At first reckoning, PyeongChang is an unusual choice for an Olympic host city. With a population of 43,000, it is the same size as Salisbury or Llanelli. The 2018 Winter Games will start in early February – with all due 21st-century glitz – in this lost agricultural corner of South Korea that’s barely changed over the past 100 years: pollock, the nation’s favourite fish, hang drying by the million on racks along the river bank; cabbages, the basic ingredient in kimchi, the country’s spicy staple side dish, grow by the hundred thousand in neat fields.
Despite failed bids for the 2010 and 2014 Games, PyeongChang persisted because South Korea is determined to establish its place in the international ski market, alongside Japan and China (Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics). The accessible snow‑sure area has obvious potential for Antipodeans in their own off season (they’re already enamoured of Niseko, in Japan). Adventurous North Americans can be tempted to head west across the Pacific, while families based in Singapore and Hong Kong provide rich pickings. As yet, Europeans are more elusive, but Richard Rice, founder of Ski Safari, is fast attracting custom for his new Ski Asia Safari. “Skiing in South Korea deepens your understanding of Asian culture, and provides an excellent warm-up for powder challenges in Hokkaido. Lifties who bow are a first.”
While waiting for the invasion – a total of about 8,000 athletes are expected for the Games and the Paralympics that follow – PyeongChang’s citizens go about their business, with the occasional puzzled glance at the 35,000-seat pentagon-shaped Olympic Stadium (which will host the opening and closing ceremonies) rising out of the mud in the Olympic Park. “It’s all very sustainable,” says Nam Lee, senior director of the PyeongChang organising committee. “After the games, the upper floors will come down and the first floor will be a 5,000- to 10,000-seat concert area. No problem.”
This conversation is my first taste of PyeongChang’s resolve to spend less than the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Always slippery, these calculations are even harder to grasp with a zero-heavy currency like the South Korean won (1,496 to the British pound, 1,127 to the US dollar), but Won14tn – around $12bn – is the projected cost. The Sochi figure was finalised at $51bn (although 60 per cent of that allegedly leaked into Russia’s corrupt construction industry coffers).
In the event, South Korea is getting a great deal of bang for its buck. In heritage terms, the bill for the Games includes the newly opened high-speed Wongang rail link, which goes from Incheon Airport via Seoul and PyeongChang to coastal Gangneung, host to the Olympic ice events. The rolling stock is based on French technology – “like our TGVs”, says Philippe Mesmer, Le Monde’s Tokyo correspondent. “Only these will run on time.” The 122km journey to the picturesque fishing port now takes under two hours – a connection with the vibrant capital that will bring much needed development to sleepy Gangwon province long after the athletes depart.
South Korea will also have its state-of-the-art snow zone: four resorts within a 30-minute radius of the Olympic Stadium. The main bend on the road out of PyeongChang takes in the mountain Olympic Village and the gaunt ski jump towering over Alpensia. The nation’s first sliding centre, built for luge, skeleton and bob, spirals through the village fringe. As Yun Sung-bin, winner of South Korea’s first skeleton World Cup title in 2016, is among the hosts’ few medal hopes, no expense has been spared on a handsome layout (a plus for Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, who defends her Sochi Olympic gold).
Alpensia is strictly North American in style, both on the hill, with its fan of glade runs cut through the forest, and off it. The throngs stroll through linked pedestrian piazzas that evoke the US and Canada’s Squaw Valley or Whistler-Blackcomb resorts, which were developed by Intrawest for maximum accessibility and convenience. Supermarkets, Korean and Japanese restaurants and cafés compete with glossy retail outlets. The new duty-free emporium – Armani, Prada, Burberry, Montblanc – sells in dollars: $383 secures a litre of 30-year-old blended Ballantine’s.
In the next valley, Yongpyong offers a more European perspective, with fans thronging around the elaborate bandstand for concerts (the lead singer of Big Bang, 28-year-old G-Dragon – famous for his distinctive androgynous look – is the nation’s number one attraction). From the flat base area, a 7.5km gondola ride takes snow users up to Dragon Peak, with a view towards the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, just 80km away. Officials elevate the blank to an art form when questioned about their super-aggressive neighbour, but they are quick to point out that their country has had no recent terrorist attacks and its crime figures are among the lowest in the world.
Dragon Peak accesses three black runs on the Rainbow sector that will be set up for the Olympic slalom and giant slalom races; on a sunny morning, they’re a technical challenge and a real adrenaline blast. You can return to base on gentle Rainbow Paradise to explore an expansive network of mellow pistes off the Red and Gold peaks. For the blue riband downhill races, the focus is on the newly cut track at the craggy Jeongseon Alpine Centre. Phoenix Park, which stages the ever more popular slopestyle skiing and boarding, completes an impressively compact Olympic mountain picture.
Where to stay? The Intercontinental offers familiar western comforts in Alpensia, while Yongpyong has the Dragon Valley Hotel and several condo options. But the connoisseur’s choice, set in rural isolation 15 minutes’ drive from the main resorts, with stone lions guarding its gates, is the Korea Palace. Opened in July 2016, it fulfils a dream for ex-wrestler Kyu Ok Choi, a collector who never says no to things he loves. These include vinyl records – shelves in one room hold several thousand – and early-20th-century filmmaking equipment.
The hotel is divided into traditional buildings with 23 designer rooms; each has a sunken wooden bath and four have raised beds for western guests. The ceilings are formed of red pine logs, fixed without nails. The furniture, much of it museum-class, features antiques inlaid with mother-of-pearl, silk screens embroidered with exotic birds, and chunky wooden safe boxes. The dining and sitting areas have one-trunk wooden tables with orchids growing in stone pots down the middle.
The garden is cottage industry, its produce maturing into chilli and bean paste and soy sauce in giant earthenware pots. The iconic kimchi – cabbage, radish and chilli in various proportions – is stored in barrels underground. Last winter, British and Norwegian skiers used Korea Palace as a base for Yongpyong and Alpensia, accessing the slopes by taxi and returning to sybaritic evening luxury. Alternative activities include Korean cookery lessons or, for selfie addicts, dressing up in historic costumes with full makeover.
Down in Gangneung, on the East Sea – also known as the Sea of Japan, a name that is anathema to South Koreans since the unsympathetic colonial occupation between 1910 and 1945 – the skyline is marked by gleaming white ice palaces. Most imposing is an ingenious combo for figure and short-track skating, but there are others for ice hockey, curling and speed skating.
Equally dominant on the horizon is The Seamarq hotel. Opened by Hyundai in 1971, it was rebuilt in 2015 as part of the pre-Olympics revitalisation. Given its lovely, pine-fringed sandy-beach setting that evokes the Côte d’Azur in the 1920s, the distinguished American architect Richard Meier worked his celebrated magic with light and glass to create a hotel the embassies will undoubtedly fight over during the Games. Any other time, the 15-storey landmark is the place to stay.
The translucence dazzles in The Seamarq’s waterfront lobby, where guests mingle over Samsung toys at a 20m table made from two great slabs of glossy zelkova wood imported from Japan. Above is Ingo Maurer’s 13m-long Golden Ribbon installation; near the fireplace, a “Steve Jobs” armchair, just like the one he used to launch the iPad. In a nation obsessed with electronics, his ground-breaking career has made him a hero. The Seamarq has 150 rooms, almost all overlooking the shore. Corner suites with hardwood decking and views of the infinity pool and sunset are especially sought-after. For an altogether bigger picture, the Presidential Suite has two bedrooms, a sitting room, dining room, office, Jacuzzi and grand piano – if the 360-degree panorama below, including a lake surrounded by cherry blossom, were not so inviting, no one would want to leave it.
Nowadays, the Korean barbecue is a phenomenon of worldwide popularity, but DIY in its home country brings fresh perspectives. To start, you buy your own beef from a shop lined with chilled cabinets selling different varieties; Angela, my culinary mentor, chose bulgogi marinated sirloin, galbi short beef ribs and spicy sausages. Next, you grill it in an adjoining dining room, four to a table with a built-in charcoal brazier. The rest of the surface is covered with dishes of spices, pastes and pickles, a cornucopia of flavours to be combined for maximum pleasure. This was my first taste of mouthwatering Korean beef; my second, in The Seamarq, confirmed its exceptional quality.
But a real culinary highlight is in the countryside, an isolated but charming, standout French-Korean restaurant called The Antique Café. Chef Kwang You Kim prepares genuinely sophisticated dishes; his wife Eun Jee Koh, cheerfully Gallic in striped apron, serves them. The small dining room cluttered with memorabilia – brass lamps and clocks, an ancient typewriter, shelves of fine wines – could be in France; likewise, an elegantly presented starter of prawn and black pudding, followed by fleshy white fish in a delicate sauce. Not even Angela knew its name in English, but it certainly came straight out of the East Sea. Forget pollock – a taste rarely acquired by foreigners – but don’t miss Gangneung fish market’s displays of massed unidentifiable sea creatures, manned by frenetic traders. As with many things South Korean, it transpires, the combination of exotica and super-sell is compelling.