terminal around 11:30 to get our tickets and then went to the waterfront to hang out until it boarded in an hour.  It was also a super great spot to heat up some ramen lunch and watch the boat arrive!!  This time we were on the bigger Sunflower 2.  It was also nice, and had a dunkin donuts.  It swayed quite a bit, but side-to-side instead of front to back.  So, we didn’t get sick. Mostly we all just conked out for a nap and woke up to see mainland Korea on the horizon.  It was an easy return trip with two sleepy kids.  The drive home found us on a lucky traffic-free interstate watching the sun set.  We even had the chance to take a short detour to our climbing spot and found Zoe’s climbing shoes which we accidentally left a few weeks ago!!!  Back home and straight to bed.

Ullengdo is worth the trip!

Our hotel in Donghae

in the love motel!

at the Donghae passenger terminal … which is really in Mukho.


That’s the Sea Flower

Business class was nice, and not very crowded.

Avi showing you the island!

On the public bus

view from THE road around the island

this is the main road.

in the port village of Cheonbu – squid season

Nari basin

kiddos playing on the obstacle course

Avi refused to keep moving down the trail

Lions are stalking us

our campsite in Nari

good morning Nari basin!

Nari basin

Kat and Zoe walking to the bus stop

we love Ulleungdo

the traditional Korean house

bye bye Nari

Dodong port

The seaside walkway

they were impressed with Bryan!

stopping to check out a tide pool

typical view along the walkway

its pretty windy!

up through the bamboo to the ridgeline


the second half of the seaside walkway

Bryan going down the spiral stairs

seaside walkway

Downtown Jeodong village

our minbak.

the town of Dodong

historical museum

mineral water.  it came from a turtle mouth =)

at the temple

yippee for pumpkin and squid mascots!

these girls loved the kids, and the ladies were ones we past while on the walkway.  They were so excited to see us again, and gave the kids so much candy.

buying some pumpkin candy.

the squid market

having a rest at Dodong port

Dodong port from the mini walkway

last day in Ulleungdo we got up early and found the local school for some playtime.

watching the boats go by.

Bryan cooking lunch.


our return ferry was the bigger Sunflower 2

sleepy people

3 thoughts on “The Weekend on Ulleungdo

  1. phenomenal trip! Do you use a certain guidebook to find exotic Korean locations like this? Any tips for improving my Korean? We may be headed back to Korea next year- we're waiting for our assignment to drop. If so, I'd love to try some of the adventures that you've blogged about.


  2. Wonderful! We’re planning a family trip to Korea in the fall, and I’m trying to decide if we can squeeze in Ulleungdo without completely overloading our schedule. Decisions, decisions.


    1. Korea will be such a wonderful trip for tour family! Ulluengdo is beautiful, and a place few Koreans get to go too!

      I also fell in love with Gwanmaedo – not to confuse your trip planning :). If you have a rental car then heading south is such an authentic Korea and the ferry is easy. Don’t bring the car on the ferry like I did, though. Walk.

      Happy planning! -Kat


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