For someone who's only staying 12 hours on Korean terra firma, I must be mad to insist on staying in central Seoul when there are hotels closer to Incheon International Airport - the country's main gateway. Downtown Seoul is a distant 48 kilometers away. Depending on the kind of transport used, that translates to between 43 minutes to more than an hour of travel time.
|N Seoul Tower tops Mt. Namsan|
Seoul for me is basically a layover just as Istanbul was. Much as I would have wanted a longer stay, my award redemption with Air Canada's Aeroplan limited me only to two stop-overs (i.e. Athens and Singapore) on this personal quest to circumnavigate the world. That being said, I was happy enough with this layover since not all frequent flier miles redemption have as generous a routing as Aeroplan. Yes, Seoul might just be a fleeting glimpse but I'm still thrilled.
What swayed me into staying further away from the airport was availability of free accommodation. I had 62,000 Hilton HHonors points which I wanted to use but there's no Hilton property close to Incheon. For 35,000 points, I snagged a free room at the Millennium Seoul Hilton conveniently located near Seoul Station (as I was planning to use the train from the airport). Had I paid for the stay, it would have cost me USD 348 based on the discounted rate of the room I was eventually given.
|The old Seoul Station|
The Airport Railroad Express (AREX) is the fast & affordable alternative to the usual bus or taxi to/from the airport. There are two lines: the more expensive "Express" (which takes 43 minutes) and the cheaper "Commuter" (which takes 53 minutes). Problem was, the last "Express" train left as I struggled finding a way to get a ticket. Ticket vending machines only accept cash and I had no Korean Won until someone pointed me to an ATM machine on another floor.
In the end, I got on the "Commuter" train which was KRW 3850 (or less than USD 4). There were several stops - including Gimpo Airport which now handles domestic flights - before reaching Seoul Station. Even late at night, this mammoth train station is still busy with commuters. After consulting a map (and virtually orienting myself earlier through Google map), I went outside the station and walked down into a pedestrian underpass. Finding the hotel wasn't difficult at all.
|Millennium Seoul Hilton as seen from Namsan Park|
As I approached the front desk, I was so surprised to find out the entire Singapore Airlines crew I earlier flew with were also billeted at the Hilton. The purser warmly smiled at me. "Small world eh?" was all I could say. "Hope to see you on one of our flights again", she countered before hopping on the elevator with her group. Who wouldn't want to fly with Singapore Airlines?
Another surprise at Millennium Seoul Hilton: I was given an upgrade to a corner Executive Room. Besides a larger room with better amenities, this meant I also had access to the Executive Lounge for a free brekkie the following morning. More surprises were in store for me as I walked into my room. On the desk was a welcome pack consisting of a fruit plate, a box of chocolates and a welcome note. Perhaps knowing of my late arrival, hotel staff already did a "turndown service" to make my heavenly bed ready for sleeping.
|Early morning view from my room|
|Executive Lounge breakfast buffet|
The next day, I went up to the Executive Lounge for breakfast. They had ample warm offerings to really help kickstart another day of flying. It was a beautiful morning as I sat on a table with a great view of Mt. Namsan ("South Mountain") right out of the window. While enjoying the food, I was wishing I had a longer stay, especially as the mountain was beckoning to me.
Realizing I still had time for a quick walk before checking-out, I went out to find several locals doing their early morning routine doing walking exercises on Namsan Park's manicured grounds. Unbeknownst to me, Mt. Namsan is actually considered the most scenic location in Seoul based on a 2011 survey among locals and experts. Topping at 262 meters above sea level, the summit is crowned with the 236-meter N Seoul Tower - a very popular landmark in the city.
Nearby are restored fortress walls that were first built in 1396 and were once part of a much larger fortification during the Joseon dynasty. Seoul back then was known as Hanyang. I ambled along one of the paths, happy at the thought that while time wasn't on my side, I still had the fortune of finding something really important in this bustling city. Now I have more reasons to come back - for a longer visit one day.