Your own private hideawayNo matter where you are in Korea, there’s a log cabin nestled in the mountains that’s only an hour away from you (barring traffic jams).
It awaits your arrival, tucked among pine trees and picnic tables. These backcountry cabins are maintained by the Korea Forest Service, and they are one of the country’s best-kept secrets when it comes to laid-back weekends in the country.
The Forest Service calls them “recreational forests.” Eighty of them are scattered around the country; there are 10 in the Seoul-Gyeonggi province area. If you live in Busan, there are six you can drive to within an hour.
All of the national parks have at least one, if not more, on or near their grounds. They’re great if you’re planning to slip out of town for a simple weekend getaway, or to embark on a cross-country road trip.
Traveling in the Korean countryside, your options are mostly limited to minbak guest houses and quasi-love hotels. There is a trend of private “pensions” being constructed across the country, most of which are nothing more than pseudo-Cape Cod houses located in semi-scenic areas.
With the government’s recreational forests, however, you have a network of rental “log cabins” at your disposal in some of Korea’s most beautiful areas, and a good idea of what you’ll be getting.
Dan Levis and Melanie Cairns are an active Canadian couple with an even more active Jindo dog. With hotels touch-and-go about allowing dogs, they’ve planned many weekend trips from their home in Gwangju with their pooch in mind.
“When you think there’s no more surprises in Korea, you come upon these small paradises,” Levis said about his first stay at one of the cabins.
The couple have stayed at the cabins at Geochang, at Chiaksan National Park, at Young Dae near Soraksan and at two others near Jirisan National Park. Their dog can exercise, they can get some fresh mountain air, and later Levis can fill the air with the smell of barbecue from the cabin’s front porch.
“It’s like being back home in Ontario,” said Cairns. “All the work you do during the week is worth it knowing that you’ll be here on the weekend.”
Though they are not true log cabins with rough-hewn, interlocking logs, their wood siding exteriors and wood frames are enough to create a sense of rustic living. A few cabins have a wood and stucco exterior that actually blends well with the forest background.
Also available at the recreational forests are spaces for pitching tents and, at some of the larger forests, condo-like buildings (with rooms similar to your own apartment ― you know, the one you’re trying to temporarily get away from.)
The cabins have bathrooms and a kitchenette with a fridge and gas range. Ondol heating and hot water are standard, and depending on the location, some have television sets with satellite dishes.
All provide bedding, either the traditional sleeping quilts or regular beds. Staying at one of these cabins is an easy way to rough it. Just bring some extra flannel blankets, a grill and a portable coffeemaker for a morning mug on the front porch.
Surrounding the immediate area of the cabins are picnic tables and benches and a playground for the kids. Some forests have campfire pits that can be used with permission, depending on how dry conditions are. The community kitchen-washroom shelter is useful for cleaning the charred remains off your grill, or for rinsing mud off your boots after a day’s hike.
When you arrive at the check-in cabin, you’ll be given a brochure listing the facilities, campground details and a map of nearby trails. For mountain hikers, these cabins are a good and obvious choice.
They’re also good for use as a “base camp” for exploring other areas by car or bike. And when sunk into a lawn chair with your feet up on the porch railing, they are good for doing absolutely nothing.
Staying in one of these cabins takes some planning. Reservations must be made ahead of time through the Korea Forest Service Web site, http://www.huyang.go.kr. The site is in Korean only, so the Hangul-challenged should set aside time for deciphering, or getting help.
For non-Koreans, another obstacle is registering for a user name to make a reservation. The site isn’t programmed to accept foreigners’ ID numbers, so having a Korean friend to help you is necessary. Reservations can also be made by phone; walk-ins are possible if there are vacant cabins.
The recreational forests are open year-round. They are closed Tuesdays, unless that Tuesday is a national holiday. Check-in is from 3 to 8 p.m., and check-out time is 1 p.m.
Rental costs range from 30,000 won ($26) for a small one-room cabin up to 100,000 won for a twenty-pyeong (710-square-foot), multi-room lodge. A 30-percent deposit is required when the reservation is made. Entrance fees for day visits, such as picnics, are 1,000 won, plus a 3,000 won parking fee.
When to Go:
Use of the cabins, not surprisingly, is at its peak in July and August; they’re almost empty during the winter. They’re often vacant on weekdays and during major holidays like Chuseok, when most people are visiting family.
Since most of the forests are in the mountains, traveling by car is the only convenient option. For those with no wheels, the best way to get there would be to head to the nearest village by bus, then take a taxi to the forest and gamble on the cost of the fare (and being sure to get the taxi driver’s cell phone number for a return pickup).
by James Card