Looking west from Mokpo’s Yudalsan peaks, you’ll find a sea filled to the horizon with an assortment of islands – there are up to three thousand off Jeolla, and though many of these are merely bumps of rock that yo-yo in and out of the surf with the tide, hundreds are large enough to support fishing communities. The quantity is so vast, indeed, that it’s easier to trailblaze here than in some less-developed Asian countries – many of the islands’ inhabitants have never seen a foreigner, and it’s hard to find a more quintessentially Korean experience.
Much of the area is under the umbrella of Dadohae Haesang National Park, which stretches offshore from Mokpo to Yeosu. The two most popular islands in the park are Hongdo, which rises steeply from the West Sea, and neighbouring Heuksando, a miniature archipelago of more than a hundred islets of rock. Further down the coast are Jindo, which owes its popularity to the local tide’s annual parting of the sea, and Wando, connected to the mainland by road, but surrounded by an island constellation of its own.
Dangling off Korea’s southwestern tip is a motley bunch of more than a hundred islands. The hub of this group and the most popular is WANDO (완도), owing to its connections to the mainland by bus and Jeju Island by sea. Wando also has plenty of diversions in its own right – a journey away from Wando-eup (완도읍), the main town, will give you a glimpse of Jeolla’s pleasing rural underbelly. Regular buses run from here to Gugyedeung (구계등), a small, rocky beach in the coastal village of Jeongdo-ri, and to Cheonghaejin (청해진), a stone park looking over a tiny islet which, despite its unassuming pastoral mix of farms and mud walls, was once important enough to send trade ships to China.
Islands around Wando
Islands around Wando
Heading further afield, you’ll be spoilt for choice, with even the tiniest inhabited islands served by ferry from Wando-eup. Maps of the islands are available from the ferry terminal, where almost all services depart, with a few leaving from Je-il Mudu pier, a short walk to the north.
At the time of writing, Cheongsando (청산도) was the island most visited by local tourists, mainly due to the fact that it was the scene of Spring Waltz, a popular drama series. Naturally spring is the busiest time of year here – and quite beautiful, with the island’s fields bursting with flowers. More beautiful is pine-clad Bogildo (보길도), a well-kept secret accessible via a ferry terminal on the west of Wando island – free hourly shuttle-buses make the pretty twenty-minute journey from the bus terminal in Wando-eup. In the centre of tadpole-shaped Bogildo is a lake whose craggy tail, stretching east, has a couple of popular beaches.
As the coast curls northwest towards Mokpo, the bewildering array of islands shows no sign of letting up. Jindo (진도), one of the most popular, is connected to the Korean mainland by road, but every year in early March the tides retreat to create a 3km-long land-bridge to a speck of land off the island’s eastern shore, a phenomenon that Koreans often compare to Moses’ parting of the Red Sea – this concept holds considerable appeal in an increasingly Christian country, and “Moses’ Miracle” persuades Koreans to don wellies and dash across in their tens of thousands. For the best dates to see this ask at any tourist board in the area, or call the national information line on t 1330. Visible throughout the year is the secluded temple of Ssanggyesa (쌍계사), which is best accessed by hourly bus (W1000) or taxi (W7000 from the bus terminal); if you’re choosing the latter option, arrange a pick-up time with your driver, or at least hang onto his business card.
Jindu is also famed for the Jindo-gae, a white breed of dog with a distinctive curved tail; unique to the island, this species has been officially classified as National Natural Treasure #53. The mutts can be seen in their pens at a research centre – fifteen minutes’ walk from the bus terminal – which occasionally hosts short and unappealing dog shows, as well as a canine beauty pageant each autumn.