Whichever way you look at it, the agricultural town of Pyeongchang, population 43,000, is an understated choice for an Olympic host. The 21st-century histrionics will focus on local delights at the 2018 Winter Games’ opening ceremony on February 9, but Gangwon Province, east of Seoul, is South Korea’s least developed area.
That’s part of the point. The bill for the Games includes the new high-speed Wongang rail link from Incheon International Airport via Seoul and Pyeongchang to Gangneung, where the Olympic ice events will be held. The 120 kilometre journey to the picturesque fishing port now takes less than two hours, a connection with the capital that allows for development in the sleepy province long after the athletes depart.
The second part of the equation is South Korea’s determination to rival Japan and China – Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics – as a winter sports destination. The length of the season, from December to mid-March, and mountain limitations are a hindrance, but the four resorts within 30 minutes of downtown Pyeongchang are now fully fit for purpose.
The closest is Alpensia, dominated by a towering ski jump and the nation’s first sliding centre, built on the edge of the village for luge, skeleton and bob. Yun Sung-bin, joint second in the skeleton in the World Championships last year, is among South Korea’s few medal hopes, so the facility is state of the art. Alpensia is an American concept, with linked glade runs fanning through the forest and linked pedestrian piazzas at the base. Supermarkets, Korean and Japanese restaurants and cafes compete with global brand retail spaces. The InterContinental and Holiday Inn offer equally familiar comforts.
For a more European perspective, try Yongpyong in the next valley: a glitzy bandstand offers Alpine-style rock concerts, with successful boy band Big Bang’s lead singer G-Dragon as numero uno. The 20-minute gondola ride to Dragon Peak brings up a clear view of the DMZ between North and South Korea. Officials have been trained to ignore questions about their neighbours, but language permitting, they will emphasise crime figures that are among the lowest in the world. The gondola accesses the Rainbow sector where the resort’s three adrenaline channelling black runs will be set up for the Olympic slalom and giant slaloms. A chairlift takes skiers back up to Dragon Peak for the descent to more mellow slopes on Red and Gold Peaks. The blue-riband speed races will take place on the craggy new downhill piste at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre. Phoenix Park, the stage for show-stopping slopestyle, completes a commendably compact Olympic picture.
With limited accommodation in the area, Korea Palace is the runaway winner for style and luxury. A 15-minute drive past racks of pollack, the nation’s favourite fish, drying by the million by the river, and neat fields of cabbages, the key ingredient in kimchi, its spicy staple dish, brings you to stone lions guarding the gate.
Opened in July last year, the hotel is the brainchild of ex-wrestler Kyu Ok Choi, a collector who never says no to things he loves, among them vinyl: 20,000 albums fill one wall in the library.
Divided into traditional buildings, with red-pine log ceilings fixed without nails, Korea Palace has 24 designer rooms, four with raised beds for western guests, all with sunken wooden baths. Furniture is museum-class, with the dining and sitting areas are dominated by one-trunk wooden tables with orchids in stone pots growing down the centre. The garden is a cottage industry, with chilli and bean paste, soya sauce and kimchi maturing in giant earthenware vats.
In Gangneung on the East Sea – internationally the Sea of Japan (an anathema to South Koreans since the 1915-1945 colonial occupation) – white ice palaces compete with cherry blossom to dazzle the crowds.
The most imposing of the new stadiums is ingeniously adapted for figure and short-track skating, with others nearby for ice hockey, curling and speed skating.
The Seamarq, its sandy beach fringed with pines à la Cote d’Azur circa 1925, was rebuilt by American architect Richard Meier in 2015. Acclaimed for his magic with glass and light, he created a hotel where embassies fight for occupancy during the Games.
In the translucent seafront lobby, guests play with Apple toys at a table made from two 16-metre slabs of Japanese zelkova wood or fight over the “Steve Jobs” black-and-white arm chair, a replica of the one used by the e-wizard – a hero in gadget-obsessed South Korea – to launch the iPad.
Down in the fishmarket, amorphous tangles of exotic creatures writhe ahead of their locavore destiny. We have all mastered the DIY intricacies of Korean barbecue, but Korean-French cuisine in rural isolation is much more unusual.
The Antique Cafe is engagingly presented by chef Kwang You Kim and his wife Eun Jee Koh, cheerfully Gallic in striped apron, auburn pigtails and cheeky trilby. The fish is delicious, too.