Tips for Enjoying your Niagara Falls Trip

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View from the observation deck at Journey Behind the Falls

Niagara Falls is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. It’s like the Eiffel Tower, a grand monument that brings people from all over the world clambering for a closer look. As a major tourist destination, it’s easy to get wrapped up in over paying for things and miss out on some hidden gems.

So here are are couple points to consider when planning your trip to Niagara Falls

Don’t stay at the major hotels in the tourist district. Yes, there are some benefits to staying in the tourist area. Lots of things to see and do are walking distance. There are convenient bus stops. But that’s about it. Unless you’re really set on spending your days at the casino or need to be two doors down from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, there’s no reason to spend on a big hotel.

Just a short way away from the main strip is the residential area. Along the river there are dozens of charming b&bs. There are bus stops, super markets, and downtown restaurants within walking distance or a short drive away. B&Bs are typically cozier and much more cost effective. Even looking at deals on Groupon, the b&b we stayed in was about 1/3 the price of the large hotels even after a discount.

Try the local restaurants and super markets. Instead of hitting up Subway and Starbucks try some of the local favorites. Our b&b host had a list of recommendations and we also enjoyed wandering around Queen Street to see what looked good to us.

Our favorites on this trip were Paris Crepes Cafe  on Queen Street and Frijoles  on Portage Road. We did, of course have to try some poutine as well and made our one food stop in the more touristy district to do so at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

Visiting the local supermarkets is also a great way to save money on meals (most have some prepared food to grab for a quick lunch or dinner) and to see local culture. I love visiting supermarkets when I travel and finding all the surprising little differences. Local liquor stores are also a treasure trove. The local stores are a great place to get souvenirs too. Pure maple syrup at the tourist souvenir shop is easily twice the price you’ll find it at the super market. Local sweets and wines are also much cheaper where the locals shop for groceries.

Buy the Adventure Pass. Learn from our mistakes. We didn’t buy the pass and regretted it. If you want to spend a couple of days taking advantage of all the cool things Niagara has to offer, you might want to invest in The Adventure Pass. There are a couple different options, but each pass gives you discount admission to various activities and sights in Niagara and Niagara on the Lake. The pass also gives you a two day bus pass which will take you almost anywhere you want to go and save you money on parking.  Some areas near the Falls charge as much as $20 CAD for parking. Even free attractions will usually have a price on their parking. And certain attractions like the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist boat ride cost about $90 per person before the discount.

Enjoy the views and take your time. The Falls are a natural wonder. And the Niagara region overall has a lot to offer. If possible, spend a couple days to slowly enjoy and see the Falls from different angles and perspectives. This is also one of the few places where I would advise giving the museums a skip, or at least not spending too much time on them. Go out and enjoy the beauty of nature instead of simply reading about it. Journey Behind the Falls provides a bit of historical context if you read the placards on the wall along your walk through the tunnels. But if you really can’t help yourself, the Niagara Falls Museum has free admission on Thursdays.

We did a lot of research before our trip to find what there was in the area to suit our interest and we still ended up missing a few things. I guess we’ll just have to go back. Hopefully though, this will help you plan for your own trip to Niagara Falls.

Gardens and Wine in Niagara on the Lake

Niagara, Ontario is home to one of the most iconic natural monuments in the world. Millions of tourists flock there to get a look at the three waterfalls that make up the “Falls.” Around the falls are plenty of touristy attractions. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Niagara Casino, big hotels, gift shops, and chain restaurants. There certainly are plenty of things to do after you’ve had your fill of the falls, but if Casinos aren’t your style, Niagara on the Lake might be.

Just north of the falls, bordering Lake Ontario, is Niagara on the Lake. The quieter, less built up area is a short drive or bus ride away. On our trip, we dedicated one day to this part of Niagara. It has plenty to offer when it comes to nature and wine.

The Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture + Butterfly Conservatory:

The Niagara Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture is free and open to the public. The whole garden is 100 acres, so you can ramble around for as long or as short as you like. There is also rest area with bathroom facilities and food.

The gardens have some areas which are highly polished and manicured, such as their European style rose garden with a large fountain at the center. But other areas are left a bit more wild. Plenty of happy bees were enjoying the abundance of the garden on the summer afternoon we visited. The garden is not only for visitors, but is part of the School of Horticulture as well. Some of the beds will actually be student projects. The lovely herb garden features plenty of tags indicating student work, as well as an olive tree (ambitious in the climate) and many varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs.

While studying the tags in the herb garden, I ran into one of the grounds keepers. She explained to me that while certain plants will never reach their full potential in the Canadian climate, such as that olive tree, the garden’s goal is to educate. They enjoy showing people plants they have never seen before. The students grow vegetables in dedicated beds, so it’s a practical garden as well as an attractive one.

On the grounds, under a large glass dome, is the Butterfly Conservatory. Exotic butterflies from around the world enjoy a home there. On this trip, we decided to pass on the Conservatory, but it’s definitely something worth visiting with children. It’s a chance to teach them how to handle a butterfly gently (never touch the wings!) and it can be a great photo-op since the butterflies are a bit used to being handled and tend to land on visitors. There are tons of photos and videos online showing people enjoying the company of butterflies.

The Butterfly Conservatory and parking at the gardens is not free, though admission to the garden itself is. The Butterfly Conservatory is $15 CAD and parking is $5 CAD.

Inniskillin and the Niagara Wine Trail

Inniskillin is known as a pioneer in modern Canadian wine making. By grafting European vines onto North American roots, they grow fine quality wine grapes that are resistant to local pests. The vineyard was one of the first in the region and it opened in 1974. In 1991 they gained fame by winning first place at Vinexpo in the dessert wine category. They won with their now famous ice wine. One of the first major producers of ice wine in Canada, they set a trend in the area and now the Niagara region is famous for it even though the original concept came from the German tradition of Eiswein.

At Inniskillin you can have a brief tour and tasting for $10 CAD. On this tour you visit some of the vines and peek in the production rooms. There’s a video that explains the unique way ice wine is produced, and a tour of the cellar where they age both ice wines and table wines. The tour ends with a tasting of two table wines and two ice wines. Your tour ticket also serves as a coupon in their wine shop for $10 off your wine purchase.

I personally love learning about how things are made, so the tour was very interesting to me. The tasting was what we were all waiting for though. After trying a white and a red table wine, they serve you a still and then a sparkling Vidal ice wine. Ice wine is very sweet and usually a white wine, though it’s available in red varieties too. Some varieties have a syrupy, honey-like taste and consistency. A this tasting I was able to finally find a wine my husband will drink, so it was an especially successful day for me. If you want to taste more of the wines available at Inniskillin than the tour offers, the wine shop also has tasting sets of table and ice wines.

Because of Niagara on the Lake is set between the falls and Lake Ontario, the area has what’s called a micro-climate that makes it one of the best regions in Canada for wine growing. The micro-climate makes the region more temperate overall, and the soil has a high level of clay which reduces the need to water the vines. There are 25 vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, so if you’re very interested in wines and vineyards, you can take a trip down the Wine Trail. Check out their site for events and maps.

There’s a lot to do in Niagara beyond visiting the Falls. Personally, I think I need to spend a weekend just doing that Wine Trail. Niagara on the Lake is definitely worth putting on the schedule for your trip to Niagara, Ontario.

I’m off to Canada….

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I’ll be right about… there.

It’s getting really hot here. Humid, sticky, gross. While most people will be heading south during the Fourth of July holiday (everyone wants to be in Florida for some reason), I’ll be giving the equator a wide berth. I’m fleeing to Canada. The land of Tim Horton’s, moose, maple syrup, and other various stereotypes.

When I searched “Canada” earlier through the great and powerful Google, the first news story to come up was from the New York Times, “Canada Doesn’t Know How to Party“. So it sounds like a very me place. It’s actually an interesting story about national identity and culture, worth a read if you want to know more about Canada.

My only experience of this country that shares a continent with the place of my birth has been the Vancouver airport. That was pretty nice. So I’m excited to finally be on true Canadian soil. This will be my first border crossing by car as well. It will be my first on the ground passport check too. I’ve only ever been through border control in airports. Traveling by train through Europe is a smooth and check-less process.

So, I’ll have some new material for the blog, which is good news. I’m also going to post some more Korea based things coming soon. I’ve been going through my back logs of photos and looking for things that I’ve never really discussed on the blog. I haven’t talked much about some of the cool places I’ve been like Versaille in France, Jeonju and Nami Island in Korea, Hong Kong, Kyoto. I’d love to do some pic spamming and pool some resources for people who are interested in making similar trips (How to book a tea ceremony in Kyoto and things to do along the Hamburg waterfront, for example.)

I promise to try and keep things interesting until my next international trip. If you guys will bear with me through my boring American days I hope I can still manage to entertain you. There are still plenty of adventures to have and delve deeper into.

I’d also like to keep the invitation open for discourse on my blog. If there is anything about Korea, travel in general, teaching abroad, or any other locations I’ve traveled to that you’d like to know more about, please put it in the comments. I’m writing about what I find interesting or has effected me personally. But I’d like to know what you find interesting. Do you want to know about teaching in Korean Hagwons? Staying with a host family you can barely communicate with? Packing light? Travel resources? Getting married in Korea? I don’t know, but I’d love it if you gave me a hint.

Oh, and a quick note: we booked our room for this trip+through airbnb. When you do that, they send you a code to offer to other first time users. It will give you $40 dollars off your first booking through them, and for the sake of transparency, it will give me $20 of credit as well. I really like airbnb (and pretty much all hotel/motel alternatives) and I thought some of you might be interested in this code. It’s a mutually beneficial situation, so here’s the link.

Observations of America Part 2

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Nowhere has its charms

It’s been almost two months since I came back to the US. Since arriving, I’ve been able to get a few things sorted out. I have a job as a barista at an Italian coffee house. I started planting my garden. I started making candles and soaps again. These were all things that weren’t really possible for me in Korea. I am enjoying having a bit of peace and quiet in the countryside and even though my college degree is basically useless at my current job, it’s less stressful for me.. Overall, I believe it was a good decision to come back. That being said, I still look forward to traveling more (Sweden is slated for the end of the year!) and living abroad again within the next few years.

While in America however, I want to travel around a bit more as well. I haven’t explored the country of my birth as much as I ought to perhaps. So I’ll be blogging about my upcoming visit to New York city and surrounding areas. I’ll also do some throwback posts about Korea and other destinations (I never did France and Germany justice last year, I realize looking back at all of the notes and pictures I took). Here though are a few more observations about America that now strike me as a little odd after living away for a few years.

1. Americans don’t care about English. This, as with all of my generalizations is just that: a generalization. Some people care about grammar and having a good vocabulary and correct pronunciation. Most do not. Most Americans don’t care or don’t even notice if they use an adjective in place of an adverb. When meeting with a childhood friend, he said, “It’s been so long since I seen you!” The English teacher in me wanted to scold him that saw was of course the proper past tense. Sometimes I think if I hear another person pronounce “mozzarella” as “mutz-er-ella” I think my head is going to explode.

For people learning English as a second language, this should be a great relief. English is complicated and confusing. It has its gloriously lovely bits, it’s ugly bits, and it’s ridiculous bits. Even in a country where it is most people’s first language, it’s not taken that seriously by most of the population. And most Americans don’t seriously study a second language either, so if anyone gives you a hard time, just ask them how many languages they know.

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Just a pretty picture of some nearby historic buildings.

2. Tipping is terrible. Because people in service industries get paid such low wages (minimum wage in the US is $7.25, waitresses however only get about $3.00 an hour), many are dependent on tips. Every time you eat out, you must calculate the fact that your meal is going to cost about 20% more, the customary amount for tipping. Tax is also not factored into the price of things ahead of time either as it is in countries such as Korea. An tax varies from state to state in the US from 6-9%. So a ten dollar item will actually cost $10.60-$10.90 depending on where you purchase it.

Some tipping is polite and encouraged in some cases in other countries as well, but it’s not nearly so depended upon as it is in the US. Whether or not to raise the minimum wage by scaling it to the economy and make it a livable wage is still a hot button topic in the US. It was originally established to be the minimum that a person could earn to support themselves, however, it hasn’t increased along with inflation. As for why a waitresses wages are so low, her tips are factored in. The customer, not her employer, is supposed to make up that remaining hourly wage by tips.

3. Disposables are everywhere. Every American home I have been in has a stash of plastic shopping bags that they have collected from the supermarket. Bags are given freely and excessively. I have to beg cashiers to let me bag my own groceries or else I have a dozen bags at the end of a shop. A loaf of bread will be given its own bag. Anything somewhat heavy such as a sack of onions or potatoes will be double bagged to prevent tearing in spite of the fact that they already are packed in their own sack.

My husband and I have purchased our own reusable bags to take with us on grocery runs. We also have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German owned market chain that charges people for bags to keep prices low and encourage reusable bags. But bags aren’t the only problem. People (such as my own father) use paper towels and disposable plates in their own homes. Instead of investing in some tea towels to wash and reuse or washing their dishes regularly, they make mountains of paper, plastic, and styrofoam trash. These items are cheap, plentiful, and convenient, so these habits are much more common than in many other countries that are a bit more “green” conscious. The idea of lessening one’s carbon footprint and eschewing the use of disposables is still seen as an alternative lifestyle in many communities here. If you bring your own bags to the market and bike or walk where it might be more convenient to drive, you might be seen as a bit odd. Which brings me to my last observation of the post…

4. People drive everywhere. In most areas of America, it is absolutely essential to have a car. Unless you live in one of the five or so major cities that have a well saturated public transit system, you must have a car to keep a reasonable schedule for work. I love the convenience of having a car as well. You can stock up on things like, say olive oil, which might be quite heavy and awkward to carry home by walking or on a bus. You can buy a couple gallons of olive oil and have no concerns about how to get it home. However, since moving back, I sometimes feel like my muscles will atrophy with lack of use. Exercise isn’t something I get easily through my every day life, it’s something I have to make time for.

In such a society of convenience and of enthusiastic motorists who love their cars, Americans tend to over-drive. In a large shopping center, they may move their car from shop to shop instead of walking the extra hundred meters. The same with running errands in town. People may take their cars to visit the post office which is only a few blocks from their house. If you choose to walk anywhere further than a block or so to do something, you are often met with surprise. So many people are missing a very simple and pleasurable to way to get some exercise and fresh air.

I’m glad I came back to America and there are many things I am enjoying about my life here. However, it’s a weird place. Like any other, it’s got plenty of quirks that may be hard to understand for others. For me, there has been a big benefit to travel. I can see the ideas and practices from other countries and cultures. It helps me to have a better perspective on life here as well, not just accepting things as they way they are. I believe that is the point of travel, to give perspective and exchange ideas.

Some Observations of America

It’s been less than a week since we touched down in America. After so long outside the country, it’s a bit of an adjustment. Here a few observations.

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Cliche’ wing of the plane shots
  1. People are losing their minds over chip and pin cards. They’ve been the standard in other countries for many years, in some cases, even a few decades. I haven’t had to swipe my card and then sign for something in years. I even had to write a check for something the other day. It was shocking.
  2. Small town America is chatty. My husband has always been in bigger cities. It was a shock to the system for him when strangers in the local super market randomly made conversation. He was perplexed and suspicious. Even I’ve fallen out of the habit in spite of growing up in a small town.
  3. The food isn’t what I remember. I missed so much food, but now that I’m here I’m not as excited as I thought I’d be. I am definitely happy to have the awesome American super markets again ($2 strawberries!) and have a large oven to use, however, eating out isn’t as exciting. I was super pumped to get some Mexican food, which is expensive and hard to come by in Korea. I realized I’m not used to the portion sizes anymore. Even though I was very hungry, I could only finish about half my meal.

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    Fine American Dining
  4. Everyone is less formal in the way they dress and groom. In Korea, makeup and skin care are taken very seriously. Personal appearance has a very high cultural value which can be both refreshing or irritating. Here, the attitude is just the opposite. If people are just out running errands or having some food, they are often dressed very casually or even a bit sloppily. Though it is nice to see people taking pride in how they present themselves, at least I feel less conspicuous if I didn’t have time to do anything but throw my hair into a pony tail and rub on some Burt’s Bees.
  5. Some things are very open here. In spite of the conservative streak that runs through American society, they are pretty open here about some things. At least compared to Korea. Your regular town pharmacy will stock a small selection of adult toys in it’s “family planning” section here. You would never see that in Korea. Though, it’s still a far cry from Germany, where such things are sometimes stocked in vending machines in pub toilets alongside the tampons and headache medicine.

We’re back in America for a while now, though certainly not for good. It’s still early days for us as we get settled in here. I still have a back log of posts about Korea, a few trips planned over the next year, and new American adventures to write about. Stay tuned!

5 Things I’ll Miss About Seoul, 5 I Won’t

After three and a half years, I’m leaving Korea. It’s time to start new chapter, so my husband and I are heading to America. Our current plan is to spend 1 year (2 max) in America before making our next international move.

I’m very excited to start the next chapter, but I know there are a couple of things I’ll miss about Korea. So here’s a mini-catalogue.

I’ll miss… the simplicity of my life here. Living in Seoul lets me live without a car. Public transportation is amazing, affordable, and easy to navigate. I’ve lived in four apartments in Korea, so the constant moving has made me pare down to my necessities. When I think about my friends and family back in the States with their houses full of stuff, I feel overwhelmed. I like keeping my possessions lean, so that when opportunity knocks, you can follow it. It also encourages you to save your money and buy investment pieces instead of cheap throwaway items.

I won’t miss… the occasional lack of creature comforts. Perhaps growing up in America spoiled me, but I always feel a sense of dread using public bathrooms in Korea. Will it have warm water? Soap? Paper towels or a hand dryer? More often than not, washing your hands is just giving them a cursory blast of icy water in a bathroom that might not even be heated in the middle of winter. Apartments are made of concrete that is often unsealed. In the summer, the humidity can seep through your wallpaper. In the winter, your walls are always cold to the touch. And unless you’re living in an apartment that’s brand new and quite expensive, you won’t have a bathtub if you live in the city. I miss baths.

I’ll miss the safety. Korea has a very low crime rate. I had my own brush with danger at the end of my first year here (more about that at some point), but school children can walk themselves to and from school in the middle of a busy city without much worry. America has a much higher crime rate and I can’t help but have concerns about the perception people will have of me and my husband. He’s mixed race and I’m white. Here, we’re both just considered American (in spite of his Korean mother), or even the broader sweep of “foreign,” but in America, prejudice is alive and well. That’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in Korea. Korea can be quite xenophobic, but since we exist outside of the mainstream society, Korean people aren’t offended by our relationship. We are categorically the same to them; we’re not Koreans.

I won’t miss… the lack of diversity. Only about 2% of the population of Korea is not Korean. This can lead to many misconceptions about non Korean people. All white people are assumed to be American, or at least English speakers. All black people are assumed to be from somewhere in Africa. I swear, if another person expresses shock that I can eat Korean food and use chopsticks, I might scream. Things tend to be over-generalized. It’s either Korean, or not. Though everything that isn’t Korean is quite a wide band. For example, Korea is certainly not the only culture with spicy food. It’s not even the spiciest. My friend’s mother is Sri Lankan and her “toned-down” curry was much hotter than anything I experienced in Korea. Cultural ignorance is rampant all over the world, but at least in some countries there is a bit more diverse population to learn from.

I’ll miss… all the cute coffee shops and fun places to go. Being in a big city comes with the advantage of having a lot of options for entertainment. From a handful of nice parks to escape rooms, you can usually find something cool to do. Coffee shops are plentiful and some are really cozy. Now that drip coffee has become trendy, coffee shops that roast their own beans are becoming more common. Nice drinks and a pleasant atmosphere at a local coffee shop can be a lifesaver. Most Korean apartments aren’t sized for entertaining, so meeting with friends, having a casual date, or even getting work done, are all coffee shop activities.

I won’t miss… fighting for space. Any area that has trendy cafes or entertainment is inevitably flooded with people, particularly on the weekends. Festivals and events in the city will have you getting pressed by possibly millions of people. In such a big city that has developed so quickly, most people are numb to it, just seeing other people as obstacles to wordlessly shoulder past. Rush hour on any of the main train lines is a similar nightmare of people wedging themselves into others as tightly as possible so they don’t have to wait for another train. Sometimes I really miss personal space and people saying “excuse me” in any language.

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I’ll miss… the food. I really like Korean food with very few exceptions. And I love that eating out can be quite affordable if you don’t mind sticking to Korean staples. Kimbap shops and noodle places can get you a filling and relatively healthy meal for about $4 usd. Side dishes are refilled for free giving you extra value, which is great when you’re saving up for something (e.g. a wedding and an international move).

I won’t miss… grocery prices. Weirdly though, sometimes eating in isn’t much cheaper that going out. Things that are basic kitchen staples to me are priced luxuriously here. Fresh produce can be easily 2-3 times the price I paid in America. Basic vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and potato are not unreasonable, but most fruits are absurdly expensive. Buying off local fruit trucks can get you a better deal, but they aren’t usually as consistant. Beef is so expensive that I’ve only bought it a handful of times since moving here, substituting for more economical meats (such as pork). Nuts are priced like they’re stocking a hotel mini-bar. Canned tuna is about 3 times the price I’m used to as well. Keeping a stock of healthy snacks and ingredients can be a challenge.

I’ll miss… my friends. I’ve made so many great friends here. Both locally based and others that have moved to Korea from around the world. Of course, many of my friends love traveling too, so seeing them again becomes a greater possibility. And since my husband has family in Korea, the likelihood of our visiting again in the next couple years is pretty high. I’m fortunate to be taking the best friend I made in Korea with me.

I won’t miss… my job. Honestly, I’m feeling quite burnt out by the hagwon system in Korea. This has been a stressful year for me. I didn’t mesh well with the school, and I don’t agree with the educational trends in Korea overall. Chasing kindergartners around all day exhausts me.

Korea was quite a ride. It’s terribly cliche, but I really grew up while I was living here. I lived on my own for the first time, I supported myself, I made amazing friends, I found the love of my life. But, I also know it’s time to move on. I don’t think that staying here will help me grow in the directions that I want to. Korea was a very necessary chapter in my life, but it’s not the whole book.

Winter at Herb Island

I really like plants. Back in America I grew a garden of herbs and vegetables, frolicked in woodlands, and even made my own plant essence rich soaps and skincare. I was kind of a hippie. At heart, I still am. Sometimes living in a city like Seoul can be really depressing for me. It’s gloomy and grey with parks and gardens too spread out for my taste. So my husband decided to take me to Herb Island in Pocheon on New Year’s weekend.

Pocheon is so far north that it touches the DMZ. It’s also pretty rural. He had been there once before and thought the trip might lift some of my winter blues. I’m not sure if it did the trick, but here are my impressions.

1. It’s not an island. I have no idea why they call it Herb Island when it’s landlocked. There’s a river nearby, but that’s about it.

2. It’s a theme park. I get it. Growing herbs out in the middle of nowhere isn’t that exciting of a premise. But like most family weekend places in Korea, it has weird faux European architecture, rides, and cartoon characters. It’s all about selling you stuff.

3. The herbs are legit though. Throughout the park they sell teas, jams, bath products, and candles. Some are made from the herbs grown in herb island. And the teas are pretty delicious. They have some nice soaps and bath bombs too.

4. There are some unique activities too. There is a spa  where you can get aromatherapy treatments and massages with products made on Herb Island. There’s also a craft shop where you can make your own candles and other handicrafts under the guidance of an employee. If you’ve never tried crafting before, it might be a fun environment to try it.

5. There is such a thing as too many twinkle lights. I love twinkle lights. At home we have string lights above our bed. I like having soft light before bed to help me wind down and feel cozy. Herb Island went too far. Possibly because it was winter, there were lights on everything. All the dormant plants in the field were covered by them even. And they were in very bright colors that hurt my eyes when the sun went down.

6. The botanical garden and plant museum are the nicest spots in winter. It’s quite balmy inside with a mix of local and tropical plants. Watch out for the rosemary though, there are rosemary bushes everywhere you turn in the botanical gardens, likely because they use it in many of their products. In the plant museum you can buy your own potted plants to take home.

In summary: I’m glad I went, but I was a bit disappointed overall. I guess I was expecting too much. Very few attractions in Korea offer an organic experience. Everything is polished up and pre-packaged to make money from people looking for a little relief from the soulless city life, but don’t have the time or inclination to really get their hands dirty. I was hoping for a chance to get close to nature. I don’t want to sound crabby. It was a change of scene from Seoul, and I got some delicious hibiscus tea, but for the distance of travel, I think Nami Island is a better spot (and an actual island).