Early September, I happened upon a post on flyertalk.com boasting an excellent fare to Palau on Korean Air. Given the price and the dates of travel and the fact that I’d get to fly the Super Jumbo A380I booked quickly and the adventure began. Following is the trip report.
Places Visited: Seoul, South Korea and Koror, Palau
Travel Dates: December 21 – January 2
Carrier: Korean Air
Plane: A380 / B757
Routing: LAX – ICN – ROR/ROR – ICN – LAX
I was excited to fly the new Airbus 380, and also experience a new carrier.. The plane was massive! Boarding required 3 agents managing the traffic with signs and multiple announcements to get everyone herded into the plane in an orderly and timely fashion. the A380 is 3 stories – first holds cargo, second houses first class and coach, 3rd is business class and a sit down lounge (which was roped off and not accessible to those of us in the back of the bus.) The plane was packed and there were no empty seats on the plane. Everything was new, state of the art, and clean. I was seated mid cabin on the 2nd level, window seat. I specifically chose a window seat so that I could lean against the side of the plane during the 13 hour flight, maybe catching a wink or two to make the time go by faster. However, due to the massive size and very rounded shape of the fuselage, there was too big of a gap between the seat and the side of the plane – so attempts to lean on the pillow supplied were fruiteess, and required levels of contortion too uncomfortable to allow for sleep. Oh well. I managed to score a window bulkhead/exit row on the way back – more leg room but the same issue. Other things I found annoying: On the outbound the (extremely) beautiful and young flight
robots attendants insisted all shades be drawn and cabin main cabin lights were turned off. This despite a 11:30 am departure from LAX and a 5:30pm arrival in Seoul. Not really conducive to time zone acclimation. In addition, stickers are supplied that you can place on your headrest indicating that you do not want to be woken up for a meal, which I used on the return flight as I had been up 24 hours at that point and needed to snooze. Interestingly everyone is required to put their seat up in full upright position when meals are served so I was woken up anyway and told to put my seat up! Funny.
Due to waiting until the last minute to book my trip and it essentially being a stopover on my way to Palau, I hadnt planned anything for Seoul. I was only there for 3 days and knew I would be more than content just wandering around and taking in the culture and ambiance of the new city while battling jet lag. I had briefly looked into a DMZ tour, but due to the passing of Kim Jong Il three days prior, I wasnt confident the tours would be operating. I was there December 22-25, so finding a hotel at the last minute proved to be daunting. Enter Starwood Platinum Concierge, who was able to book me at the sold out Westin Chosun Seoul based on the guaranteed room availability benefit. The hotel was great, centrally located, nice lounge, good sized and well appointed room. Also very easy to get to and from the airport via the reasonably priced Korean Air bus, which runs every 20 minutes to/from the hotel. I would highly recommend the hotel – though with the warning that you should expect to pay an additional 10% ‘service charge’ on top of room and tax. This charge is to cover gratuities for the service personnel at the hotel. While I found the service superb at the hotel, it seems a little unfair to charge based on room rate, rather than a flat per head charge. Compare someone staying two to a room and on an award stay versus someone who pays rack rate / single occupancy. I understand this is not unique to the property, and quite common in Asia, so in no way a judgment on this particular property.
It was very cold in Seoul and I was glad I brought my big warm down jacket (though “authentic” North Face down jackets and other authentic (fake) items could be had at the local markets for a very good price!) I spent most of my time walking around the city – which was decked out in festive holiday fare. I hiked up to the famous Seoul Communications Tower, did lots of shopping and eating, and in one particularly early jet lagged morning, decided based on a few reviews, that I had to try to go on the USO DMZ/JSA tour – particularly desirable because it includes the JSA – generally off limits to all other tours and sponsored by the Seoul division of the USO. I called to inquire, but the tour was sold out. I was disappointed, but also told that I could show up the next morning at 7am and should anyone fail to show up I could go. I took the chance, and made my way there in the cold and snow. Luckily there was one no show and I made it on! And what a shame if I hadn’t. This proved to be the highlight of my time in Seoul and a trip I would recommend everyone take!
Next on the itinerary was the flight via Korean Air to Palau. For some reason the flights to / from tend to be late night so the outbound left at 8pm and arrived at 1:30am. The return left at 3am, arriving in Seoul at 5am. The flight was uneventful, and I had a bulkhead row to myself on the way there. Before I knew it I was waking up to the captain announcing our descent into Palau (after a 5 hour flight.) Stepping into the humid 85 degree air was quite a change from the dry 15 degree snowy weather I had just left in Seoul.
The Penthouse Hotel, which was where I would spend the next 7 nights, had a driver waiting to pick me up and we quickly made our way to the center of town where the hotel was located. The Penthouse is not a luxury hotel, yet it is very adequate for the budget traveler who is looking for a clean, safe, room, with a few little things that make the stay comfortable. Also convenient to a couple of large grocery stores, which are right across the street. My room had a balcony (though the view was nothing special) and very quiet, well functioning air conditioning, a small refrigerator, and kettle for tea. There were also coin operated washing machines that came in handy as well as a room with a microwave that quests could use. I was very comfortable there in a week that was spent mostly out and about enjoying the island.
Palau is a diver’s paradise. This is really important. I’m not a diver. However, I do love boats, beautiful tropical locations, water, and a good snorkel, and there is plenty to do if you enjoy these activities as well. Palau is also home of a unique and unusual place called Jellyfish lake. I had learned about JL a long time ago, and had always dreamed of going there – a special place unlike any other in the world, and where the jellyfish had evolved to have no poisonous stingers due to the fact that their protected lake contained no natural predators. So when I read about a special Korean Air airfare offered via expedia and travelocity (most likely a ‘mistake fare’) I didnt think twice about booking – especially since availability coincided nicely with the holiday shut down at work. The mistake fare didnt stick, though once KE decided it was a mistake TWO months later, offered a good (though higher) replacement fare. I decided to go for it, despite having mixed feelings about being charged almost double two months after booking. The island is very close to Asia, Guam, The Philippines, so a lot of tourist activities cater to this clientele. I was definitely the minority in the place, and despite English being the official language, it was hard to communicate at times (most of the local Palauans speak their native language, with English as a second language.) I also found that outside of the water based activities, there wasnt much to do on the island. There are no beaches of note, and a fair bit of poverty and substance use. And aside from downtown, one really does need a car to get around. I didnt have one the duration of my stay and while tour operators will pick you up for tours you book with them, you will have some trekking to do to get anywhere else. I did get tired of being singled out and the ‘cat calls’ that came with my exploration on foot as a solo female traveler, which is one of my favorite things to do. I spent one day at Palau Pacific Resort, snorkeling in the bay and lounging on the man made private beach in front of their property. While I didn’t stay here, the property was divine and I imagine the rooms we equally as nice.
Overall, the trip was a fabulous eye opening and beautiful experience (as is every trip I take) worth every hour spent in coach and every dollar spent JUST to experience Jellyfish lake. I only wish there would have been a daily ‘shuttle’ or two that only went to JF Lake. The only way to do that is via a charter. Otherwise, you must book a tour that has a stop here on the itinerary. A shame as were it not for this, I would have gone each and every day for a visit!
In hindsight, I would have probably spent more time in Korea and less in Palau. There is not much to do on the island itself, and there are only so many days you can spend snorkeling the same spots, on the same tours if you are not a diver. As always, YMMV.