When my dear friend Marie-Bettina confessed that she owes her stunning visage to her plastic surgeon and Korean skin care products, I decided to check out Seoul.
I got Seoul, man.
No, seriously, while doing a big sweep of Asia, Seoul isn’t that far out of the way and many say it’s an undiscovered secret.
Seoul is not yet much of a tourist destination, but it fills with those on a business mission and offers what they call “health tourism.”
There are day spas in every department store and street market in Seoul; beauty products are sold even from street stalls.
For high-end brands you head to the famed Lotte Department store (three buildings, 10 floors each) or a deluxe hotel. You can also stock up in Manhattan where the latest beauty trend is Korean, from the low-end Missha stores (on lower Fifth Avenue) to the ultra-fancy Amore Pacific with its Beauty Gallery in SoHo and merchandise on the shelves at the exclusive Bergdorf-Goodman.
If you’ve seen as many episodes of M*A*S*H as I have, you know that Inchon is the port city that was developed during the Korean War. They now have a new fancy-schmancy airport and many travelers think it is the gateway to Seoul.
In reality, if you are going to Seoul, you can fly directly there—usually from another Pacific Rim base city, i.e. Hong Kong or Tokyo.
In Seoul, the place to start the Seoul searching is the Shilla Hotel—the only member of the Leading Hotels of the World in Seoul—which has its own free-standing Duty Free store that is a small department store, filled with an international bevy of makeup and skin-care brands (Australian Jurlique; French Sisley; American Estee Lauder).
There is an entire salon of Korean products including ginseng, chocolate-covered pepper paste bonbons and a dozen different skin care lines. Duty-free stores such as this are popular for tourists who receive a 10 percent discount from regular store prices.
Many of the Korean products have unpronounceable names that make you feel stupid, such as the luxe brand Sulwhasoo, brought to you by the Amore Pacific family.
Another good line is The History of Qi, (say Key) whose younger sister line is O-hui. The Qi packaging is glam and exotic but the name of the product is hard to read and pronounce; in fact, if you can’t read Korean, the label appears to say History of Fo!
Sometimes the prices are also exotic, making you wonder how a country such as Korea can have the highest per capita rate of skin care and beauty product usage in the world.
Well-heeled, new money Korean women spend $500 for a jar of Time Renewal cream, the Amore Pacific line’s most famous product. Starter kits or travel packs are sold, but you will pay $150 and up (way up) for a miniature team of five or six products.
These brands are expensive because of the ingredients which are often based on a combination of ancient Oriental medicines and herbs (ginseng is popular) and modern technology.
Charmzone, one of the less expensive brands, offers Albatross Cream to soften and protect the skin. This means having an albatross on the neck is no longer considered a problem.
The inexpensive lines have a lot of charm—Face Shop is similar to The Body Shop but with a wide range of lines and inexpensive products. Nothing costs more than $10; many products—skin care and color cosmetics—cost $3, such as a package of goop made to look like it’s in a yogurt container. There is also a line called Wrinkle Stop, or ones made with soybean and pomegranate; another is called Red Dirt. There are many lines of skin care for men, especially in the less expensive brands created for teens and even pre-teens.
Spa treatments are popular in all forms—malls and department stores have spa services. A big treat on date night is to sign up for Jjimujilbang, where you are provided with shorts and a T-shirt and spend the night on a warm jade floor.
More to Western taste are the hotel spas such as Shilla’s new Guerlain Institut de Beaute, where your treatment begins with a traditional Korean footbath. The masseuse sits in a sunken teak cabin while you lounge on a divan, overlooking the hills behind the hotel.
If you prefer something more traditional Korean, you head to the Park Hyatt Seoul, the coolest hotel in town, created in the CEOX business district across the Han River from the Shilla. The Park Club has a spa menu of over three dozen different treatments.
This time the foot massage is performed in a hand thrown bowl of local pottery; herbs are nestled into netting which is twisted by sticks to wring out every ounce of therapy. Then comes the Korean massage, performed with hands, palms, elbows and tender blows meant to bruise while increasing circulation. I did not bruise and floated away, rejuvenated.
Amore Pacific kisses, SuzyKG
By Suzy Gershman for PeterGreenberg.com. For 25 years, Suzy Gershman has written the popular “Born to Shop” series, now published by Frommer’s. Her most recent book, Where to Buy the Best of Everything, is available now. For more information, visit www.suzygershman.com.
Get more great info on Seoul with the Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Seoul, South Korea.
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