Gyeongju, South Korea.

Gyeongju is a smaller city located in the southeast region of South Korea. It was once the ancient capital of the Shilla Kingdom. Over time it has become an excellent location to learn more about the Korean culture of the past. Key features of the city include the Royal Tombs, the Woljeong Bridge, and the Gyochon Village. The area containing most of the touristic sights is very flat and walkable. There is also a great network of buses that cost about $2USD to ride.

The Royal Tombs are very interesting to see. Essentially, they are huge hills that have been well manicured and maintained. Inside though are remains and artifacts that are hundreds of years old. Archaeological digs are currently underway and during the early day time you may be able to see the archeologists at work.

Bulguska Temple is another major sight in the area. It is about 22 km outside of town, but very easy to get to on the public bus. The temple complex itself is beautiful and of the Buddhist faith. There are many buildings to explore and the Buddha statues were quite fascinating. After our visit we ended up at a local restaurant and enjoyed some awesome Kalguksu. Neither of us knew what we were ordering initially. Yet, when the non-English speaking owner gave her recommendation via pointing with a thumbs up, a head nod and smile, we figured it was the best option. It turned out to be delicious.

We ended our day visiting the gardens and oldest observatory in Eastern Asia as well as the Woljeong Bridge. The garden area was really spacious and a great place to walk and enjoy quality time. Even though it was October, there were still many flowers in bloom. We continued our walk out toward the Woljeong Bridge. Photos of the bridge at night are amazing. However, visiting it during the day was lovely too. This gorgeous covered bridge was originally created by the 35th king of Shilla. It was destroyed a long time ago, however, reconstruction has recently been completed. The Gyochon Village is also located right near the bridge. This village was made by the Choi Clan ( a wealthy family). There are a few museums you can visit, but we arrived too late. It was still nice to wander the streets and look at the historic houses.

The next morning, we took a stroll around Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. The area was really peaceful and serene. Because we went so early, we had the park pretty much to ourselves. Afterward, we brunched at this amazing little restaurant near our hotel called Heester Piece. It was Devine! The brunch platter we got was almost too beautiful to eat.

Gyeongju is a place you visit when you want to delve into Korean history. The city is tourist friendly without being too claustrophobic. We enjoyed taking in some nature while also learning more about ancient culture.

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Royal Palaces of Seoul

The palaces in Seoul have been restored quite a bit due to the damage that was inflicted on them in the 1590’s due to the Japanese invasion. Although the buildings are restored, they still capture the essence of Korean royal architecture. Unlike European palaces, Korean places are not very opulent. They are mostly green and red and feature tiled roofs with sparse furnishings. At Deoksugung Palace, we happened to be exiting the gates when the Changing of the Guards Ceremony was occurring. This was a really cool thing to watch as the costumes and customs were very different from anything I had seen before.

Gyeongbokgung Place

Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palaces

Deoksugung Palace

Seoul, South Korea

I think my vision of Seoul was much grander than it actually was. Seoul is your average major Asian city. Tall skyscrapers with a smattering of what is was like hundreds of years ago around the city. In Seoul’s case this included the Hanok villages and the many palaces. Overall, it is a nice, clean city that is easy to get around.  Lots of people spoke English and were more than happy to help us out. We were also surprised by the number of American food chains located in the city. Our hotel was in Myeongdong and within walking distance there was a Starbucks, Burger King, Papa John’s, Popeye’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. Seoul almost felt like we were back in America.

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We purchased the Discovery Seoul Pass when we arrived at the airport, thinking that it was a great way to see some fun sights while saving some money. In hindsight, it was the worst decision we made on our trip. Most of the attractions were quite lame. The palaces and a few art museums were included, but you could easily just by the tickets individually. We were also interested in the city tour buses. We had such a good experience in Australia with the hop on/ hop off bus. That was not the case with the bus included in this package. It was much quicker and more convenient to just take the metro.

Other historic areas to check out included the Fortress Wall and Namsangol Hanok Village. The Hanok village was quite gimmicky, but did give outsiders a glimpse into what historic Korean homes looked like. The fortress wall was a nice urban hike. We hiked up one of the hills and got a great view of the city of Seoul. Afterward we walked down through the Ihwa Mural Village. There were a lot of great pieces of art that lined the staircases and walls of the buildings.

The N. Seoul Tower Observatory and Namsen Park was our favorite site. The observatory had two floors to take in the view of Metro Seoul. We were a little early for the foliage, but caught glimpses of the leaves turning gold and red. Outside of the tower, a free music  and martial arts show took place on the plaza. The martial arts show consisted of the many ways to use swords and spears.

Other sights we took in included the Alive Museum, which is a cheesy place to take funny photos of yourself and friends. We also checked out the Seoullo 7071 Skygarden and Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). We forgot to return to the DDP for the LED rose garden, but we did get some shopping in on the Fashion street a block away.

Alive Museum

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Seoullo 7071 Skygarden

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Dongdaemun Design Plaza

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All and all Seoul is the type of city you check out for a couple of days and move on. It is a great place to shop and pick up beauty products (SOOOOOO many cheap beauty products), but I wouldn’t say it is the place to go to gain huge insights into life in South Korea, and what makes up their culture other than the foods and language differences. As a tourist, it was a little tough to get a sense of what is Korean. Unlike China, Seoul has opened its doors to Western culture and really embraced globalization. The benefits of this being South Korea’s ability to work with other nations and accept those nations’ cultures into South Korea. On the other hand, what makes South Korea special in this big world increases the possibility of South Korea getting lost in the mix.

(Note: To see our photos of the Royal Places in Seoul please refer to our next post)

Tongli, China

Just outside of Suzhou are a few famous ancient water towns. These towns give you a glimpse into what life was like in China a thousand years ago. We chose to visit Tongli because it was the closest and supposed to be quiet compared to the others. Unfortunately, all of China was on holiday, so it wasn’t exactly quiet. Instead there were hoards of families everywhere who were all trying to dodge electric scooters and bicycles. The sounds of horns/ bells, crying babies, and shop keepers yelling about their goods made it hard to picture historical life in China. Thankfully, we managed to find some quieter alleys that were much better for our eardrums.

Suzhou, China

We had a three day weekend for the Mid-Autumn Festival, so we decided to take advantage by flying up to Suzhou for the weekend. This city is about an hour east of Shanghai by train and is known as the “Venice of China” because of all the canals that run throughout the city. It is also known for its many beautiful gardens. Rather than describe the sights we enjoyed, we will share some pictures to give you a glimpse of what the city has to offer.

CANALS

Pingjiang Historical Area

Boat Cruise to Shan Street

GARDENS

Humble Administrator’s Garden

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Tiger Hill

Lingering Garden

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FOOD

Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands is a wide area that features many small towns, outdoor adventure, and picturesque natural surroundings. We had read a lot about the waterfalls in the area so we devoted the day to waterfall hunting. With a list and a map we made it to 6 out of the top 9 waterfalls in the area.

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Malanda Falls- This waterfall is on the smaller side, but it was an easy walk from the car park.

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Milla Milla Falls has been featured in several commercials including an Herbal Essence commercial. We could definitely see why. The rock forms a curved shape with the waterfall in the center. Around the fall is an array of ferns and other tropical foliage that make it a photographer’s dream.

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Zillie Falls has a lookout platform that is a short walk from the car park. However, you can only really see the top of the waterfall. If you are feeling more adventurous we suggest hiking down toward rock pools. It is a little tricky to navigate the rocks, but the view is worth it.

Ellinjaa Falls was very lovely. There is a sizable pool at the bottom that looked nice for swimming. Watch out for the roosters and bush turkeys in the picnic area. They want your lunch!

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Mungalli Falls has two sections. The first section is right near the car park. Take an approximately 10 minute walk down the hill and you can view the lower portion of the waterfall. Again a lovely scene among the tropical landscape.

Nandroya Falls was really spectacular. It can be a little tricky to find from the road as the signage is within a camping ground. Nevertheless, the 4-6 km hike (depending on what trail you take) is worth it. Along the hike there was another little waterfall called Silver Falls. The hike isn’t too strenuous and you are rewarded greatly with a really tall waterfall that made for gorgeous scenery.

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Atherton Tablelands was a really nice day trip from Cairns. There is a lot to see and explore in the area. We highly suggest renting a car and seeing where the wind take you.

North Queensland, Australia

Cairns is a great spot to stop for several days on any east coast Australia trip. It has an international airport, and is a central point to a lot of Northern Queensland sites. Within a 3 hour driving radius there is Fitzroy Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Mossman Gorge, Atherton Tablelands, Palm Cove, and Cape Tribulation/ Daintree Rainforest. Cairns itself has a nice Esplanade, a Night Market, and several nice restaurants such as Salt House, Tandoori Oven, and Outback Jack’s Bar and Grill. If you are into the bar/ party scene there is Gilligan’s and Woolshed where there is generally a party every night of the week.

About 30 minutes from Cairns you can visit Fitzroy Island (to the east) as well as Kuranda (to the west) and Palm Cove (to the north). All are pretty touristy areas that cater to families. Fitzroy has some nice hiking as well as basic water sports.

Kuranda was known as artist/ hippie area, but now has several outdoor markets as well as a Butterfly Sanctuary and places to encounter wildlife. A short 10 minutes ride out of the central area allows you to see the lovely Barron Falls.

Palm Cove is a super cute boutique area that has a variety of accommodations (camping to luxury hotels) along a palm tree lined road that overlooks the beach. We enjoyed strolling along the main drag, grabbing a cup of coffee, and poking our head into the shops.

If you drive north 45-60 minutes you will arrive at Mossman Gorge. This area is very pretty. Sadly, we couldn’t swim in the gorge that day, but the shuttle bus still took you up to the hiking trails. The trees were unbelievable. Unlike the Redwoods, the trees here had huge buttress roots and vines that twisted and turned in every direction. We didn’t spot too much wildlife, however, there were many plants that were very unique looking.

In 60+ minutes (by boat) we arrived at the Great Barrier Reef. This was one of the highlights of our trip. We started our adventure with Reef Quest. We got on a big boat (with about 50 other people) and set out for the reef. The boat had several levels to enjoy the sea views. Our trip included two snorkel sights, snacks, lunch, and our equipment. I opted to just snorkel, while the husband tried out an introductory scuba dive. The snorkeling was unbelievable! We saw so many beautiful fish, sea turtles, giant clams, sea cucumbers, and so much coral.

The Atherton Tablelands and Cape Tribulation are about 60+ minutes to the west and north or Cairns. Both areas were so alluring that they each deserve a separate post.

All and all Cairns might not be THE target destination on your adventures, but it sure is a great jumping off point.

Magnetic Island, Australia

After driving a few hours north of Airlie Beach to Townsville, we hopped onto a ferry to Magnetic Island (“Maggie” as the Aussies call it). If you like exploring and relaxing on desolate white sand beaches lined by massive bolders on either side, this is the place for you.

Our good friend, and guide throughout this part of the trip, decided X Base would be a great place to stay. Despite the fact that we were staying in a hostel, he was 100% spot on. Take one step out of the door of our private bungalow and you will find yourself on a wooden deck above a rocky beach listening to waves crash against the rocks.

Seeing as we were staying at a hostel we decided to join in on the backpacker scene and play “Bar Wars.” This was a series of physical challenges against other teams toward winning “amazing prizes.” The highlight of this was a contest of flexibility in which you had to pick up an empty box with your mouth without anything touching the ground but your feet. Basically a reverse Limbo game with the box getting shorter and shorter after each round. Evidently this is a common game in the backpacker scene because most people seemed to know the general strategies to success. When the box was nothing more than a flat piece of cardboard, our good friend was still in it along with about 10 other absurdly flexible individuals. Something had to be done to narrow it down to the top three. The solution was obvious. Whoever could pick up a coin with their mouth the fastest would be the winner. We cheered at the top of our lungs for our friend as the start signal went off. Five seconds later he had both completed the task (he got second place) and severly torn his hamstring. 😬 No pain, no gain.

The best way to explore Magnetic Island is with a 4WD vehicle, which you can easily hire for the day. We ended up getting an incredible Suzuki mini truck from the mid 80s and fell in love with it. The main roads on the island were paved which gave me some time to feel out the gears and clutch (yeah it was manual) before we left for some real exploring. There is something uniquely thrilling about navigating a narrow dirt road littered with massive potholes. We were bumping and bouncing along as we attempted to find the beach. Eventually, at the end of one of these roads we found a beautiful and relatively empty beach lined with coconut trees. Clear water gently lapped up onto the pristine sand. Along the edges of the beach were massive rocks which we also explored. After we grew tired of that beach, we continued exploring the island.

The rental agency informed us that wild rock wallabies usually came out to the road around 4:30. Apparently they had gotten used to people feeding them carrots, apples, and oats. They were so cute and so friendly!

Finally, we wrapped up our explorations by heading to one last beach on the west side of the Island (aptly named West Point) to watch the sunset. We saw a lot in our one full day, but there were many more beaches, hikes, and sights to see on the marvelous and magnificent Magnetic Island.

Whitsundays, Australia

If you look up amazing beaches on Google you will most certainly come across Whitehaven Beach on the Whitsundays Island. It is a white sand beach with turquoise water that seems to go on and on. This beach was a must see on our Australian trip. So our good buddy suggested we take the Ride to Paradise run by Red Cat Adventures to really enjoy our visit. Unlike other Whitsundays trips (where you stay on the boat) we took a speed boat to a beautiful resort where we lived it up for two days. On day 1 of our trip we took a 25 min boat ride to Paradise Cove Resort. Initially thoughts… yep we were in Paradise! The video we had seen didn’t do it justice. It was better than we could have imagined. Thatched bungalows sat on a beautifully manicured property that overlooked the water. The main house was expertly decorated as was our private room. Behind the main house was a lovely pool, spa, and further on were the tennis courts. Around the resort there were hammocks as well as recreational activities (billiards, table tennis, kayaks, stand up paddle boards). We immediately got into swimsuits and began the relaxation. Our trip had about 24 people, but with the size of the property you could have had complete privacy if you desired.

We had an early morning the next day due to the tides. We loaded into the speed boat to head to the snorkeling sights and Whitehaven Beach around 8:00. The water was pretty choppy on our way out, but bouncing around on the speed boat was as eye awakening as a second cup of coffee. There is nothing like the sun shining on you as the wind and surf whip against the side of a boat and spray ever so slightly on your face. We arrived at Whitehaven and hiked to the beach. The excitement was mounting. We had made it! The sand on the beach was everything advertised. It felt like walking on a floor covered in flour. The water was a little chilly, but super shallow and clear as glass. We were able to spot a couple stingrays gliding along the ocean floor. Later, we hiked up to the lookout point and made sure to get those Instagram worthy shots.

Time for snorkeling! We headed to two locations to admire the coral and sea-life. Our first site had coral of all kinds. There was some that looked like tree branches, spaghetti, gigantic rocks, and my personal favorite the folds of the brain. Most of it was pretty vibrant with red, orange, and blue being the predominant colors. Since it was winter the water was pretty cold so I didn’t last longer than 25 minutes despite the wet suit. The second site had TONS of fish. I mean fish the size of a toddler. It was pretty freaky to be swimming and all of a sudden a fish coasted by effortlessly at shoulder level. Personally, the number of fish freaked me out so I got just close enough to admire them and then got back on the boat. On our ride home we spotted several whales off the side of the boat. It was spectacular to watch their tails raise up out of nowhere in a spectacular fashion.

We headed back to the resort in the early afternoon to do some more relaxing. We jumped in the hot tub, watched the sunset, and played some games with several of the people on the trip. Later that evening, one of the guides brought over a “cute” little snake that he found in the rafters. Again, I was cautious around the local wildlife and admired him from afar. The night continued on with a group of us chatting under the Southern Cross. To be honest, between the swimming, the sun, and the AMAZING sheets that we were sleeping on, I couldn’t wait to jump into bed.

Sadly, the next day was our last day. We gathered our things and climbed aboard the boat. We had one more stop before being brought back to the Marina. Our boat dropped us off on a little sliver of a beach. The beach was again very white and filled with coral and shells. Yet, the longer we sat the bigger the beach got. The tide began to pull away and reveal a walking path to an adjacent rocky island. While others went snorkeling, we enjoyed walking along the sand and looking for shells and other small wildlife. Our Whitsundays trip was one of my favorite experiences in Australia so far. The natural beauty of the area is unlike anything I had seen before. In addition, our trip with Ride to Paradise was outstanding. The staff were friendly and welcoming and had knowledge of the marine life. The resort was beautiful and immediately had us feeling relaxed. All of the meals were freshly prepared on-site and were delicious. The equipment (snorkels, wetsuits, boat) was well-maintained, which in our eyes is a sign that the company truly cares about their product. All in all another great adventure down under.