I’ve been to the ‘Island of the Gods’ to see why 10 million people visit this holiday playground each year. Whilst Brits flock to the Canaries and American’s love their Virgin Islands, Korean’s go to Jeju. During summer weekends it’s ‘Seoul-on-Sea.’ And I have now seen why. Not only is Jeju an attractive island, it has been named as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It is also the only destination with three UNESCO crowns for its nature reserve, natural heritage and geology.
Jeju is a relatively small island, shaped like a rugby ball measuring 73km across and 31km from north to south. Tourism is big and getting bigger. When international travel was out-of-reach for most Koreans, Jeju was developed as their holiday destination. It’s so popular that some airlines use jumbo jets for the hour-long domestic flight from Seoul. As soon as you arrive, the presence of palm trees at the airport and lining the roads leading from the terminal underline the fact that this is Asia’s Hawaii.
Jeju is part of South Korea but was its own kingdom for over 400 years and still retains a dialect with words mainlanders don’t understand. But just like the mainland, Jeju has a superb infrastructure. So if you intend to drive around the island, on the right side of the road, that highway will be smooth, well-signed and well-lit.
And you’ll notice how tidy it all is. The grass verges are planted with flowers and bushes in the central reservations are trimmed into topiary shapes. Just be warned about Korean drivers though. You’re meant to stop at red lights, but some local drivers see the signals as advisory rather than mandatory. They also tend to stop dead on roundabouts to let approaching vehicles through. On a number of occasions my foot hit the cab floor, applying my own ‘phantom break.’
Despite an element of wacky races on the road, I found that Jeju felt like a very safe place. Every ex-pat resident I spoke to, including women, confirmed that they’d never had concerns, even when they were walking alone in the dark. And islanders are proud of that sense of security. There’s a local saying that there are three things missing from Jeju – beggars, thieves and gates in front of homes. For balance, they add that Jeju has three things in abundance – rocks, wind and women. All three can be part of your holiday experience, as I’ll explain!
The biggest tourism draw on the east coast is Seongsan Ilchulbong. Don’t worry, you can just call it ‘Sunrise Peak.’ It’s a 180m high volcanic column that stands out on the horizon like Gibraltar, Mount Maunganui in New Zealand or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. The mount is connected to the mainland and you walk up a grassy slope and wooden steps to reach the top. The payback for this 15-minute climb is the unusual sight of a 600m wide crater, filled with lush green vegetation, that’s only visible from the top.
Tempted? I was. It was my first stop in Jeju so I caught a cab for the 60-minute, £20 ride. If I had experienced the reliable, regular and really cheap bus service at that point in the trip, I would have used that. The journey time would have been double but I could have made the trip for around £3.
As the car left Jeju City, the tower blocks thinned out and regular homes with gardens and greenery, other than the manicured parks and roundabouts, emerged. We drove past people tending to a tiny allotment. I wondered what veg they were growing and whether I’d recognise it if it ever made it over to Waitrose. We passed alongside car dealerships and out of town superstores – just like any city’s outskirts. Soon we were speeding through the countryside and fields of swaying corn and bright yellow rapeseed. That plant’s flower, canola, is celebrated with a festival in Jeju and even features on promotional posters.
Miles later as we turned off the dual carriageway and onto a two-lane road we passed through open countryside and a stretch of forest. There were plenty of speed bumps and the driver’s solution was to drive really fast between the bumps to make up for the seconds lost in slowing down for them. Thirty minutes later, the distinctive rock tower of Sunrise Peak appeared. There was no need to watch the fascinating animation and brightly coloured Korean graphics on the cab driver’s sat nav any longer.
I got my first glimpse of the sea as the road wound along beaches and waterfront motels. Looking inland, the sun was starting to set making the volcanic landscape even more impressive. Silhouetted in the far distance was the island’s, and South Korea’s, highest point, Mount Hallasan, towering at 1,950m. Smaller mountains rose and fell towards its peak and as the sun set behind them they resembled black and grey waves of differing height, breaking towards me. In the foreground were maybe a dozen smaller mounds carpeted in foliage. These round bumps, like big, basalt Christmas puddings were possibly 300m in height and each one offered a clue to the islands’ geological formation. The volcanic scenery and the narrow strip of flat coastal land with its creeks and inlets reminded me of New Zealand.
Soon we took a right turn, down a small side street and we were in Seongsan-eup. I had expected more of a tourist trap, since the peak was on Korea’s must-visit list. Instead there were a few locally-owned guest houses and boxy but small concrete hotels mixed in with local grocery stores, cafés, offices and homes built in the traditional Korean style but with cobalt blue corrugated iron roofs.
I checked in to my stay for the night, the Sungsan Beach Hotel – a bargain at £28 a night. I turned off the street and towards the reception. A sign on the glass door requested, “Don’t Hit The Window.” The man on reception seemed pleased to see me. Later I realised that this was a family business and he and his folks live on the ground floor. He was on the front desk much later when I returned that evening and again first thing in the morning.
Here’s another nuance of Korean hotels. On check-in, along with my room key, I received a packet containing a disposable toothbrush and a plastic razor. Later in the trip I realised that this was normal and not a subtle hint about my personal hygiene. I took the tiny stainless steel lift to the 5th floor and reached my room. There was no mistake that I was in Korea. On opening my room door there was a six foot hallway leading to another inner door, giving a sense of the hotel room being something bigger, like a house or flat. By the inner door was a doormat and a pair of soft slippers to wear inside. In the bathroom there were pink plastic ones for use in there.
Unpacked and raring to go it was time to explore Sunrise Peak, even thought it was sunset time. I went on a 10-minute walk from my hotel towards the peak, stopping to glance at the menus of the back-to-back restaurants. Nearly everyone sported an illuminated sign with pictures of their fish specialty dishes. Tilefish didn’t look good. It reminded me of the boney fish that you’d see a cartoon cat run away with.
Soon I was outside the ticket booth where you paid for admission to this new ‘Natural Wonder of the World.’ It only cost £1.20 – hardly a price in keeping with its global status. Dozens of people were undertaking the 15-minute workout, the climb to the top. And the clock was ticking. The park opens an hour before sunrise and closes when the sun goes down. As I walked up the path a rock spoke to me. The saccharine-coated tones of a female American voice-over blasted out of a boulder-come-speaker to advise me that this was my last chance to make it up the peak today.
There’s another attraction at the park, too. In the shadow of the peak, there’s a small bay where groups of elderly women dive for shellfish, seaweed, abalone and octopus. These ‘Haenyeo’ can hold their breath for up to 3 minutes. It’s been a female activity in Jeju since the 17th century when men were required to fish at sea or serve on warships. The women put on daily shows at 1.30pm and 3.30pm. I arrived after the performance, but you can watch what they do on this YouTube post.
After visiting the park, it was time to find food. Now, if you’re vegetarian, you might find it easier to forage in the fields. Koreans love meat. On Jeju they breed a variety of black pig for its excellent pork. Specialist restaurants serve up the dish, cooked on a hot plate at your table. It’s twice the price of regular pork but it is said to be juicier and “more chewy.” Horsemeat is also a local favourite, particularly strips of it called Yuk-hoe. And you can find meat where you don’t expect it. I was surprised to get bonus ham in my cheese and tomato toasted sandwich in a branch of a local coffee chain. I didn’t understand why because if you were adding a value item like meat, wouldn’t you promote that on the packaging? It might encourage a sale! The restaurant images of abalone porridge and shredded coral fish ice soup didn’t make my mouth water.
Luckily, I found a tiny bar with just three or four tables, just outside the main drag. Neither of the lads running it could speak English. Google Translate told them I was seeking seafood and minutes later a selection of freshly caught and lightly battered tempura style shrimp, fish and sweet potato was in a bowl in front of me. I put down my chopsticks feeling full and pleased that my evening meal with two beers had cost just £5.
Jetlag gave me my alarm call and as I lay awake the next morning barking dogs and cockerel calls punctuated the otherwise quiet morning. Then, just before sunrise, I could hear alarm clocks followed by the plumbing system in action as my fellow guests headed off to see the daybreak from the peak.
I headed off in a different direction. A 55km ride to Jeju island’s second city, the major centre of the island’s south, Seogwipo. Around 155,000 people live in this good-looking and tree lined town, which straddles a rocky coast. It could be the Costa Dorada rather than Korea. I really liked this favourite place of ex-pats and I’ll tell you more about its arts, craft and food scene in a future post.
Click here for more information on how to get to Jeju, where to stay and how to get around once you’re there.