Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Somerset Palace Seoul

Last January, ten months before our trip to Korea, I called Phil at KHRC and asked if he could book us two rooms at the Somerset Palace Seoul. With the G20 summit in Seoul spanning all ten days of our trip, I wasn't sure we could get rooms. We hoped for a three bedroom suite but best we could get was book two one bedroom suites with beds for three (knowing Joy would prefer her travel bed from home anyway).

Once we arrived and settled in, we learned why rooms at the Somerset are hard to book. It is a residence hotel, which made it perfect for our family during our stay in Seoul. (Each room is a small apartment.) But many of the rooms are booked months at a time by people like the American engineer we met who was in Seoul for a year consulting on a building project. Other blocks of rooms are booked 18 months in advance for conferences. So short-stay tourists like adopting and vacationing families have access to a fraction of the Somerset's rooms. Even so, it is worth trying to stay here.

This is a one bedroom suit for three. A one bedroom suite for two is identical except that the twin bed in the living room is replace with another chair and small table. There are louvered pocket doors that close between the bedroom and the living room.

The desk has a phone cable for connection to the Internet. (Or you can purchase wireless for about $20 a week.) There are only eastern outlets so pack conversion plugs. We had problems with our camera battery charger even using the adapters until we plugged it into a converter box.

This is the kitchen. It is fine for microwaving popcorn and boiling water, but don't expect to cook in it. There is no oven or dishwasher and the pots, pans, and utensils are very basic. The cupboards are stocked with dishes for four and the dining table seats two. This is adequate if you don't plan to do much cooking. But I expected more from a "fully equipped" kitchen. The washer/dryer is inside the louvered closet at the top of the photo. The shortest wash/dry cycle is 3.5 hours and even using the instruction manual and consulting the front desk, we couldn't find a way to work around the preset cycles that ended with the clothes wetter than damp-dry.  Next time I will pack not planning to wash clothes. The room has ample storage in built in dressers and closets for clothes and shoes.

One accessibility issue: the rooms have ondol (raised, heated) floors. So there is a three inch step between the small foyer and the rest of the room. For Joy's wheelchair, we'll have to bring a portable ramp, unless the hotel has fully accessible rooms elsewhere. It was odd because the hotel was otherwise accessible.

The Somerset has a lovely garden out back, and another up on the roof.

The pool is only three feet deep. There is also a hot tub and deck chairs, although it was chilly to swim in October! There are dining tables on the roof for picnics in warmer weather.

Besides the Somerset's great location on the western edge of Insadong, two amenities make it worth checking into. There is a complimentary International buffet breakfast in the guests' dining room on the second floor from 6-9 AM on weekdays and 6:30-9:30 on weekends. The American fare includes pancakes, french toast, omelets, toast, peanut butter, jelly, fresh fruit, juice, dry cereal and milk: a nice way for my non-adventurous eaters to start the day. The other half of the buffet includes salads, soups, rice, seaweed, kimchee, porridge and other things eaten world-over for breakfast. For the girls, breakfast always ended with a trip to the playroom with Grandma.

The Somerset also has a free shuttle bus that runs four times a day. Unfortunately, Grandma and I did not discover this until we'd made the 45 minute trek via subway to the Lotte Mart (grocery store) at Seoul Station. We would have had nearly door to door service and a fifteen minute ride on the shuttle. The bus schedule is posted on the bulletin board in the second floor hallway outside the dining room. Monday through Friday, the shuttle makes two morning runs that include the Kyobo Life building (Kyobo books and the Gwanghwamun subway station are in the basement), Namdaemun and City Hall (Seoul Station and Lotte Mart). Weekends, the runs include Dongdaemun Market and Itaewon.

Speaking of transportation, the subway station nearest the Somerset Palace is Anguk on the Orange Line. That is one drawback of staying here if the subway is your favorite way to get around Seoul. There are very few tourist destinations on the Orange Line. Much of the time, we found we needed to transfer and the Blue and Purple line transfers closest to Anguk are of the very-long-walk sort. We quickly figured out that it was faster to walk overland 15 minutes to a Blue or Purple Line station than to take the Orange Line and transfer.

Be sure to stop at the front desk and pick up a few of these cards:

This side gives a condensed map of the neighborhood --not to scale, but very useful for the landmarks. On the reverse, the hotel's address and phone number, plus "Please take me to the Somerset Palace..." are written in English and Hangul. The Somerset is about a 20 minute taxi ride from Eastern Social Welfare Society.

The Somerset is a great place to stay in Seoul. If I hadn't formed misimpressions about the kitchen and laundry capacities ahead of time, there would be very little that did not meet or exceed my expectations. The room was adequate for three people, but small when all seven of us wanted to be together. Next time we go, we'll try booking a multi bedroom suite 12 or more months out for our family. (When we were making our reservations, Phil suggested that the Fraser Suites and Fraser Place Central, also serviced residence hotels, were comparable to the Somerset. Those will be our Plan B.)

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