Travel

Take the Train to Busan, Where Mountains Meet Soju Bars

Plus beaches and bathhouses-but nary a zombie in sight.

Sean Hsu/Shutterstock
Sean Hsu/Shutterstock
Sean Hsu/Shutterstock

Busan is a city of contrasts, just like Korea itself. One minute you’ll be crossing a busy, uber modern intersection like you’re on a movie set, and the next moment you’ll find yourself delightfully lost along a tiny street with nothing but kimbap shops and locals selling greens from the countryside.

It’s also a place where you can spend the morning in the mountains and relax at the beach by late afternoon and into the evening. Then unwind with some barbeque at a local spot before heading out for a night of discovering the latest speakeasy or yakitori bar, where there’s bound to be seemingly endless shots of soju taken back at almost every corner.

Panwasin Seemala/EyeEm/Getty Images
Panwasin Seemala/EyeEm/Getty Images
Panwasin Seemala/EyeEm/Getty Images

It’s an activity in itself to explore the little corners of town and hear the ajummas and ajoshis speaking the colloquial satoori Busan dialect to each other. You’ll be wandering through areas soaked in history with such a story to tell and trendy neighbourhoods reinventing themselves with every season.

If you’re coming from Seoul, you might want to take the train to Busan (minus any zombie apocalypse vibes). Initially, the rolling hills amongst the high rises with LED lights may seem endless on the tiny, southern peninsula of South Korea. As you pull into the station, with the shipping docks on one side and the mountains on the other, it might seem a little overwhelming at first. But you’ll soon feel the calm call of the bathhouses, temples, and beaches, mixed in with adventurous hiking and restaurant hoping. Here are all the ups and downs, fast to slow, and nature-to-city experiences to have in the seaside city of Busan.

PhotoSeagull/Shutterstock
PhotoSeagull/Shutterstock
PhotoSeagull/Shutterstock

Discover Busan by going on hikes as the Koreans do

For many local Busanites, a typical weekend always includes a hike. Busan literally translates as “south mountain” in Korean, so you’d be remiss to not experience what life is like here a few hundred feet above sea level.

One of the best things about hiking in Busan (and just most of South Korea, for that matter) is that you can pair the adventure with some landmark sightseeing. Some of the best temples in Busan can be found along the city’s top hiking trails, so get your camera ready while you’re catching your breath.

Panwasin seemala/Shutterstock
Panwasin seemala/Shutterstock
Panwasin seemala/Shutterstock

Located in the northern edge of the city is Geumjeongsan Mountain. Hike the whole 5.2-mile circuit or conquer a shorter route-either way, you’ll get amazing views of the ocean and city below. On the route here you’ll find Beomeosa Temple, one of the most significant Buddhist temples in Korea.

A seaside city like Busan also means that you’ll find some pretty picturesque coastal hikes. One of those is Oryukdo. This hike starts at the skywalk, where you’ll wander over a glass-screen pathway to view some rocky islets just off the Busan coast. Then follow the trail signs and walk along the coastline as far as your heart desires or until you hit Gwangan Beach, whichever comes first.

Kim juyeong/Shutterstock
Kim juyeong/Shutterstock
Kim juyeong/Shutterstock

Beach hop for days (and nights)

Beach culture here in Busan is taken to another level, where it’s all about the views, the vibes, and the eats, not to mention a few thousand selfies along the way.

Start in Haeundae Beach, where you can wander the long strip of beach (with an iced Americano in hand, as the locals do) while admiring the swanky high-rise apartments and the colourful Dalmaji Hill in the distance. Haeundae is a popular beach to visit year-round, but be sure to come here early on the weekends during peak summer months if you want to snag a sun lounger. The strip is packed with stylish coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, so you can easily spend your entire day here.

Gwangan Beach is another shining star of the Busan beach scene. With the Diamond Bridge providing the perfect beach backdrop, it’s hard not to fall in love with Gwangan. Come here on a Saturday and you’ll be treated to a free drone light show that’s themed for that particular month or season.

Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

Eat all the oysters, tteokbokki, and kimchi

Many people know about Korean BBQ, but the local delights in Busan really get to the heart of the nation’s cuisine. Tteokbokki, one of the favourite snacks of Busanites, is a rice cake that’s soaked in gochujang (red pepper sauce). Grab a bowl for 2000 won (about $1.50 USD) and you’ve got yourself a spicy, filling snack for the afternoon.

It’s no surprise that seafood is a specialty here in Busan. But it’s more than just a grilled piece of cod, this is transcendent seafood served in spicy broths or next to tangy kimchi. Head a little outside of town to Gijang or to Songjeong Beach and you’ll find beachside restaurants and cozy pocha (tent) eateries that serve up a true Busan delicacy: grilled clams. Freshly caught just a block away, book a table anywhere that calls to your nose and you’re in for a real treat.

cozyta/Shutterstock
cozyta/Shutterstock
cozyta/Shutterstock

Melt into the spa culture

If you’re familiar with K dramas, then you know a little something about Korean bathhouse culture. While these jimjilbangs are notorious throughout the country (and very sought-after in LA’s Koreatown), in Busan you may find one of the best bathhouses of them all.

Located in the shiny and ultra-glam Shinsegae Department Store, Spaland is one of the top bathhouses in the country. Complete with 13 themed rooms (the Himalayan salt room is where I’ve sweat my sorrows away on more than one occasion) and an outdoor foot spa, even the roughest adventuring will give in to relaxing here at Spaland.

웨스틴 조선 부산 The Westin Josun Busan
웨스틴 조선 부산 The Westin Josun Busan
웨스틴 조선 부산 The Westin Josun Busan

Where to stay in Busan

Lots of the top real estate in Busan comes with beach views in Haeundae. Splurge at the stylish Signiel Hotel, where you’ll be treated to panoramic views of Haeundae and the Diamond Bridge in the distance. Guests will get free access to the hotel’s exclusive Salon de Signiel Lounge, where you can sip on your morning coffee and gaze down at the sparkling blue East Sea below.

For prime beach location and lots of amenities to boot, check in at the Westin Josun Busan. This property is just steps away from Haeundae Beach and Dongbaek island, so you won’t have to venture too far from some of the best sights in the city.

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Jennifer Richardson is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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