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A journalist's choice

Pyeongchang & Gangneung

Introduction

Pyeongchang, South Korea, is soon going to be on more and more travelers' lists of must-go destinations.

Nestled in the mountains two and half hours east of the Korea's capital Seoul, Pyeongchang is a tidy and pristine, alpine-like region that today proudly sports a growing number of roadside welcome signs and billboards that read: "Home of the 2018 Winter Olympics."

But Pyeongchang is far more than a venue for the upcoming Winter Games. Historically renowned for some the country's great poets, politicians and thinkers, Pyeongchang draws visitors not only to its ski lopes, but also in the summer months to its tucked-away Buddhists temples, its challenging golf courses, and to its internationally acclaimed Great Mountains Music Festival in the ultra-modern resort village of Alpensia.

"Happy 700" might seem like an obscure slogan to promote a rural resort, yet it is all important for the pleasure of visitors to Alpensia. It refers to the average 700-meter altitude of the region, a geographic virtue that insures great snow in winter and delectable temperatures at the height of summer. It is also sky-high enough that Pyeongchang is inhospitable to the mosquitoes, which can afflict other parts of Korea in summer.

Great Mountains Music Festival and School

Now in its 11th year, the Great Mountains Music Festival continues its tradition of attracting some of the world's foremost performers in classical music for a two-week-long series of intimate concerts and soirees at the Alpensia Resort Concert Hall.

Internationally acclaimed cellist Myung-Wha Chung along with her equally renowned sister, the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, lead a festival that is one of Korea's summer cultural highlights. In addition, the festival is a training ground for the brightest new lights on Korea's prodigious classical music scene. New and astounding talent is presented alongside the series of professionals performances.

Scheduled this year between July 24 and August 3, the festival's program, titled O Sole Mio, will celebrate the greatest works of southern Europe from Italy to Spain.

Accommodations

From its lavish hotels to a growing number of cozy bed and breakfast inns, Pyeongchang can meet the accommodation desires of any visitor.

Alpensia is a self-contained resort where travelers can chose between luxury suites at the InterContinental Hotel or comfortable rooms at a more moderately priced Holiday Inn. The ski slopes are right outside the hotels, and there are shops and restaurants galore. Other up-market accommodations can be found at the nearby Dragon Valley Hotel, which has access to 28 ski slopes and has been a magnet for visitors since 1975.

Today in many of the mountain hamlets around Pyeongchang, more budget-minded travelers will find private pensions, simple but comfortable dwellings that have cropped up in recent years. One example, in the village of Cha-hangri, a seven-minute drive from Alpensia, is a delightful collection of well-designed cabins and motel-like rooms, run by Choi Seung-rae, a local furniture maker, and his wife Kim Jeong-sook.

Even in this remote area of Korea, the couple is determined to embrace and welcome the world in their tiny village. In the main lodge, they serve American breakfasts and gourmet coffee, proud of the freshly ground brew and hand-drip process, all poured into delicate antique cups Kim collected from her international travels. Downstairs is a dance studio where Kim offers lessons to villagers and guests alike. Once acquainted with Korean hospitality, visitors return again and again to the pension.

Also not far from the central resort are the larger community of Hoenggye and the bustling beachside town of Gangneung, 40 minutes away. Both have an array of accommodations to suit anyone's desire.

Dining

Getting away from hotel fare is easy in Pyeongchang. Take the noted family-run restaurant Gohyang Iyagi in the middle of Hoenggye (033-335-5430). The name roughly means "Hometown Story." There will be someone around who will manage to help out in English. But have no fear; the offerings of vegetables, both fresh and deliciously preserved that accompany the roasted and tangy yellow pollock dishes will open new vistas for anyone’s taste.

One of Hoenggye's main industries is the production of dried pollock, The countryside is littered with ten of thousands of the fish drying in the open air on vast array of picturesque wooden racks.

When sitting down to a meal anywhere, make sure to order a bottle of makgeolli, the mildly alcoholic and effervescent rice drink.

Coffee

For another treat, head down to the coast to Gangneung, the largest provincial city in the region. With its sparkling beaches and newly adopted café culture, Gangneung can lay claim to being the Coffee Capital of Korea. The city actually risks becoming over-caffeinated as more and more coffee bars replace storefronts that were once charming dives where holiday makers would roast shellfish over open charcoal fires for lunch and dinner.

Set on the three floors overlooking the sea, Santorini is one of the best-known cafes. If you can name it in the world of coffee, you can have it at Santorini, from far off Rwanda to jungle slopes of Guatemala, the offerings are almost encyclopedic. In fact, the baristas seem altogether academic in their detailed approach to pouring a fresh cup. Wine connoisseurs could learn a thing or two from how the coffee drinkers talk about the accents and flavors as they affectionately nurse their cup of coffee. The lattes are a sight to behold as the baristas "draw" elaborate designs with the foam and coffee.

Kim Jae-wan, Santorini's CEO, says this all came about when three coffee pioneers came to town a few years back and began to compete to serve the best brews. The number of cafes exploded as more people plunged into the business - what's not to like when customers are paying $10 dollars for a cup of coffee. The new entrants upped the ante by buying and showing the latest in coffee bean roasting technology

Much the same thing goes on at Tera Rosa, a barn-like coffee house established in a potato field 15 minutes outside Gangneung. Munching on fine bake goods as an accompaniment for their brews, the coffee devotees at Tera Rosa are a surprisingly young and well-heeled crowd. Each porcelain cup itself is unique. The menu includes coffee tasting of three little cups of different pure grinds for $12.

Gangneung at its Best

But save the best for last near Gangneung, and it has nothing to do with coffee.

Gangneung's Jumunjin suburb is dominated by a sprawling, down-home fish market where magical culinary treats await. Fresh fish doesn't begin to describe the experience. Food stalls on the wharf, unadorned except for rickety tables and blue and red plastic stools, are the place for purists to eat. Start with any fish imaginable, squid, crustaceans, and sea cucumbers - all alive. Your chef will be a middle-aged market woman who plops your writhing ion straight onto a grill. A bottle of soju, a clear, colorless and mild-tasting grain distillation will add a 20-percent-by-volume punch to this heady repast.

While the fish is cooking, take time to wander through the market. The variety of fish and sea life, which Koreans claim is edible, is mindboggling.

Also Not to Be Missed

Gyeongpo Beach

Near Gangneung, behind a stunning forest of 200-year-old knotty pines, is one of the finest stretches of white sand beach in Korea.

A walk in the woods

Hikers or wanderers will delight at the forested mountain trails, crags and waterfalls of the Daegwallyeong nature park. A nearby museum contains relics from Korea's ancient cultures.
(www.huyang.go.kr/eng/about.jsp)

For philosophy majors

The famed 16th century politician and Confucian thinker Yulgok was born in Gangneug. What remains is a remarkably preserved family home - the Ojukheon - one Korea's oldest building and a national treasure. There is a museum on the premises with art works and calligraphy attributed to Yulgok and his mother Shin Saimdang. Korea honored both by placing their images on the national currency.

Edison tour de force

The Chamsori Gramophone Museum is a one-of-a-kind experience. More a personal collection than an actual museum, Chamsori has showcase after showcase of every bit of technology attributed to American inventor Thomas Edison. The displays of the first electric cars to dozens of the first telephones, radios, cameras and phonographs are overwhelming. (www.edison.kr)

Tee to Green

A highlight of Gangwan Province’s development plan to attract visitors is golf and the exceptional courses that have been built in the rolling hills close to the Alpensia Resort. Some courses, such as Birch Hill, are high-end, private clubs but guests are welcome. The nearby 700 Golf Club is a public course.

Another Good Bet

Alpensia has a small casino for foreign visitors only. Roulette, baccarat, black jack and slots are on offered adjacent to the resort's Holiday Inn complex.

written by Charles D. Sherman