Glass goes to South Korea: the land of morning calm

THE MENU at Cornerstone – with oysters from Ireland, baked salmon from Norway, New Zealand lamb – is no clue the restaurant’s location and the scene outside the window feels too futuristic to be real: giant LED-screen billboards monopolizing the sides of skyscrapers, with animated displays that bring to mind the hologram commercials in Blade Runner. That was a 1982 movie imagining the year 2019, but this is present-day Seoul and the city’s alluring nightscapes are inseparable from South Korea’s appeal as the capital of the future.

While the  full-on displays outside Cornerstone come courtesy of its street-level location at a cross-roads, for a literal high and a bird’s eye perspective  head over to the Conrad hotel and take an elevator to the top floor for a window table at 37 Grill & Bar. Porterhouse steaks, all flaming and smoking, may intoxicate carnivores but five signature dishes provide tempting alternatives; the wine list is impressively daunting.

Another elegant and lofty location for a meal is Sky Farm where you eat on the 50th floor under a glass ceiling and hanging plants. An all-day brunch menu and splendid views makes it attractive when a break from fine-dining is called for but the window tables need booking in advance.

Four Seasons Seoul

Lobby at the Four Seasons Seoul

High-calibre hotels with top-class accommodation and faultless service are as much a defining feature of Seoul as its nocturnal skylines. They typically occupy towering buildings and The Shilla is no exception in this regard but guests there can opt for rooms with hillside views that make a comforting change from clusters of concrete in this most vertical of cities.

The hotel’s lobby, ornamented with thousands of sparkling acry beads hanging down from the ceiling on strips of nylon, is a glorious affair even though, in keeping with a Korean hotel aesthetic, bedroom décor studiously avoid the ostentatious or swanky. Teak wood is favoured throughout The Shilla’s interior, lending a vintage elegance to a hotel built in 1979 but which feels tremendously modern and international. 

The Shilla Jeju has the perfect location on the island

The Executive Lounge at The Shilla Seoul

The Four Seasons, only eight years old, radiates sophistication with Italian marble bathrooms, a sauna with panoramic views; a three-lane-indoor pool;  a secretive bar and a ground-level area for dallying and feeling chic. The hotel is more than just a place to stay: its split-level Akira Back restaurant, designed by André Fu and his design studio AFSO, deploys slatted wood and hanging lampshades to sublime effect and creates a mood of relaxed and refined luxury; a sake martini here feels as natural a drink as a glass of water.

The food is Japanese but creatively modern in a way that feels borderless and the extensive menu requires time to trim down what may be an initial desire to eat one of everything. Quite different in character is the Mondrian, defined by a playful sense of interior design befitting a location that is convenient for the clubbing district of Itaewon with its trendy and youthful clientele. The hotel has its own three bars, with the one on the rooftop providing night-time vibes gazing over the city.

Amarillo boasts no spectacular views but a meal here make for a lovely evening out in a low-key setting. The décor is smart and modern, there is a bar and signature cocktails, and the menu accommodates vegetarians (not something that can be taken for granted in Korea) alongside a choice of steak sizes.

Seoul apart, South Korea is not well known to European travellers but cities like Busan in the southeast and the island of Jeju off the southern coast are favourite destinations for Asian holidaymakers. With ferries and flights of less than an hour from Fukuoka in Japan to Busan, many tourists head for the broad and sandy Haeundae beach.

The best rooms in one of Busan’s smartest hotels, Grand Josun, overlook the beach and include access to a private lounge for drinks and snacks. Across the road from Grand Josun, numerous seafood restaurants are lively at night and some have iffy, downright eldritch items on their menus like innkeeper worms or (think Oldboy) live octopus.

Akira Back Four Seasons, Seoul

From Busan it takes 30 minutes by train to reach the heritage city of Gyeongju, the capital of the country’s ancient Silla kingdom, filled with temples, palaces and ancient tombs, and only twice as long to fly to the island of Jeju.

The Seoul-Jeju route carries more passengers annually than any other airline route in the world, astonishing testimony to the charm that the island has for Koreans and neighbouring nationals. Jeju is not short of top-notch places to stay and The Shilla Jeju is one of the best.

It shares the impeccable levels of service found in its Seoul sister-hotel but is otherwise quite different. Palatial in design, with sea-facing rooms for views of the sun rising, it has two superb restaurants – Cheonjee and Hinode (Korean and Japanese, respectively) – that deserve special recognition for including vegetarian menus: a meat-free bibimbap is novel and an extraordinarily good burdock japchae with ultra-thin glass noodles. Art work from the quirky to the abstract fills the hotel’s public spaces and the Ollae bar with its grand piano is a lovely spot for evening drinks with live music and outside seating under palm trees.

There is another hotel of exceptional quality on Jeju, The WE, hidden away in the centre of the island. A health resort with its own hospital, its spa facilities are unsurpassed in Korea and guests can purify mind and body in the meditation room, where glass bowls are used to produce auditory relaxation, and the womb-like meditation pool for massages in the water.

The inside pool is bettered by the one outside surrounded by pine trees and a waterfall; and in the landscaped gardens, so extensive that you could wander in them for an hour, the translation of Chosun – a name that Koreans have for their country — as ‘land of the morning calm’ begins to make sense.

The Shilla Seoul

Before leaving Jeju, a meal at Cafe 8 is recommended for satisfying any yearning for comfort food of the Italian kind. Situated in the Grand Hyatt hotel, with views of Jeju town and the nearby airport, Café 8 excels at serving perfect Caesar salads, ginormous tuna sandwiches and pizzas.

Korea is for travellers curious to experience a country that has become a cultural powerhouse in music, films and fashion. Seoul’s urban intensity will not instantly impress as a land of the morning calm but Koreans are calm and courteous, the transport system makes it easy to get around and there are hotels and restaurants that alone make a trip there worthwhile. 

by Sean Sheehan

For more information, see Visit Korea; for organized tours to the demilitarized zone (individual travel is not allowed), see vviptravel.cpm/dmz-tours. For a local sim card or pocket router,  booked in advance and collected at Seoul airport on arrival through