South Korea’s Jeju Island attracts tourists with Hawaii-like scenery
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2017
Volcanic mountains, waterfalls and scenic beaches are among the many reasons Jeju Island is known as the Hawaii of South Korea.
Located off the southern tip of the peninsula and just an hourlong flight from Seoul, this rocky and windy island is also known as the “Island of the Gods.” It was created from volcanic eruptions nearly 2 million years ago and has a unique culture and environment that helped make it one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature in 2011.
It’s also easy to get to, with dozens of cheap flights per day from Seoul. That and liberal visa requirements make it one of the most popular vacation spots in the world, according to passenger numbers.
More than 1.3 million people made the trip between Seoul and Jeju in July at an average cost of $87.62, making it the busiest route after Sapporo New Chitose to Tokyo with 688,394 passengers, according to Routesonline.com.
A major reason is that it’s a popular honeymoon destination, but there’s something for everybody.
Surfers, swimmers and beachcombers
Summer is considered the peak season as tourists flock to the island to soak up the sun on stunning white sand beaches and swim in the crystal-clear, turquoise seawater. But the island is enjoyable year round. The beaches are commonly lined with black basalt rock that create ideal tidal pools for marine explorers. Windy conditions also make it a popular destination for surfing and other water sports.
Jungmun Beach on the southern coast is one of the most popular with shades of black, red, white and gray sands stretching for about 1,640 feet along a cliff. Gimnyeong Seonsegi Beach provides a more serene setting and is known for having some of the clearest turquoise water on the island.
Those were the only two I could fit in during a recent long weekend trip, but there are many other choices.
Jeju Island is home to Mount Halla, an extinct volcano and the highest peak in South Korea at about 6,400 feet. It’s also at the center of a national park. It’s about an eight-hour hike up and down, but the reward is a view of a beautiful, often misty crater lake at the top.
I only had time for a shorter climb on Seongsan Ilchulbong, better known as Sunrise Peak, which took less than an hour along a well-marked step trail and offered stunning views of the village and ocean below. The peak itself is a volcanic cone formed by eruptions on the seabed 5,000 years ago.
The Sangumburi Crater offers a unique experience closer to ground level and is especially popular in the fall and winter season when visitors can walk through a maze of golden pampas grass. The crater itself is only visible from a fenced-off overlook to protect the more than 400 species of plants, birds and other wildlife inside.
And of course, no island paradise would be complete without waterfalls. Two of the most famous are the 72-foot Cheonjiyeon Waterfall reachable by a landscaped trail and the slightly higher Jeongbang, which is said to be the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean.
Cave explorers and cultural observers
Manjanggul cave is one of the world’s longest lava tubes, but just over half a mile is open for tourists. That’s enough to offer a lesson in volcanic eruptions with colorful lava flow lines, stalactites and stalagmites, and rock formations including a stone turtle. Visitors must climb down two steep flights of stairs to enter the dimly lit and damp cavern.
Rice won’t grow on Jeju, but islanders boast they have plenty of three things — wind, stone and women.
The wind is obvious from the waves breaking against the coastline.
Piles of stones are often used instead of fences to mark pathways and fields. Rice won’t grow on the island, which is almost entirely covered in basalt.
That has led to the centuries-old tradition of female divers known as haenyeo, or sea women, and most tours will include a demonstration of their skills if weather conditions aren’t too rough.
The women are recognizable with their goggles, flippers and wetsuits as they plunge underwater without oxygen tanks to spearfish or grab abalone, clams and other seafood. They were long the main providers for their families while the island men were away on long fishing trips or lost at sea.
Also watching over the island are omnipresent phallic “grandfather stones,” with bulging eyes, a conical cap and hands resting on their bellies.
Foodies and museumgoers
Korea is famous for its delicious meat grilled at the table, but Jeju takes it a step further with so-called black pork from native pigs that is supposed to be smoked over burning hay, giving it extra flavor and chewiness. The island is also famous for its tangerines, seafood and seaweed soup.
Jeju’s quirkiness is also on display with an abundance of museums featuring everything from teddy bears to an adult theme park dedicated to sex.
Jeju Island, South Korea
Several airlines have dozens of relatively cheap flights per day from Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport. One of the best known is jejuair.net. The flight takes about an hour. Rental cars are available at the airport, and you can request an English-language GPS system.
Traffic can be heavy on the island, making driving stressful. I found a tour to be the most relaxing option. I’d highly recommend the UNESCO World Heritage Day Tour, which offers a sampling of most of the island’s highlights at a cost of around $75 per person. See tinyurl.com/y753xhy6.
WHERE TO STAY
Jeju Island has numerous resort hotels, but smaller bed-and-breakfast establishments are also popular. The USO also offers a weekend tour for $550 per person in a shared room.
Round-trip flights can be found for around $60 and up. Hotels range from $30 to $300 per night. Tourist sites usually cost about $1-2 for entrance.
The island is full of Korean-style grill restaurants as well as higher-end Western-style restaurants.