BUSAN - A city by the sea is a beautiful thing.
Amid the chaos of modern life, surrounded by skyscrapers, neon lights and bustling markets, sometimes all you need is a glimpse of the sea to restore a sense of calm.
Situated along Korea's south- eastern coast, Busan is blessed in abundance with this yin-yang charm, which I discover on a trip with SilkAir to mark its inaugural direct flight from Singapore to Busan.
Busan is a city buzzing with culture, markets and vibrant nightlife within a stone's throw of forested hillsides and swimmable seas, with sumptuous seafood to boot.
The city is a coffee lovers' dream too. They are crazy for caffeine, it seems, with cafes serving exceptional espressos, filtered and syphoned coffee every 100m, sometimes less.
I find myself drawn to the city's beaches, enamoured by the peculiar beauty of urban forms juxtaposed with stretches of sand.
Busan has seven city beaches, each with its own character and unique sculptures, slides and floating platforms jutting out of the water.
At Gwangalli Beach, bars and cafes line the strip, with views of the sand, the water and Diamond Bridge, which extends across the bay and dazzles in a kaleidoscope of colours every night with a coordinated display of thousands of LED lights.
Haeundae Beach is another show stopper.
One of Korea's most famous beaches, it stretches for 1.5km along one of Busan's shopping districts in the eastern part of the city, which includes Gunam-Ro, a 490m boulevard of restaurants, shops, a wet market and a pedestrianised centre lane favoured by buskers and artists markets.
Haeundae is a popular destination for domestic tourists who come in the summer months to splash in its cool green waters and picnic on corn coloured sand.
In fact, Busan has not yet caught the eye of many international tourists, which keeps costs low and the city's sights refreshingly authentic.
At its eastern end of the beach, the Haeundae LCT The Sharp is nearing completion.
Its three staggering blue glass and steel towers rise more than twice the height of any surrounding buildings like a proclamation for the city's future.
The mixed-use high-rise apartment complex will include a shopping mall, a six-star hotel and a water park. When it is completed later this year, the tallest of the three, the Landmark Tower, will be Korea's second tallest building at 412m.
I sit and admire the view for a while from Dongbaekseom, a rocky headland at the western end of the beach.
Wooden tracks and paved walkways lead me on a short and peaceful coastal walk along the sea and through the hillside thick with pines and camellia trees.
There are a few of these tracks around the city.
I spy another one at Songdo Beach as I soar above the crystal water in the comfort of a cable car.
Short on time, our group has opted for the easy route to Songdo Sky Park, but visitors could walk along the beach to the 1.3km long Amnam Park scenic coastal trail, then up to the Sky Park for a family-friendly playground of animatronic dinosaurs, small slides and walks among the pines.
Songdo is not far from one of Busan's most Instagram-saturated sites, Gamcheon Cultural Village.
It was a slum populated by northern Korean refugees until the government stepped in in 2009 to renovate the 300-odd homes built atop one another on the hillside.
They encouraged artists to move in and open galleries and, with the help of volunteers, painted the buildings in pastel shades of pink, green, yellow and blue.
Cafes, trinket-laden boutiques and souvenir shops have opened and the neighbourhood is teeming with selfie-taking tourists as a result.
Men and women of all ages come to take pictures, sometimes dressed up as their favourite cosplay characters or in traditional Hanbok.
Our energetic tour leader, Mrs Kim Hyun-suk, tells us not to bother with the usual selfie spots where people sometimes queue for an hour to get their shot.
She is not kidding. We walk by a statue of The Little Prince character perched upon a guardrail and about 100 people are waiting in line to take a photo.
Instead, she takes us to Avant Garde Cafe which has, undoubtedly, the best view of Gamcheon which you can admire at your leisure, coffee in hand.
Maybe it is because it is an overcast day but Gamcheon does not excite me much. The colours are muted and the crowds are overwhelming.
Besides, Busan has so many other vividly coloured sights to see.
Walking down 108 steps to the famous Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, a sign above its entrance reads, "The most beautiful temple in Korea", and I believe it.
Built on rocks by the sea, waves foaming a dozen metres below the foundations, the tiered and gabled roofs of the temple buildings are flawlessly framed by the hill rising behind it.
It is so beautifully situated and settled into the rocks, I cannot imagine the temple ever not being there.
It is almost Buddha's birthday and the entire temple complex is decked in streamers of yellow, pink, red and blue.
The sunlight reflecting off the water illuminates the ornamented eaves and beams painted in geometric designs of pink and teal. Every nook and cranny is saturated in colour.
Decidedly more minimalist in style, the Cheongsapo Daritdol Obervatory is another picture perfect spot.
The 73 m-long platform of wood, glass and bright blue steel juts out from the rocks on the city's eastern coast. Panels of glass below my feet reveal blue-green water which is so clear that I can see strands of seaweed swaying in the waves 20m below.
The water around Busan is so clean that I often see people picking seaweed and cockles right off the rocks.
I wish I could read the notes and wishes that visitors have written on adorable palm-size wooden fish attached to the observatory stairs.
But it is all Korean to me, so we continue along an abandoned railroad track which has been turned into a pedestrianised walkway.
It is the perfect place for a stroll, past fishermen casting their lines off the nearby rocks, looking clear to the horizon.
After a little while, we veer off the path and enter Cheongsapo, a quaint fishing village with a small harbour lined with seafood restaurants and more cafes.
Past neatly piled fishing nets, buoys and crab cages, two lighthouses stand sentinel on the harbour walls, one bright cherry red and the other pure white, both like towering chess pieces.
There are numerous lighthouses up and down Busan's coast.
One of the most famous is at Taejongdae Resort Park at the tip of an island in the city's south.
The park is one of Busan's most scenic areas with pine forests and steep cliffs which drop straight down to beautiful rock beaches.
Walking down one of those cliffs towards the futuristic-looking lighthouse, I can see a few tent-like structures on the rocks below.
I decide to make my sweaty way down the 550-odd steps to the bottom. There, I am greeted by a handful of fisherwomen in bright red vests and wide brimmed visors sorting through baskets of live, freshly caught seafood - sea snails, sea cucumbers and sea pineapples, octopus, flatfish and spoon worms.
I watch customers make their orders, which the strong and cheerful women cut up and serve on a tray to be eaten raw on the shaded platforms along the rocks. No seasoning necessary.
How I wish I could stay to enjoy the view and the salty ocean air.
But there is so much to see and do in Busan I have to wait to satiate my seafood craving at the city's famous Jagalchi market later that day.
There are at least 100 stalls overflowing in organised chaos with seafood in shapes, sizes and varieties I have never seen before.
There are tables and chairs next to some of the stalls where visitors are served the seafood they have selected themselves.
Barbecued, steamed and raw, next to a tantalising array of banchan (side dishes).
I cannot wait to tuck into some myself.
• This trip was sponsored by SilkAir, Busan Tourism Organisation and Gyeongsangbuk-Do Tourism Corporation.
• Lydia Vasko, a former journalist at The Straits Times, is a freelance travel writer.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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