Although South Korea has industrialized remarkably over the past several decades, there are still unspoiled corners where nature remains in charge. One such place is Seonyudo island (선유도), which is located off the coast of North Jeolla Province.
Not to be confused with another island of the same name in Seoul, this Seonyudo is actually part of a large group that dot Korea’s western coastline.
In centuries past, they hosted a Korean naval base commissioned by the king to defend the mainland against Japanese invaders. Even Korea’s greatest naval hero, Yi Sun-shin (이순신), is said to have rested here with his soldiers for 12 days in 1597.
But today, Seonyudo, which means, “an island so beautiful that god admires it”, feels far from thoughts of war. Small lighthouses sit atop islands no larger than a pile of rocks.
And locals are concentrated among small hamlets filled with modest homes sporting bright orange and turquoise roofs. These residents are primarily invested in the fisheries industry, and reap the sea’s bounty for their livelihoods.
A growing tourism industry, however, has also developed. Especially during the summer months, flocks of Koreans take the 1.5-hour ferry from Gunsan (군산). Once on Seonyudo island, for about 10,000 won, or $7.37, you can rent a bicycle for the day.
Seonyudo island is famed for its long, half-moon shaped sandbar. The sand is soft and plentiful, and both sides offer stunning views of the surrounding coastline.
Add some palm trees and I’d think I was in Polynesia. It’s not hard to imagine scores of sunbathers on a summer weekend.
Thanks to bridges, Seonyudo island is attached to three other islands that you can explore. Nearby Munyudo island (무녀도) was once called Seodui, which means, “if you work hard and hurry you can survive.” Yikes.
But the island is also famous for its hundreds of goldenrain trees (모감주나무 군락지). The yellow blossoms of these trees yield large nuts and black seeds used for Buddhist rosaries and soap.
The islands are a famed spot for sunsets, due to their position in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). Nearby Jangado island (장자도) is an especially great vantage point, thanks to the well-kept trails leading to hilltop benches and viewing pavilions.
But the early morning views are also beautiful. Looking out at the surrounding islands and peaks on the horizon, the few centimeters above the sea are covered in a hazy mist, looking much like an ancient woodblock painting.
Although there are some peaks and valleys, most of the bike trails are fairly flat, and they are kept in great condition. Also a boon for bicyclers is that there are only a handful of cars on the island.
But I suggest abandoning your bike for a few minutes to explore some of the coastline on foot. If you do, you may happen upon colonies of tiny oysters, most no bigger than a button, but fresh and delicious!
But if you prefer to have your lunch prepared for you, the area off the ferry dock has a number of seafood restaurants. For a pricey 20,000 won (spring price), a live octopus is removed from an outdoor tank and sliced in front of your eyes.
It’s put on a plate with a few sesame seeds for garnish alongside hot pepper and horseradish paste and slices of garlic. Sure, the legs kept writhing on the plate and in our mouths for the next 15 minutes, but at least we knew it was fresh!
The ferry schedule is based on the tides and season. Currently they run twice a day. But if you miss the last boat back to the mainland, don’t worry too much.
There are inexpensive minbaks, or guesthouses, and Seonyudo island is an incredibly peaceful place to spend the night.
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About Matt Kelley
Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.