On Saturday evening we arrived at the Kensington Stars Hotel. Built by former Republic of Korea President Park Chung-hee to help promote tourism in Seoraksan National Park, the Kensington is a five-star European-style hotel with Korean flourishes. Although the stay was comfortable, my wife and I both agreed that it was not worth the money. The service was mediocre (probably because it was off-season), and at night the hotel turned off the air conditioning to give the hotel a "mountain lodge" ambiance (we were told). Opening the balcony door to let in the fresh mountain air was fine, but the room was still too warm. If you plan a trip to Seoraksan National Park, I highly recommend finding something much cheaper in nearby Sokcho, a seaport town about seven miles from the park. You will probably be tempted to book at the Kensington because it is so well known. We thought Sokcho was further away than it really was and paid much too much to stay in the Kensington. The breakfast, included in the daily rate, was delicious, but the food is generally too expensive. The hotel plays up its image as a place where dignitaries and stars stay when they come to Seoraksan National Park. We stayed in a room on the 6th floor, the "Presidential Suite," where ambassadors stay whenever they visit the park. The floor is named the "Presidential Suite" in honor of President Park Chung-hee, who used the floor in the 1970’s as his own personal suite. Other floors in the Kensington Stars Hotel are dedicated to TV stars, movie stars, and athletes who have stayed at the hotel. Most of the featured stars are Korean. The predominantly cherry wood and marble lobby also features autographed photos of famous Koreans and bronzes of their hands ala the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
That evening we went out for dinner. The hotel’s restaurants were much too expensive. We found a small Korean restaurant in a Korean-style strip mall not far from the hotel. I was exhausted from a long day of driving. However, I knew I would have trouble sleeping because the drive left me much too alert (the road was treacherous and visibility was low). I proceeded to polish off an entire bottle of soju, or Korean potato-based liquor. About the size of a large beer bottle, the contents were much more potent than beer. Sure enough, soju did the trick, and I was out in no time.
The next morning we entered the park and took the cable car up the villa located on Gwongeumseong Mountain. I put my son on my back in his backpack carrier, and we all hiked up to the summit of the mountain. My family stayed behind on the flanks of the mountain, and I climbed alone up the short, vertical rise to the top of the peak. The steep climb was well worth the effort. The view atop Gwongeumseong Mountain is simply spectacular. I heard another American on the summit mention Mount Sinai. The view from the top of the mountain did remind me of when my wife and I hiked to the top of Mount Sinai, Egypt in early 2002. Along with the view from Mount Sinai, this was one of the most breathtaking vistas I’ve seen. To the east, the East Sea (Sea of Japan) gleams, and on a clear day like the one we had, you can see the waves roll in along the coastline. The City of Sokcho appears in miniature along the coast to the northwest. To the north, two large, gorgeous granite formations, Ulsanbawi Rock and Mogujae Pass, thrust upward from the green coastal valleys. To the west and south, the granite mountains of Seoraksan National Park form a crescent around Gwongeumseong Mountain, jutting skyward in twisted, oddly shaped protrusions. On the day I summited the peak, small cloud banks rolled in from the mountains and meandered through the valleys below. It was such an idyllic scene. Although the view from Gwongeumseong is much different than what you find in Egypt, which is arid and rather barren, standing on the summit brought back memories of surveying the Sinai Peninsula.
On Sunday evening we placated the kids and ventured into Sokcho for dinner. We went to Pizza Hut. Normally I do not drive 25 minutes out of my way just to eat American fast food, but my nephew was dying for American fast food. It’s a challenge for his mom to get him to eat. He may be the first Chinese I’ve ever met who doesn’t really like to eat Chinese food (shh, don’t tell his mom I told you that). He seems to prefer unhealthy American fast food–pizza and hamburgers. Of course, he isn’t different than all the American kids who also love McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. The pizza tasted similar to what you find in the United States, although the meal featured corn and an over abundance of cheese. Korean pizzas tend to have more noticeably more cheese than do American pizzas, even at good ol’ Pizza Hut. At least I didn’t see any sweet pickles, a Korean kimchi substitute featured in most western-style restaurants. To be continued…