Nami Island is a leaf-shaped bit of land in the middle of the North Han River, just an hour north-east of Seoul in Gangwon province. The brochure is filled with stunning photos of autumnal foliage on tranquil tree-lined lanes and a promise of serenity: “Wide grassy gardens where deer, ostriches, rabbits, squirrels, ducks and countless types of birds flourish. Nami Island is a place where not only nature but also human beings can coexist … Human beings, animals and trees share peace, love and harmony far away from crowds and civilization.”
Lured by the poetic description and convenient location, I hopped on the subway and set out for Chuncheon. Despite spending an hour fighting for standing space with decked-out hikers and bikers, my hopes remained high when I stepped off the train—it was a crisp fall day, and I would soon be far from the madding crowd. However, it quickly became clear that I was just one among many, many people with the same hopes.
Fall is potentially the best and worst time to travel in Korea. The scenery is, without a doubt, breathtaking, but so are the crowds. All the roads leading to Nami-seom were so congested with cars that it was easier to approach the ferry dock on foot rather than by bus or taxi. I took the throngs of visitors as an indication of Nami Island’s splendor, but the long lines were just a sign of things to come.
The 460,000 square meter spit of land must have been at maximum occupancy, overrun by camera-wielding couples and kids on tri-wheeled segways. The “wide grassy gardens” were full of picnicking families rather than wild ostriches. The line to board the return ferry stretched nearly the entire length of the island, bisecting Namiseom with people waiting just as long to leave as they had to come. It was hardly the getaway the leaflet promised.
Still, Nami Island is not without its charms, one of them being its quirky culture. In 2006, Nami Island declared itself an independent “nation,” known as Naminara Republic. Visitors are required to purchase a “visa” (one-day pass) or “passport” (one-year pass) and trudge through “immigration” before stepping foot on the island, which boasts its own postage, currency, flag, embassy, and anthem.
And that’s not Nami’s only gimmick—it’s also famous for being the backdrop for the popular drama Winter Sonata. Nearly every lane is dotted with plaques commemorating the filming of this or that famous scene, and there are countless plastic snowmen re-creating the well-known first kiss scene. For drama fanatics, a trip to Nami Island is sure to be a treat.
With the right mindset and a bit of imagination, a trip to Naminara Republic can be a lot of fun. Unburden yourself of any ideas of rest and relaxation and prepare for some crowd-friendly activities, such as people-watching, photobombing, and the guess-how-long-we’ll-be-in-this-line game. But in all seriousness, the beauty promised in the brochure is real. The island’s towering birch, ginkgo, pine, and metasequoia trees are something to behold, as long as you’re willing to share the lanes with tripods and tandem bikes.
For those who simply must see Naminara’s gorgeous fall colors, the tiny nation is most easily reached by a roughly twenty-minute walk from Gapyeong Station (on the Gyeongchun subway line, starting at Sangbong Station on line 7) or by a direct shuttle bus departing once daily at 9:30 a.m. from Insadong (reservation required, more details at namisum.com or 031-580-8153).
While there, consider foregoing the ferry and taking the Zip-wire onto the island for just 38,000 won. Bicycles, sky-bikes, and electric tri-ways are all available for hourly rent, or you can hop aboard an electric tour car that circles the island in about 20-30 minutes. A variety of lodging facilities are available, though not for a bargain (for those on a budget, there are several minbaks, or homestay guesthouses, on the roads near the island).
And finally, absolutely do not leave without stopping in one of the many nearby dak galbi restaurants. This spicy Chuncheon specialty is the perfect way to warm up after a chilly day outdoors.