Posted by: Matt Kelley | 2 April 2009

North Jeolla’s Seonyu Island


Although South Korea has industrialized remarkably over the past several decades, there are still unspoiled corners where nature remains in charge. One such place is Seonyu Island (선유도), which is located off the coast of North Jeolla Province.

20090404_oldboatA battered fishing boat on Seonyu Island’s shore.

Not to be confused with another island of the same name in Seoul, this Seonyudo is actually part of a large group that dot Korea’s western coastline. In centuries past, they hosted a Korean naval base commissioned by the king to defend the mainland against Japanese invaders. Even Korea’s greatest naval hero, Yi Sun-shin (이순신), is said to have rested here with his soldiers for 12 days in 1597.

20090404_churchMunyu Island offers an extensive network of bicycle paths, including this one near some reed fields and an old brick church.

But today, Seonyudo, which means, “an island so beautiful that god admires it”, feels far from thoughts of war. Small lighthouses sit atop islands no larger than a pile of rocks. And locals are concentrated among small hamlets filled with modest homes sporting bright orange and turquoise roofs. These residents are primarily invested in the fisheries industry, and reap the sea’s bounty for their livelihoods.

A growing tourism industry, however, has also developed. Especially during the summer months, flocks of Koreans take the 1.5-hour ferry from Gunsan. Once on Seonyudo, for about 10,000 won, or $7.37, you can rent a bicycle for the day.

20090404_seonyubeachSeonyu Island’s chief attraction is its popular half-moon shaped sandbar.

Seonyudo is famed for its long, half-moon shaped sandbar. The sand is soft and plentiful, and both sides offer stunning views of the surrounding coastline. Add some palm trees and I’d think I was in Polynesia. It’s not hard to imagine scores of sunbathers on a summer weekend.

20090404_boatsColorful fishing boats moor in a small protected cove.

Thanks to bridges, Seonyudo is attached to three other islands that you can explore. Nearby Munyu Island (무녀도) was once called Seodui, which means, “if you work hard and hurry you can survive.” Yikes. But the island is also famous for its hundreds of goldenrain trees (모감주나무 군락지). The yellow blossoms of these trees yield large nuts and black seeds used for Buddhist rosaries and soap.

20090404_jangaviewThe views are spectacular from a bench on Janga Island.

The islands are a famed spot for sunsets, due to their position in the West Sea. Nearby Janga Island (장자도) is an especially great vantage point, thanks to the well-kept trails leading to hilltop benches and viewing pavilions. But the early morning views are also beautiful. Looking out at the surrounding islands and peaks on the horizon, the few centimeters above the sea are covered in a hazy mist, looking much like an ancient woodblock painting.

20090404_oystersThese tasty oysters were an unexpected treat.

Although there are some peaks and valleys, most of the bike trails are fairly flat, and they are kept in great condition. Also a boon for bicyclers is that there are only a handful of cars on the island. But I suggest abandoning your bike for a few minutes to explore some of the coastline on foot. If you do, you may happen upon colonies of tiny oysters, most no bigger than a button, but fresh and delicious!

20090404_kalguksuA more formal meal of clam galguksu was had at the Seonyu Palgyeong Hwaetjip.

But if you prefer to have your lunch prepared for you, the area off the ferry dock has a number of seafood restaurants. For a pricey 20,000 won (spring price), a live octopus is removed from an outdoor tank and sliced in front of your eyes. It’s put on a plate with a few sesame seeds for garnish alongside hot pepper and horseradish paste and slices of garlic. Sure, the legs kept writhing on the plate and in our mouths for the next 15 minutes, but at least we knew it was fresh!

20090404_ferryPassengers arrive at Seonyu Island’s ferry terminal.

The ferry schedule is based on the tides and season. Currently they run twice a day. But if you miss the last boat back to the mainland, don’t worry too much. There are inexpensive minbaks, or guesthouses, and Seonyudo is an incredibly peaceful place to spend the night.

map_seonyudoGetting There:
→ From the Seoul Express Bus Terminal (subway line 3 and 7) buses to Gunsan depart every 15 minutes from 06:00 to 19:40. The 3.5 hour ride costs between 12,300-18,100 won each way.

→ From Gunsan, a 12-minute taxi ride to the Passenger Ferry Terminal costs approximately 8,200 won. 

→ This month, the ferry between Gunsan and Seonyudo leaves at 09:00 and 13:00 and returns at 11:00 and 15:30 (times and frequency depends on the season). The approx. 1.5 hour sailing runs about 12,300-13,500 won.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on April 4, 2009.)



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  3. […] going to explore the islands off the coast of Gunsan. I found this spot with the help of the Discovering Korea blog, which is an awesome read. I’m not 100% about how transportation to the island works, […]

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