Wet blankets

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Wet blankets

SADO ISLAND, South Jeolla -- Are you planning on a good, relaxing trip to the beach, but frightened by the front-page pictures in all the newspapers of the maddening crowds on the peninsula's most popular beaches? Before reserving a plane ticket to a resort in Saipan or the Maldives, wait a minute, and remember that there are more than 70 beaches in Korea. And not all of them hopelessly overcrowded.

After my family and I made the mistake of a summer trip to Haeundae beach, we quickly came to our senses and ventured to find some hidden treasures. And we did succeed. I have many great memories of digging up clams on the beach and using them to cook a broth. Maybe the taste left something to be desired, but the shimmering of the crystal-clear sea with only a few people in sight was wonderful.

I was expecting something similar to those good old memories as I rode on the train to Yeocheon, leaving Seoul Station at 8:50 a.m. last Saturday. "Relax on the beach at Korea's Maldives -- Sado island," the Korean National Railroad tour was titled. I was unfamiliar with Sado island, but according to my Korean summer resort principle of "Less heard-of, more likely to be a success," I decided to take a chance. Besides, who could resist "Korea's Maldives." So I left expecting an emerald ocean and soft white sand. Perhaps something out of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

My original plan was to go on July 6, but that was stopped by typhoon Ramassun. We had sultry, sunny days after the Ramassun, and it looked like last Saturday would be the the perfect time for slacking on the beach. But only 10 minutes or so after departing from Seoul Station, rain started to fall. The weather grew worse and my fellow passengers -- a family with two overly-energetic sons, two young women and two middle-aged men -- grew uneasy. Our guide, Lee Kyung-hwan, a middle-aged and kindhearted man, soothed the disturbed crowd, saying, "Well, there are other things to enjoy." Somehow, that was not much of a comfort. Once the train arrived at Yeocheon Station around 2:40 p.m., we took a small tour bus and headed to our first destination, Jangdeung beach, outside of Yeosu city, where we were to spend the night.

Jangdeung beach at least met my high expectations in that it was tranquil indeed, with no signs of anyone swimming. But it was far from being a hidden treasure, never mind the Korean Maldives. Rather, it looked unprepared, with people still cleaning up waste on the beach. More than disappointed, I spent two hours of free time just wandering around. "Unblemished," the guide promised. "Neglected," I thought.

Consolation came from the esplanade, from where I could look over the South Sea. Around 5 p.m., we had an early dinner at the place we were staying the night. The place was a private restaurant temporarily taking lodgers. We had a typical Korean meal with assorted side dishes, mostly seafood like crabs preserved in soy sauce. After dinner, we were supposed to climb Mount Bonghwa to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the sea. Because of the drizzle, however, the rocks on the mountain were too slippery. The guide's urging to have some fun on the beach was met with unanimous disapproval from his guests.

Finding something else to do was not so hard, for once you're in Jeolla province, there are a lot of local delicacies. We headed to a seafood restaurant that specializes in sliced raw fish. The restaurant was not the cleanest place I had ever seen, but it did have a generous owner who gave us more than we could eat. From the restaurant, we had a view of the sea that made up for the frustrations of the day. Back to the lodgings around 10:30 p.m., I had nothing else to do, and so watched Mel Gibson leading the charge in "Braveheart," which was the last thing that I thought I might be doing in Korea's Maldives.

The next morning at 9:30, after breakfast, we headed to the wharf to get to Sado island. The weather got a little better, but was still cloudy. Our guide, Mr. Lee, was confident that he could finally satisfy his guests. He told the children that Sado island was like a miniature Jurassic Park, with fossilized footprints of dinosaurs from 70 million years ago. Spirits buoyed, we got on a motorboat and began an exciting, 20-minute ride to the island.

Along the way, I could see a lot of beautiful, small islands, many of them uninhabited. The South Sea is famous for its coast, with around 1,970 small islands scattered here and there.

"Sado" in Chinese characters means "sandy island," but the island we came to was rocky. Mr. Lee explained that the government paved the island, digging out the sand. The island, about 0.34 square kilometers big, has about 50 residents, the youngest of whom is 52 years old. There are no motorized vehicles. Just some pushcarts are enough for the small village.

After walking about 200 meters, there appeared a beach, which was beautiful but again far from "The Beach." The weather gradually became windy and no one dared to go into the sea. Instead, we checked out the miniature Jurassic Park. There are a little more than 3,000 dinosaur footprints on Sado and its four neighbors. Climbing over a group of strangely-shaped rocks, which presented quite a scenic view, footprints were clearly noticeable. Over the rocky path snaked a cement path that led to Jungdo island, followed by an S-shaped sand pile, which connected Jungdo Island to Siru island. Over the sand pile, Siru island has a lot to offer to its visitors, with cliffs shaped like a terrace or a turtle. Though the rocky island ruined my open, high-heeled sandals, the view was something else.

Back to Sado, we had a lunch at one resident's home -- a pile of dainties fresh from the sea, crabs, fish soup, grilled fish and cooked octopus along with assorted salted seafood, all for 5,000 won (about $4). After lunch, however, the weather got more and more windy and the village chief announced that three fishermen were missing. We were supposed to spend a few more hours there before catching a train back to Seoul at 4:30 p.m., but decided instead to hurry back aboard the boat. Back to shore, Mr. Lee, the guide, again became apologetic to his guests and offered a small party of boiled octopus slices, caught by a Sado resident that morning.

Although there was no chance to try my new swimsuit at Korea's Maldives and my sandals were ruined, at least the trip was a good treat for the palate. On the way to the train station, however, I discovered what Mr. Lee and the brochures had meant. The sun came out from behind the thick clouds and the South Sea suddenly glowed emerald-blue and glistening in the sunshine, just like in the picture on the pamphlet. "I guess you guys have to come back some other time, when we have really good weather," said Mr. Lee, looking the happiest he had all weekend. Seeing the Maldives-like beach, I agreed.

The Korean National Railroad, along with Jigu Tour Agency, runs this package every day until Aug. 24. The program costs 119,000 won.

by Chun Su-jin

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