I’ve never seen so many things to do and ‘experiences’ as I did on the South Korean Island of Jeju. The place is virtually plastered in those brown and white tourist attraction road signs. You can take your pick of beaches – either golden or black volcanic sand. Jeju offers activities from adventure sports to arts, and rambling to roulette wheels and waterfalls. You should pack your case now, though. Ex-pats living on Jeju told me that they’re concerned plans for a new city and airport could destroy the island’s natural beauty.
Jeju has been called one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and is also the only destination with three UNESCO crowns for its nature reserve, natural heritage and geology.
Walking the famous Sunrise Peak, as I did, is just one way to explore the landscape. There are also 21 designated coastal walking trails, called ‘Olle,’ rated according to level of difficulty and their distance, which varies from 5 to 23.5km. There are also forest walks and if you have eight hours to spare you can trek to the crater of the 1,950m Mount Hallasan, an inactive volcano and the tallest peak in South Korea. In order of adrenalin rushes you can pick from fishing, kayaking, cycling, horse riding, diving and zip lining. There’s also an activity to harness the island’s infamous wind – how about paragliding?
But where Jeju stands out is with its dozens of man-made tourist attractions – some tacky, some thought provoking and many unique to Korea. Often these theme parks are referred to as museums, but I suspect that London’s V&A wouldn’t include the Jeju Sex Museum on their Christmas card list. Many are situated in a purpose-built complex 20 minutes west of Seogwipo. You drive past the impressive stadium built for the 2002 World Cup. This tourist area is filled with huge hotels, some with casinos, but it is well presented with plenty of landscaped walks, water features and sea views in between. Whilst some of the structures are massive, multi-room monoliths others are more subtle in scale and design. It’s a good option for somewhere to stay if you want a resort-style break with the attractions on your doorstep.
I’ve never seen so many brown tourist attraction signs. Here are some of the theme parks on offer:
Hello Kitty Island – a theme park devoted to the cute cartoon cat.
Multiple outdoor mazes.
Loveland – a museum of erotic art, which is a favourite of newlyweds and is quite technical, i.e. not for kids!
The Sex Museum offers more of the same, but claims an educational remit. That’s my story, m’lud.
Songeope Folk Village shows how locals used to live.
The Trick Art Museum features lots of optical illusions that will have you booked into Specsavers on your return and the US theme park chain ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ follows a similar concept.
The Magnetic Road is another optical illusion that tricks your brain into the belief that you car is rolling uphill when the engine is off
The 4D Planetarium gives you a chance to see the stars.
The Lightening Museum, which I suspect is very, very frightening.
There’s also the World Of Liquor – don’t visit before you check out the World Automobile Museum.
There are plentiful art galleries and the oddly placed African Art Museum.
There’s a chance to discover Korea’s massive pop music scene at the K-Pop Experience. You can sing along to tunes from the country’s many boy and girl bands and learn how this massive pop music phenomena was developed by Seoul’s equivalents of Simon Cowell.
Next door, Chocolate Land gives you a chance to learn about it, make it and eat it.
Attractions focusing on the environment include the Submarine Tour, where you get to see life beneath the waves in a submersible.
The Manjanggul Cave is more sedate – you can visit a space said to resemble an underground cathedral formed from a lava tube.
There’s also the Bijarim Forest, the world’s largest single species forest containing around 2,800 nutmeg trees aged between 500 and 800 years old.
Trying to sample one ‘novelty’ and one ‘natural’ attraction, I went to the Teddy Bear Museum and the Stone Park.
Right, let me take you to the bizarre but captivating Teddy Bear Museum. It costs around £5 to go in and there were people of all ages there, so don’t think this one is just for the kids! The centre explains the history of teddy bears, and here’s the odd bit – it re-tells key moments in world history using soft toys. Bears portray Charles and Diana at their wedding, and Mother Theresa is there along with Gandhi and Steve Jobs. There’s a reconstruction of the Normandy Landings and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The coolest exhibit is the Elvis Bear theatre. Every 15 minutes the velvet curtains open in the theatre and a cuddly, version of the King sings 30-second montages of his hits. Trust me, it will be memorable! There are bear-themed sculptures outside and guess what you can buy in the gift shop?
For a ‘natural’ attraction, I cheated. Sorry. It is actually man-made. The government opened the Stone Park in the early 2000s but it does explain the unique appearance of Jeju through its rocks and stones, which is down to its volcanic geology. As soon as you set food in Jeju, right outside the airport, you’ll see the rather endearing Easter Island-like carved stone statues of men with big round eyes, arms gripping their tummies.
The stone carvings are usually found near government buildings and are still erected today often either side of bridges. Many gift shops also sell little versions of the statues. Watch your weight limit!
They are the Dol Hareubang statues, which means ‘Old Grandfather’ stones. According to Jeju folklore they scare off evil spirits. The Stone Park features a curving double row with dozens of these carved basalt figures, each one different. Take a 30 to 45 minute cab ride from either Seogwipo or Jeju City and you’ll arrive at this attraction to learn all about them.
There’s also a stunning indoor gallery in the park that has dozens of naturally occurring stones, dug up all over Jeju and displayed because their shapes resemble people or animals. This art is called Suiseki. These ‘statues’ are not only beautiful – they also represent different forms of rock and lava flows, some smooth, some with almost bark-like or paper quality. There’s also an exhibition that shows how the different rocks were formed and how Jeju’s volcanic landscape occurred. Tickets cost around £3.50.
Hopefully I’ve given you some reasons to discover Jeju. My maths teacher always used to say, “there’s no excuse for being bored” and I think that sums up a Jeju holiday experience. Although having Mr Glover follow you around Loveland spouting Pythagoras’ Theory might challenge that statement. Soon, I’ll share more of my Jeju experiences around the artists’ enclave of Seogwipo. I’ll bring you insider tips from ex-pats and we’ll learn what life in Jeju is really like.