For reasons that have never quite made sense to me, Busan is perhaps best known for the often crowded Haeundae Beach. Maybe being from a country where amazing beaches are a dime a dozen makes me something of a shore-front snob, but I’ve never really been that enamored of the unremarkable stretch of surf deprived beach surrounded by smoky Korean night clubs and more sleazy love motels than you can shake a stick at.
Don’t get me wrong. The Haeundae area has its charms. The always fun Wolfhound Busan is there for drinks and good Western food, there’s Rock & Roll Bar’s stunning 14th floor view of the beach, there’s the Western comforts of Bennigans and Fuzzy Navel, a pretty good Indian feed to be had at Ganga, the often talked about Sharkies (which I’ve yet to visit), a pretty damned good aquarium, and it’s close to the seaside temple I visited with my friend Heather earlier this year.
But for my money, and I reserve the right to change my mind once summer rolls around and I have more chances to explore, Gwangalli Beach in Gwangan is by far the better of the two beaches. Where Haeundae is overshadowed by unsightly sky-scrapers and chain restaurants, Gwangalli has a far less oppressive stretch of trendy bars and restaurants that offer a great view of the beach. By day the bridge in the distance might be a bit of an eyesore, but at night it’s transformed by an ever shifting light show. The far end of the beach, with an improbably ugly skyscraper marring the view, is host to a tiny amusement park by the name of ME World as well as a swathe of fish restaurants with increasingly aggressive hawkers outside attempting to lure you inside.
I first stumbled upon Gwangalli Beach while meeting up with my good friends Anne, Jinho, and Crystal at one of the two Thursday Party locations on the strip. They are separated by a single store-front, and both manage to be just different enough that it’s worth visiting both. I’ve got an entry in the works in praise of the very cool Thursday Party empire – but suffice to say it’s refreshing to find a bar with custom made beer pong tables, a great selection of cocktails, and owners who aren’t above spending their time shooting some darts or sharing a few beers with you.
The 12,000 won cab ride (approximately $12 Australian) was a bit heftier than I was used to paying for a night out, but as the glittering expanse of ocean came into view I was glad I’d decided against an early night. The purples and greens from the bridge mingled with the twinkling of stars and city lights in a way that, while not comparable to the ride over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, made me just a little homesick. Like most Australians I feel most at home by the water, and I resolved to spend some more time exploring the area.
I’ve recently begun seeing somebody and, when she came down to Busan for the weekend, I decided to take her out and show her Gwangali Beach and explore a little more of it for myself. Busan had turned out a pleasant enough spring day – and while the 16 degree temperatures weren’t going to have me rushing for the doubtlessly icy water – they at least meant I could stroll down the beach in a t-shirt and not feel like a lunatic. With stomachs rumbling our first port of call was Fuzzy Navel – a local Mexican chain that boasts overpriced Coronas and a better Mexican spread than you’d expect from a country where corn is a pizza mainstay and sweet potato is often used as decoration on a birthday cake.
Prices are a bit more lavish than you’ll usually pay for a meal out in Korea. A plate of nachos (completed with jalapeños, refried beans, guacamole, and sour cream), a Corona, some vegetarian quesadillas, and a vegetable and refried bean burrito set us back just shy of 40,000 won. Roughly $40 Australian. But it was worth the extra cash. The sun was out and we were out on the deck admiring the ocean view and appreciating a little taste of home. It might not be a patch on the Mexican fare available in Seoul and I’m not sure cabbage was ever meant to be served atop corn chips and salsa – but a visit to Fuzzy Navel isn’t a bad way to change things up from the ddok galbi and kimbap triangles.
Full of delicious food and ready for the next leg of our adventure, we strolled along the waterfront until we happened upon a street lined with booths all offering the same sideshow alley game – the age old challenge pitting a man armed with darts against a wall of balloons. Gentleman that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to win my lady friend a little stuffed companion, and so I sunk 10,000 won into winning her a tiny stuffed puppy that she imaginatively dubbed ‘Chris Puppy’. Buoyed by my dashing display of manliness, I then opted to show off my skills as a bull-rider at ME World.
As far as ‘amusement parks’ go, ME World isn’t much to write home about. There’s a half dozen rides, a few sideshow games, a decent little indoor arcade, and some batting cages. The staff never seem to be at their posts but are quick to rush over if they see you fumbling with some cash and the place looks like it might just cause tetanus – but there’s something to be said for a good old fashioned fair atmosphere. But back to the bull.
I was an abject failure at the first attempt, barely lasting three seconds, but made a much better show of things second time around and drew an appreciative crowd of bemused Koreans. My display seemed to signal a renaissance for the ride as well – and it didn’t want for customers for the remainder of our time there. The girl’s own choice of ride was considerably less adventurous than my own, as she plodded around the park on a mechanized panda for a few minutes to the amusement of myself and one or two of the staff.
Before too long the sky had turned foul and it was time to head for shelter – a cup of hot chocolate at Tom & Toms and then the privacy of a DVD Bang. For those not in the know – a DVD Bang is a room you can rent for about $15. It comes with a DVD of your choice projected onto the wall, an almost comfortable couch-bed to recline on, a few free snacks if you’re lucky, and the privacy that is sometimes hard to come by in Korea. The box of tissues on the nightstand and the plastic covered pillows left us under no illusions as to what the place was usually used for – but I’ll have my readers know that there was no hanky panky to be had.
Far from it. While she spent a few hours catching some zzzzzs while I endured my second screening of 2012.
Rejuvenated from our rest we forged on for an evening of revelry in the surrounding area. A buffet dinner in Sooyoung to celebrate my friend Rhi’s birthday and then back to Thursday Party to meet Anne and Crystal. I green suited up in a belated tribute to St. Patrick; grimaced my way through an awful green beer; and then it was time to call it a day. A late night walk along the beach brought our day’s exploring to an end, but I’m sure I’ll be back in Gwangali again before too long.
Maybe even this weekend…