Being a fan of South Korean music, movies and dramas; I’ve always imagined Jeju Island to be sort of a magical place. It is constantly described as an elusive spot for a romantic vacation or a place to runaway from the realities of life. With its stunning beaches, lovely countryside, beautiful scenery and luxurious seaside resorts– the island is exactly as how it is depicted. It is the most popular honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds and attracts drove of tourists all throughout the year.
Jeju Island is South Korea’s largest island, located off the Southern coast of the Korean peninsular, on the Korea Strait. The island is South Korea’s only Special Autonomous Province, becoming a province of its own in 1946. Several areas on Jeju Island are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
I had the opportunity to visit the island in Spring– a great time to witness the lushness of its natural beauty and surroundings. I allocated three days to visit the island; however, due to an unforeseen thunderstorm that delayed my flight into the island for a day, I ended up with only two days. But that didn’t stop me from making full use of my time and enjoying myself in this paradise island.
Despite being a volcanic island– Jeju is actually pretty big, measuring approximately 75km long and 41km wide. There are good roads around the island, with a ring-road going around its entire circumference. The best way to get around is either by renting a car, or taking a taxi. If you’re more adventurous– a motorbike will allow you to really soak in the island atmosphere. I decided to hire a private driver to bring me to the places I wanted to go; and if you visit Jeju Island, do contact him, he speaks basic English and is very reliable and helpful (Mr Kim Hag Seong: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Here’s my list of the top 10 things you must not miss while visiting Jeju.
1) The Natural Landscapes
Jeju island is endowed with beautiful mountains, cliffs and natural wonders. The popular tourist attractions here are well-known for good reason, they truly portray how creative mother nature is. The island is dominated by Mt. Hallasan, a shield volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea. It practically created the volcanic island of Jeju and all its geological formations.
Visit the lighthouse situated atop breathtaking coastal rocks at Seopjikoji. Walk up to the volcanic crater of the Seongsan Ilchubong Peak to see its crown of sharp rocks, and witness its gorgeous sunrise and beautiful views. Admire the Oedolgae Rock, a lone volcanic basalt pillar jutting out from the ocean. Also, make sure to drop by the Jusangjeolli Cliffs, they are spectacular hexagon-shaped rock pillars that were formed from flowing lava. Each site possesses its own unique beauty, all just as impressive as the other. I was left in awe.
2) The Lava Tubes
I visited the Manjanggul Cave, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most beautiful lava tunnels in the world. A lava tunnel is formed by lava flowing beneath the hardened surface, leaving a long channel after it has ceased and cooled off. The Manjanggul tube network is about 13km long, but only 1km is considered safe and opened to the public. It is filled with so many interesting volcanic structures; and I found it exciting spotting stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, cave popcorns, and oddly shaped rocks.
Look out for the huge lava column measuring 7.6m at the end of the visitor trail, and the Turtle Stone in the shape of Jeju Island. If you’re lucky, you might spot one or two of its local residents– i.e spiders and bats. The tunnel is dimly lit and slightly chilly; and I took about 45 minutes for the entire visit, to and fro.
3) The Traditional Villages
There are many traditional folk villages scattered around Jeju Island– and the one I visited is located at the foot of Mt. Hallasan, the Seongeup Folk Village. The local village people have been living in the village for hundreds of years and are still maintaining their traditional lifestyle. The local folk make a living from making handicraft, selling their local foodstuff and being tour guides.
I was given a tour around the village by a local and he introduced me to his home by showing me the different houses made of black lava stone, explaining the different produce from his village, and telling me stories of the stone grandfather statues (Harubang) that protect the village. At the end of the tour, I was taken into a shop selling their local produce– you can choose to leave without buying anything (it might be a tourist trap), but I decided to help out and bought a bottle of pills made out of ground horse bones, believed to have health benefits.
4) The Beautiful Waterfalls
Jeju Island has an abundance of waterfalls– each with names that almost sound the same, but are completely different. The water at all the falls are crystal clear, and they looked so inviting that I really wanted to take a dip it each one of them. However, the weather in spring was extremely cold and taking the plunge wouldn’t have been a very good idea.
The Jeongbang Falls is said to be the only waterfall in Asia that falls straight into the ocean. It’s best to visit it in the morning– there are less people, and you’ll be able to catch the sunlight on the falls, which creates a beautiful rainbow. Another notable waterfall in Jeju is the Cheonjiyeon Falls, and though it is beautiful, it is pretty ordinary. The 1km walk towards the falls is what makes it special– it is lined by many rare and unique plants. There is also the Cheonjeyeon Falls, which consists of three sections– the main waterfall divides into two more falls before flowing into the ocean; and getting to all of them requires some walking. All these waterfalls hold their very own history and are significant places for local festivals.
5) The Women Divers
The women divers, or locally known as haenyeo, are somewhat an iconic figure of Jeju Island– they are female free divers who dive into the ocean without any breathing apparatus to collect clams, seaweed and abalones. The haenyeo are mostly the breadwinner of the family, as local traditions in Jeju Island states that most families are matriarchal. Unfortunately, it is a dying profession as most of the younger generation are not picking it up– most haenyeo are older and more mature ladies.
At certain times of the day, the women divers at the Haenyeo Village perform free dives for visitors. There’s also a museum in the vicinity, and you can try out the seafood as well– raw and freshly caught.
6) The Unique Museums
It’s awesome how the people on Jeju Island can come up with all sorts of things to collect, or make, and put them all in a museum. And there are usually more than one of the same type of museums– the island has three teddy bear museums, three sex museums, about seven trick-art museums; and other unique museums like the citrus museum, glass museum and chocolate museum. Some are interesting, some are predictable, and some are entertainingly tacky.
I chose to visit the Teddy Bear Museum at the Jungmum Resort Area— and it was fun! They have thousands of teddy bears of many different sizes, wearing different costumes in different settings, and dressed up as celebrities and notable figures too. Another museum I visited was the Citrus Museum, to learn a little more about one of the island’s special produce– Jeju tangerines. If I had more time, I would have visited the Loveland Sex Museum as well. I had planned it in my itinerary but due to the one day delay, I had to miss it.
7) The Sandy White Beaches
Jeju Island is surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches. During summer, they get packed with sun-seekers and visitors– however, spring in Jeju is quite chilly, so I didn’t get the chance to do any sunbathing.
The beaches along the coast of Jeju come in a myriad of features– some are rocky, some have black sand, some have high waves, some provide fresh water pools, and some are perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The popular beaches are Jungmun Beach, Hyeopjae Beach and the Samyang Black Sand Beach. Due to the time of my visit, lounging on the beach wasn’t in my itinerary, but I still wanted to visit one– I chose to drop by Woljeongri Beach for its seclusion, and the many pretty cafes that line it.
8) The K-Drama Film Locations
If you are a fan of South Korean dramas and films, you have to visit the famous K-drama sites seen in your favorite shows. Being a popular filming destination, movie locations are scattered all around Jeju island, including some of the popular tourist attractions. If you’re not fan, you can still visit the sites because it offers beautiful views; and you can always watch the shows later, if you wish.
The movie sites I visited were mainly from dramas I have watched, especially those featuring unforgettable moments. I visited the famous bench where the two leads of the drama “Secret Garden” first kissed; the ocean view where the two main characters of the movie “Swiri” looked out at; as well as other film location sites like Oedolgae Rock featured in “Jewel in the Palace”, the Teddy Bear Museum as the set of “Goong”, as well as the house in “All In” at Seopjikoji.
9) The Walking Trails
If an active holiday is what you’re looking for– Jeju Island offers an abundance of hikes and walking trails. If you are adventurous, hike to top of South Korea’s highest mountain, Mt. Hallasan for its magnificent views and bragging rights. If you’re looking for something more laid back, walk along one of Jeju’s most famous trails, the Jeju Olle Trails. It is a series of connecting trails along the southern coast of Jeju through narrow coastal paths, old country roads and lush forest lanes; and you can choose to get on or get off anytime you want.
For me, climbing to the top of Seongsan Ilchubong, as well as searching for the three waterfalls of Cheonjeyeon Falls were more than enough walking. However, I did take a short stroll along the Jeju Olle Trails near the Oedolgae Rocks to witness the beautiful view of the ocean along Jeju’s jaggedy coast.
10) Delicious Food and Produce
You have to try Jeju Island’s unique and delicious cuisine. Seafood is a must have– you can either eat it fresh from the haenyeo ladies, who will pry the shellfish open and cut the meat for you; or you can have it cooked and served with rice or noodles. I had an absolutely delicious meal of seafood served South Korean style– fish, abalone, clams and a variety of side dishes. I also loved the jeonbokjuk, or abalone porridge, that I had near the Haenyeo Village.
Another dish to savor while on the island is the Jeju black pork— meat from the locally bred Jeju black pig. The meat is tender with a chewy texture and a distinctive taste, and is best eaten barbecue-style. Don’t forget to get your hands on some Jeju tangerines as well; the island is full of tangerine farms as it is one of its most famous produce. The Jeju tangerines are huge with a notable small bulge on its tip, and is extremely sweet. I bought a whole box and finished it in a day.