“Christmas” and “Gyeongju” are probably mentioned in the same sentence about as often as “Nascar” and “feta cheese.” However, like any tourist destination with a thriving resort industry, Christmas does indeed come to Gyeongju, and it does so with its own unique style. Over the last decade Christmas in Korea has gone from being observed only by devout Christians to a holiday much heralded by shop keepers and romantic couples alike. The resulting Christmas festivities I’ve heard one sour Scrooge describe as being “just not quite right.” Indeed, the florescent cross-cultural fusion with which Koreans celebrate Christmas probably has both Christmas and Korean traditionalists spinning in their graves. However, as an aficionado of international kitsch, I can only applaud in glee. For what two things on earth are kitschier than Christmas and Korea? It’s truly a match made in Heaven, or Hell depending who you ask.
Of course there’s no better place in Gyeongju to revel in the unholy union of Christmas kitsch and Korean tourist schmaltz than Bomun Resort. It’s been a family tradition for the last few years to have Christmas dinner at the Hilton Hotel’s gourmet buffet (no, that’s not an oxymoron… really). But the Hilton always serves the same food (aside from their sausage fest every October), so this year, for a bit of variety, we decided to try out the Hyundai Hotel Buffet instead. Neither the Christmas kitsch nor the food and the Hyundai Hotel failed to please. Walking through the door we were greeted with a lovely tableau of grinning snowmen perched beside a foam ice model of Cheomseongdae Observatory. Keeping with the theme, next to the wine and cheese shop was another Cheomseongdae covered in chocolate hearts surrounded by gingerbread houses and candy Santas. Then by the window was a Christmas tree arbor with complete with a glowing, papier-mache Rudolph custom designed for Christmas family photo ops. The only thing missing was a pink marsh-mallow model of Seokguram Grotto with Buddha sporting a Santa hat and beard. There’s always next year.
The food of course was fabulous. The Hyundai’s lunch buffet was heavy on seafood, complete with a raw bar, which was perfectly fine with me. I was quite happy to gorge myself on grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and raw oysters. For veggie friendly fare, I was quite taken with the pumpkin au gratin and the herb tomato soup was delectable. The Spanish olives and feta added some flare to and otherwise bland salad bar. The Hyundai isn’t shy about catering to Korean tastes either, which is understandable considering we were the only westerners and the place was packed. The galbi-jim was tender and savory the sliced duck was delicious enough to go back for thirds. I gave the kimbap and chop-chae a miss though. Saving the best for last, the flan and fruit tarts left me barely able to waddle back to the car. Fortunately there was a self-service espresso machine on hand which helped stave off a post-dinner food coma.
A short disclaimer though: After almost seven years living in Gyeongju, I’ve developed a sliding scale as far as restaurants go. The only western restaurants in town (aside from the usual assortment of craptapulous fast food joints) are a half dozen so-called Italian restaurants that put chili pepper in their tomato sauce and cater to colleges kids on dates. So, if you live in Seoul and eat at the Wolfhound or Outback every weekend, then you might not find the food at the Hyundai Buffet to be anything special. The same goes if you’re fresh off the boat from back home. (In fact, I had the displeasure of spending one Christmas dinner at the Hilton with a food snob who’d just arrived from NYC. He spent the whole meal critiquing the food and the whole table wanted to drown him in the Christmas punch by the end of it.) That said, if you’re looking to celebrate a special occasion at a restaurant serving a wide variety of high quality cuisine in a family friendly atmosphere, you could do a lot worse than the Hyundai Buffet. And the gorgeous lake-side view is just icing on the cake.
The lunch buffet is served at the Hyundai Hotel’s “Sara” restaurant from 12:00 to 3:00 pm and costs 36,500 won (including tax) per person. The dinner buffet is a bit pricier at 49,000 won a head and is served from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. Reservations are recommended (phone: 054-748-2233). To get to the Hyundai Hotel, follow N.R. 4 going east out of Gyeongju towards Bomun Lake. At the “T” intersection, turn left and follow the road around the north side of the lake for about 5 minutes. The Hyundai will be the second hotel on your right after the golf course. Those who are car-less can catch bus # 10, 16, 18 or 700 from across from the “Shiwae” Bus terminal. The “Hyudai Hotel” bus stop is just outside the hotel’s main gate.
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