Get involved: Send pictures, video, news and views - text NEWS SHOPPER to 80360 or email us
Travel: South Korea
Seoul is a city of contradictions. On one hand it is a world leader in technology and banking, one of the richest cities on Earth, on the other it is steeped in tradition and mysticism.
It is enormous. Spanning 605sq km, home to 25million people, Seoul is situated in a basin surrounded by four mountains – Black Turtle, White Tiger, Blue Dragon and Red Phoenix – symbolising the points of the compass.
Six picturesque palaces dating back to 1392 are a perfect entry point into Korea’s fantastic history and belief system. As our energetic guide bounded up another steep hill without catching breath, it was hard to believe he was 74 years old.
The paths between the traditional Korean hanok houses (elaborate wood and clay structures now owned by the very wealthy as second homes) were enough to make the fittest among us red in the face, but Mr Cho skipped up them like a mountain lamb.
It must be the ginseng which Koreans swear by to keep them strong and healthy. Every other shop seems to sell it by root or tea or sweet.
Korean life revolves around its food – a staple of the menus is bibimbap – a red hot stone bowl filled with rice, meats, seafood and vegetables which you mix together with chopsticks after adding a liberal dose of their fiery hot pepper sauce – the Korean equivalent of ketchup.
Another piece of food theatre is the Korean barbecue where cuts of the nation’s favourite meat – beef – are cooked on a charcoal powered griddle in the centre of your table as course after course of food is presented in front of you.
This is a marathon of a feast, and a real spectacle especially when served with the cloudy white rice wine. Koreans love wine and don’t mind spending serious money on a bottle, even the smallest cafés in the hills have a staggeringly good selection of bottles, although some have eye wateringly high prices to match, often reaching hundreds of pounds.
Street food is a varied array of bizarre seafood snacks and rice-based dumplings. Some are fantastic, others less palatable, but they are cheap and worth trying as are the wonderful selection of teas, including the bright pink Omija tea – or five flavours – that changes taste depending on your state of health.
Contrary to rumour, most Koreans don’t eat dog, only the most determined foreigners will find where it is sold, and national dish kimchee – pickled, fermented cabbage – is not as awful as it sounds.
For the less adventurous, Seoul has high quality cuisine from around the world, and one of the first meals I ate in the city was a fantastic Italian.
Our trip to South Korea started in a business class flight with Korean Air. Sitting in your own extra large seat which turns into a bed, watching your own personal entertainment system and drinking fine wine and excellent food, turns an 11-hour long haul flight into an afternoon on your couch.
Korean Air is entering the big league with its new routes into Gatwick airport, and the in-flight service and facilities were well worth the extra cost to add some luxury to the journey.
Our exquisite hotel continued our rock star treatment. The Banyan Tree Hotel and Spa, nestled on a wooded hilltop above the city, was nothing short of amazing.
The rooms were enormous, some with en suite bathrooms complete with whirlpool spa baths, rainfall showers and a steam room, others with an 8ft plunge pool next to the bed.
The hotel has a rooftop gym, a fabulous pool, and in the main tower 220 rooms have been recently converted into just 34, which adds an air of exclusivity and elegance.
A trip to Seoul would not be complete without a trip to Seoul Tower. While being the official number one tourist spot for foreigners, the decommissioned telecoms tower with its revolving restaurant and observation deck is also the most romantic place in the city. Lovers have chained thousands of padlocks with love messages to every available space on the railings outside, while you are able to register undying love on the walls inside the building.
South Koreans work hard, but they also play hard. Seoul is a true round-the-clock city, and its residents will stay out until the early hours at the myriad of neon-lit bars and restaurants, with most nights ending up in a karaoke booth.
Try a beer with a shot of Korean spirit Soju for the authentic Seoul experience, or head to a rice wine bar.
Walking around a busy open air market at 3am on a Wednesday night may seem strange to us Westerners, but to Koreans, it’s second nature. Shopping is one of Korea’s massive strengths. Whether you are looking for clothes, shoes or electronics, you can get a great deal in the massive shopping districts.
Buy an original Cath Kidston handbag in one of the huge department stores, or opt for a virtually undistinguishable copy for a fraction of the price on a street stall outside.
While South Korea may not be high on many people’s radar, it should not be discounted as a holiday destination. It is a fascinating mix of the new and the old – clean, efficient and overall massively friendly – every Korean we met seemed genuinely pleased to see us.
Factfile: Banyan Tree Club and Spa Seoul. Lead-in rates for a Deluxe room start from £250) (+82 2 2250 8000 or www.banyantree.com/en/seoul) Korean Air operates three flights a week from Gatwick to Seoul, in addition to its daily flight from Heathrow. Economy fares from Gatwick to Seoul start from £700. (020 7495 8641 or www.koreanair.com) Seoul City Tourism board english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto