Hello again, dear readers! I’m back with some tips and tricks to liven up your (probably already pretty lively) Korea life. This time, I’d like to tackle something we’re surely all dealing with to some extent this month — THE COLD.
Y’all. I opened with “y’all” to remind you my butt is from the Southern United States, but, Y’ALL — it is cold in these damn streets! I’ve been here since August 2016, and if you recall last winter, it was not as cold as all this mess we’re dealing with. I mean, in January, I went on a ski trip, and it was way warmer than this very day. I’m looking at a 10-day forecast right now that includes a day of 17F/-9C for the high. The high!! What is life right now, people, and when did Korea fall into the Arctic circle?!
If you’re anything like me, you can handle the cold somewhat (I did spend some growing up years just south of Canada), but it doesn’t mean you love being all up in it. Buuut staying in and hibernating all winter doesn’t seem appealing or realistic either — what’s a social butterfly to do?
Here’s my mini-list of things that are fun enough to drag your butt out of the floor-heated haven you call home and out into the world. The activities range from totally indoors and heated to braving the chill but in a way that’s totally worth it and more than simply café-hopping (though there’s not a damn thing wrong with that). Let’s doooo this …
1. Take a Trip to Hwacheon’s Ice Fishing Festival!
Easily one of the most unexpectedly fun things I did this past year was attend the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival in Gangwon-do, aka Korea’s Ski Central. Let me tell you, I was surprised to have liked it so much — it was January and most of the festival’s activities took place on an iced-over river … and I hate being cold. What was I thinking?
But I’m so glad I ventured out to this event — it was amazing. The main attraction is ice fishing for sancheoneo (mountain trout) on a river; there’s a stretch of river just for Korean natives, and one for foreigners, which was blessedly way less crowded. When it’s your turn to fish, you’re given some simple fishing poles and led to a hole, and a kindly fellow swings by and show you how to flick your wrist juuuust so, so that a fish finds its way to your hook. I caught three!!
Once you’re done fishing, you turn in your catch at a tent and in return claim one grilled trout; you can also purchase fried fish fillets and sashimi-style fish, all of it fresh and delicious.
Besides fishing, you can tube down a snowy hill, sled on the ice, rent and ride an ice bike, zipline over the width of the river and even ice fish with your bare hands! There’s also an area for taking a dip into the river, which I watched adults and kids alike take part in — what a trip!
Several travel groups host trips to the fest that also include a short trek to an ice sculpture exhibit and marveling at fish-shaped lanterns in the street. Some tours, such as Wink’s and Goh Travel’s, also include a dinner in the trip fee, for around 40,000 won. Wanna go it alone? There’s also a shuttle that’ll whisk you to the festival on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between Jan. 6-28 for 20,000 won; reserve at gangwon.dongbotravel.com. However you get there, I highly advise you to stuff your pockets and gloves with hot packs, wear waterproof ski gloves, ski socks and thick-soled shoes … with hot packs in them. In other words, stay warm!
2. Visit a Fun Ski Resort and Ski … or Not
This is another counterintuitive-sounding suggestion based on a trip I took — trust me, though, it was hella fun, too. In January, weeks after the Hwacheon fish fest, I went on a four-day excursion to Yongpyong Ski Resort. I’d never been to a ski resort, even back home, so this was all new to me, and YP resort sounded like a doozy, so if you get the chance to join a trip there, take it!
My trip included discounted ski equipment; I also rented a ski jacket and pants. Some friends gave me basic ski lessons, and off I went. Only problem was, I couldn’t stop going — braking just wasn’t my strong suit, so I spent my ski session inadvertently speeding up and falling over on my butt to keep from gaining more speed or running over a child. Gah!
I didn’t take to skiing, however, but I will say the bunny slope at YP was great. If snow sports aren’t your thing, though, YP is still loads of fun. You can take the cable car to the resort’s peak, where you can either ski down or enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding mountains or enjoy warm drinks at a hilltop cafe.
YP has a handful of cafés on the ground, too, perfect for sipping cocoa and cozying up to a book. The main entertainment hall of the resort also features restaurants, a bowling alley (!!!) and singing rooms.
But, for me, the highlight of this trip is Yongpyong’s on-site water park, Peak Island (above). There, you can swim to your heart’s delight in heated pools, enjoy an adjacent three-story waterslide (over and over again — no one else seemed interested in it when I was there, so no lines!) and soak in the piece de resistance — a series of outdoor hot tubs. Grab a beer before you venture out into freezing weather in your swimsuit and swim cap then slip into one of a handful of aromatherapy pools that’ll make you forget the weather outside is frightful. I lost track of time so completely on my visit that I opted to miss my tour’s group dinner to continue simmering in the herbal hot pool — ahhhh. “Ahhhh” times infinity once it started lightly snowing: the serenity of the snow on my shoulders whilst the rest of me was in bubbly-hot water was unforgettable. Afterward, I headed to the jjimjilbang (sauna) area of the water park and snoozed so wonderfully.
So, yeah. If you can snag a seat on a trip to Yongpyong, do it while you can! YP is an official venue in the Winter Olympics in February and likely will be off-limits to group tours then. I’m going on Seoul Hiking and Nature Group’s upcoming Christmas trip, that’ll visit YP and Phoenix Park, another popular resort, so I’ll be interested to see how the latter compares!
3. Hit Up My Absolute Favorite: The Fancy Spa!
OK, so you really don’t want to be outdoors at all, BUT you do want to get out of your tiny studio? It’s worth stepping outside for just a spell to visit Aquafield, the upscale jjimjilbang I’ve gushed about here on the blog. Read that effusive post, and you’ll quickly see why it’s the perfect refuge on a brutal winter day.
4. Visit a Big Mall and Stay a While
Since I’ve become a regular at Aquafield, I’ve become a regular at Starfield, the mall in which the fancy spa is located. It’s the kind of beautiful, sprawling and activity-heavy mall worthy of a full day’s investment! I’ve yet to spend a whole day there, but on my next visit to Starfield Goyang, I plan to catch a movie at the theater, bowl at the bowling alley, take on rock climbing, trampolines and obstacle courses at Sports Monster, and — in between all of that — eat! There’re enough varieties of cuisine at this mall to do a moveable feast, from Thai food and Shake Shack burgers to gelato and cake! All without stepping foot outside at all. One nice perk of Starfield Goyang (maybe at Starfield Hanam City and Starfield COEX, too?) is the free lockers into which you can stuff your huge winter coat and anything else you don’t want to lug through the mall.
Starfield’s my fave, but another fantastic mall with great stores, activities and restaurants galore is Times Square, near Yeongdongpo Station. Happy mall hibernating!
5. Hole Up In a Warm Escape Room
I spent a wonderful (and terribly cold) recent evening trying to work my way out of an escape room in Hongdae. For the uninitiated, an escape room is essentially a puzzle/mystery that you must solve in order to find your key out of the room. Each room has a theme; my most recent was a haunted-house theme in which we had to gather clues to get to the bottom of the haunting and free ourselves and the ghost.
Depending on the size of the room, up to five or six guests can fit in one and work together to solve the mystery. It’s a ton of fun, and a great way to burn an hour or so. I’ve visited No Escape in Hongdae both times I’ve done an escape room (online reservations are a breeze, and the staff speaks English), but a simple Google search will turn up many more options. Heck, if you take a stroll around Hongik University, you’ll run into plenty of escape room businesses. Go in and try to bust out!
I hope these ideas will get you out and about this winter and keep you from a sad hibernation (though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with happy-hibernating every once in a while!).