With island groups dotted all around Korea’s southern and western coasts, you may feel it prudent to forgo the three-hour ferry-ride to a small turret of land between Korea and Japan, and head instead to a closer isle. However, this would be a mistake – ULLEUNGDO (울릉도), covered in a rich, green cloak of trees and fringed with juniper, is refreshingly unspoilt and simply stunning. Its volcanic origin and the flora splashed around on its nutritious soils mark it out as a mini Jeju, but while increasingly popular with Korean travellers, Ulleungdo’s isolation has kept it largely free from the ravages of mass tourism. Its armies of middle-aged Korean tourists are here mainly due to its proximity to Dokdo, an even smaller speck of land claimed by both Korea and Japan, and a focus of nationalistic demonstrations. With no Family Marts or five-star hotels, and just one bumpy main road tracing a vague parallel to the coast, the only time that the island’s pulse seems to quicken is in the half-hour window surrounding ferry arrivals, when ajummas race around trying to draw tourists back to their minbak accommodation.
Few islands in Korea can provide as spectacular an arrival as Ulleungdo’s main settlement, Dodong-ni, whose port makes a sudden appearance in a sumptuous pirate-like cove hidden and encircled by precipitous mountains, and squeezed in on both sides by the valley walls. Ulleungdo’s second main settlement, Jeodong-ni, lies just up the coast, slightly smaller, but relatively open and rather different in character. These two villages, both an untidy but undeniably appealing mishmash of minbak and fish restaurants, give guests a taste of what the rest of the island is like. Naribunji is a farming area of tremendous beauty to the north of the island, whose flatness will come as a great surprise to those who’ve travelled the bumpy coastal road to get there. On the way, picturesque fishing settlements dot the coast, while there’s some good hiking to be enjoyed around the rugged, volcanic peaks that rise up in the centre of the island, almost totally untouched by modern life.