Set to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, Korea is two years from transcending its current international snow holiday appeal. Fortunately, skiers and snowboarders still have a couple of seasons left to enjoy the country’s famed Taebaek Mountains and ski resorts without the massive crowds.
Snaking down Korea’s eastern side from Wonsan to Busan, the Taebaek Mountains (also known as the ‘Korean Alps’) have given birth to more than 15 resorts across numerous regions. These modern leisure complexes boast English-speaking schools, pristine pistes and the age-old après-ski tradition, chimaek.
The Taebaek Mountains cut right through the Gangwon-do region, reaching a peak of 1,708 metres. This high altitude produces tremendous snowfall each year, which has quickly established Gangwon-do as Korea’s finest skiing destination. Contemporary resorts populate the base of the mountains with lodge-style accommodation, night skiing, family-friendly activities and more.
Korea’s home of skiing
Yongpyong Ski Resort is one of two official hosts for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but is already a crowd favourite. With about 2.5 metres of snowfall each season, Yongpyong’s 28 groomed runs provide the ideal environment for powder hounds.
The resort’s gargantuan size and 15 cable lifts spread out the masses while revealing a range of areas for skiers and boarders of all abilities. The opening hours alone cement Yongpyong as a skiing haven, with skiers and snowboarders seen carving powder as late as 2.30am.
Experienced riders can find a worthy challenge on Yongpyong’s “super-advanced” runs, which offer steep inclines and tight chutes from the 1,458-metre summit. Dragon Park delivers the right ingredients for high-flyers with jumps, rails, boxes and more jibs, while the English-speaking school runs group and private lessons for beginners and experts to polish specific skills.
Race your kids down the sledding tracks or enjoy off-slope entertainment such as karaoke and ten-pin bowling. If you prefer the winter atmosphere without the action, consider some alpine pampering and retail therapy at Dragon Valley Hotel’s Finnish saunas and shopping outlets.
Yongpyong accommodates large groups in multi-bedroom villas and smaller families in budget-friendly hotels. There’s also Asia’s largest ski complex, Dragon Plaza, which features spectacular Korean and international restaurants, along with more hotels and entertainment.
But for those iconic white-powder mountain vistas, catch the Rainbow Gondola to Dragon Castle Restaurant for authentic Korean BBQ at the summit.
Family-friendly snow delights
With lifts running from 8.30am to 10pm, High 1 Ski Resort is an all-day extravaganza that dishes up spectacular terrain down three impressive mountains.
High 1’s beginner, intermediate and advanced runs are all positioned close together, so families with skiers of varying experience levels can still carve powder with each other. The 4.2-kilometre valley course is an excellent starting run with plenty of width, gentle inclines and length for getting comfortable on the board or skis. The terrain park also features three levels of difficulty, along with a half-pipe for fearless trick technicians.
The Mountain Ski House is a one-stop complex for gear, gondolas, arcade games, food and the kids ski school. However, if your odds are better at the tables than on the slopes, Kangwonland Casino is your playground with 200 table games, including black jack, roulette, baccarat and poker, along with slots machines.
Those looking to splurge on accommodation should consider the 5-star Kangwonland Hotel their second home. Its elegant suites peak at the Presidential Suite Room, which is bigger than most apartments with two bedrooms, two lounge rooms and an additional dining room.
Budget-savvy snow junkies can find affordable rooms at High 1 Hotel or Valley Condominium, both of which place you right on the slopes.
A cinematic holiday setting
Introduce yourself to Phoenix Park by skiing or snowboarding down the 2.2-kilometre Panorama run. This beginner slope takes in the endless surrounds of rippling mountains sprinkled with green foliage and pure white snow.
But Panorama is only the beginning of Phoenix Park, where experts can test their limits against moguls and intimidating black runs. There are 22 groomed runs, twelve of which have been internationally recognised and will host the freestyle skiing and snowboarding during the Winter Olympics.
Amateur freestyle addicts can practice their aerial and ground tricks on the Extreme Park’s half-pipe, tabletops, rails and jumps. Meanwhile, newbies can benefit from expert instruction at the adult or child school.
Although Phoenix Park delights adventurous snowboarders and skiers, it’s actually best known for its majestic setting and appearances on popular Korean TV drama, Winter Sonata. The resort’s cheerful village resembles a tiny metropolis encircled by towering mountains, and the snow rarely stops falling during winter.
This village includes a 5-star hotel, condos, villas and a youth hostel, all connected via an underground passageway. Everything’s close at hand including a smorgasbord of restaurants such as self-serve Korean BBQ, a breakfast buffet and the Heineken Lounge with pool tables and foosball.
Most of Korea’s ski resorts, especially those outside of Seoul, offer a more family-focused après-ski environment with fewer bars and more children’s entertainment and restaurants. However, adults can still find a unique après-ski activity during the evening: chimaek.
Chimaek is a favourite Korean tradition encompassing crispy fried chicken and beer. Though not the healthiest meal, you’ll have more than earned your chimaek after a day taming the Korean Alps. You may even want to finish with special Korean liquor known as soju.
Gangwon-do’s premier ski resorts are about two hours from Seoul. Shuttle buses travelling direct from the city centre and Incheon Airport are preferable, as they drop you right at the resort and are designed for transporting skiing gear. Regular public buses cost less, but you might need to take a taxi part of the way.
High 1 is currently one of the only resorts serviced by train. However, a new high-speed railway is being built for the Winter Olympics and will connect Seoul directly to Gangwon-do resorts such as Phoenix Park and Yongpyong.
But there’s no need to wait until then. Do yourself a favour by beating the world to the punch and taking advantage of Korea’s fresh powder, exhilarating slopes and unforgettable culture.
By Ben Stower.