Fact: If you tried to travel one island a day in South Korea, it would take you more than nine years to get to them all (there are 3,358 officially affirmed islands off the South Korean coast).
While most travelers in the region have most likely heard of Jeju, South Korea’s most famous island and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the seas surrounding the Korean Peninsula are peppered with lesser-known destinations with spectacular views and awesome fishing.
For more information and directions to the islands, try searching for each island on the Visit Korea website, or calling Dasan Call Center (02-120) once you’re in the country.
1. Seonjaedo (선재도)
Many are familiar with Moses dividing the Red Sea, but this biblical story has its own, more scientifically plausible version on Seonjaedo.
At low tide, the ocean parts to reveal a sandy path from Seonjaedo to the smaller satellite island of Mok. Who knew the city of Incheon, best known for its airport, had such a patch of natural beauty?
2. Sinuido (신의도>or 상하태도)
Sinuido, which was featured in a 2008 episode of the KBS2 channel’s travel program, “1 night 2 days” (1박 2일), is the largest producer of sea salt in South Korea.
One visits this island not for the fishing, hiking or swimming — but rather, to gawk at the surreal mounds of salt in the salterns, waiting to be harvested.
3. Hongdo (홍도)
The rocky, diminutive (6.47 square kilometers) Hongdo, with its killer sunrises and wealth of peculiar rock formations, has been likened to a flower floating on the water.
Named for the crimson light that envelops the entire island at sunset (hong is Korean for “crimson”), Hongdo’s 6.47 square kilometers is home to about 270 subspecies of evergreen and about 170 species of animals.
With turtledoves and black coral, mountain goats and clean seas, it’s not surprising that in the past people once (well, more than once) fought over possession of Cheongsando.
It also doesn’t hurt that the fishing is superb, with abalone porridge and hoe (raw fish) as local specialties.
This popular vacation destination is the major fishery of the eastern coast — that is, even more so than all the other coastal fishing villages along South Korea’s peninsular shoreline. This, as we know by now, translates into good seafood. Ulleungdo’s signature catch is the cuttlefish.
Otherwise the island is packed with dazzling little nooks — caves, waterfalls, seaside walks and ancient trees — all very well-equipped for visitors.
Deokjeokdo’s formula of forest, mountain and shore may not be anything particularly new, but it works.
Near Incheon, this northern island of mud flats, pebbled beaches and 300-year-old pines can nonetheless hold its own in a beauty contest against some of South Korea’s better-known southern beauties.
7. Uido (우이도)
We already have an island that looks like a cow (Udo). But who knew? We also have the Yellow Sea’s Uido, Uido meaning “cow ear.”
And while this resemblance is even more tenuous, Uido also has beaches for swimming and fishing, and a rather famous sand dune.
8. Ganghwado (강화도)
As the fifth largest island in South Korea, Ganghwado, accessible via a short drive over a bridge, doesn’t really feel like an island.
Its main attractions are its many mountains, rather than its beaches — the tallest and most popular being 468-meter Mount Mani.
Not to say there aren’t other activities: You can check out the 120-odd dolmen at the foot of Mount Goryeo, which date back to the Bronze Age, or roll around in the mud flats.
9. Wando (완도)
The “Wan” in Wando means “to smile broadly.”
Easily done on Wando — from hiking to the top of 644-meter Sanghwang Peak (or any of its lesser neighboring peaks) to fishing. The island, from beach to peak, is bustling and wonderfully scenic.
10. Jukdo (죽도)
While it may be a difficult and lonely place to live, lacking its own water source (water is either collected rainwater or water brought over from neighboring Ulleungdo) and difficult to come and go (the only entrance to the island is a spiral staircase of 365 steps), Jukdo’s attractiveness lies in its tranquil seclusion — its current population is two.
11. Geojedo (거제도)
With a prospering tourist industry, Geojedo, the second largest island in Korea (second only to Jejudo), while smack at the center of the beaten track, is remarkably clean and well preserved.
Representative attractions include the grassy green hill by the sea, “The Hill of the Wind,” and Hakdong Black Pearl Mongdol Beach, where the beach is composed of round, black pebbles that make muted jangling noises when the waves splash against the shore.
12. Oedo (외도)
Although but four kilometers away from Geojedo, the subtropical Oedo was once a lonely, craggy place without electricity.
Today it is one huge (over 132 square kilometers) botanical garden with over 3,000 species of exotic plant life and fetching Western-style buildings and sculptures, a regular backdrop for K-Dramas and often called a “paradise.”