Jeju island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea, and not without a reason! It has magnificent nature, plenty of attractions and very hospitable locals. We fly to Jeju from Busan with Jeju Air, paying 48 euros per person with luggage, and back to Seoul for 58 euros per person, with luggage. For domestic flights with low cost airline luggage allowance is only 15 kg, so take that into consideration when planning a domestic trip in Korea!
Our first steps on Jeju are over a special disinfecting surface to take away all the dirt from our shoes. When the first bags appear on the luggage belt I notice how organized and considerate everyone is. They are standing a little bit away from the belt, so others can see their bags too, and bags come out in an organized manner as well – all facing one direction, so it is easy to pick up yours.
There is no other choice for Jeju airport other than to be organized. Jeju gets about 10 million tourists per year, and Seoul-Jeju air route is the busiest in the world, with 100-110 connections per day. We visit Jeju at a time when mass tourism from China has nearly stopped. If a year ago there were 3 million visitors from China, this year there are 70% less. It is because of diplomatic conflict between the two countries due to a missile system placement. At the same time number of local, Korean visitors is increasing, and local government works hard to attract more visitors from other countries. It is good to visit as a foreigner in Jeju, as even lines at passport control are shorter for foreigners!
The mass tourism from China caused a lot of tensions with locals. Chinese, as almost everyone else in the world, can visit Jeju without a visa (only citizens of 11 countries are not allowed to). Chinese tourists are often blamed for leaving tons of garbage behind and disrespecting the local culture. As many of them chose to stay at Chinese owned hotels, locals believed they were not getting anything out of these visitors. But now, when people have stopped visiting, the impact is felt by everyone. However, there are also upsides, as Chinese were often blamed for crime on the island. The government has tried to address that too, there is an incredible amount of CCTV everywhere on Jeju. On one occasion, while driving through the dark we notice a red blimp of light. Have we really been driving too fast? No! These cameras take a picture of everyone, and there are more than 2500 of them, monitored 24/7. Police can take immediate action, if needed. So Jeju is a really safe place too.
Driving in Jeju
We book a car with prepayment, and it says on every confirmation that we need to have International Driving Permit (IDP). We reach out to our local Latvian DMV and get a special note (which cost us around 8 euros) saying our licence already is considered to be IDP. Turns out, Korean side refuses to take it, and only after an hour of negotiation we manage to get the car, when we feel completely desperate. If your country issues IDP, get one, as without it you will not get a car!
Other than that, driving on Jeju is very simple, and most of the car rentals already include GPS and you will find places easily. As Korean maps and apps are almost impossible to come by outside of Korea, you will need a local GPS, so if you car doesn’t have one, be sure to rent it!
Jeju has volcanic history, it was formed over 2 million years ago. The last eruption on the island was 5000 years ago, but some geography books dating back to Joseon dynasty times reference an eruption in the sea near the island in 1002. The volcanic history of the island is one of the main tourists attractions and natural wonders. Three objects of Jeju are also included in the UNESCO World heritage list:
- Seongsan Ilchulbong volcanic peak
- Hallasan peak (highest point in Korea)
- Geomunoreum lava tubes
We visit all three objects as well. Jeju really does have magnificent natural landscape and diversity, as the hills of Hallasan have unique number of plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world.
Jeju is the largest island in Korea, it’s length 73 km and width 41 km, and it is surrounded by several smaller islands. Humid subtropical climate is one of the reasons it is called the Hawaii of Korea. Interestingly, 100 years ago this was the only place in Korea where citrus fruits grew, but now with the climate change they grow also on the mainland, as well as coffee. There used to be 90 days per year of 20+ Celsius temperatures in mainland Korea, now this number has reached 137!
Oranges and tangerines really are special on Jeju. They are brought back in large numbers as souvenirs and you can get them at every major attraction. Hot, humid days are just right for the frozen tangerine juice, melting slowly in the bottle in your hands! We buy some tangerines as well, paying full tourist price, but they taste just like in the childhood and nothing like the ones we usually buy in Europe!
Horses and Isolation
Reading about what is special on Jeju, one cannot miss the history of the horse breeding here. Since the end of the stone ages horses have lived here, they were mixed with specimens from Mongolia and very tough, strong animals were the result. Later the horses were grown for royal court on the mainland, at times reaching as many as 20 000 animals at a given point! Between 14th and 19th centuries Jeju inhabitants were not considered to be citizens of the Korean mainland, and they were even banned from entering it in 17th century, which caused a lot of tension. Jeju was horse breeding and political prisoners island. Due to its isolation even the language on Jeju is slightly different.
All of Korea was very isolated on the 17th century, and almost all available information about it came from Hendrik Hamels memoirs. His Dutch ship was wrecked near Jeju, for a year he was kept by the local prefect and then he was moved to Seoul. He was banned from leaving the country, and he ended up living for 13 years in Korea until he finally managed to escape to Japan and publish his memoirs. There is a copy of his ship on Jeju with an exhibit about marine traditions of the time.
The history of Jeju is also significant because it was one of the rear semi-matriarchate societies. One of the main jobs in the island was diving for sea produce, but around the 18th century it became an all female dominated profession. Two reasons are cited, one that women have higher resistance to cold due to their natural fat tissue proportion, second that due to accidents and local wars there were no men left and women had to dive. Haenyeo or sea women became the primary bread winners in the family in the 18th century. With Japan taking over the island in the 20th century this became especially lucrative business. Nowadays this isn’t a very popular occupation and most of Haenyeo are older than 60, some as old as 80 and even 90! Seaweed and shellfish are no less popular than before, but the job is just too dangerous. Many people collect seafood also on the shore, whenever there is a low tide, you will see people with bags on Jeju, carefully picking up something on the beach.
The West Side of the Island
We decide to see Jeju in a circular fashion. We head out from Jeju city to western side of the island. We soon notice than our cars front shield is all fogged up, but we can’t clear it up! Turns out, it is condensate on the outside of the glass!
We reached the first hotel late in the evening, and it is nested between Jeju Aerospace museum and O’Sulloc tea gardens. The air is humid, there are mosquitoes and we soon disappear in the hotel room, where TV is showing Kung Fu Panda 3. They gave us a brochure with the most notable sights of the island in the car rental, and it almost seems that every single one of the 600 000 inhabitants of the island has their own museum. There are three teddy bear museums, Greek Mythology museum, 7 optical illusions museums, a Hello Kitty center, several adults-only museums and a lot more unusual and strange museums! Turns out that people who own a museum, have tax benefits.
If you only look at the daily weather forecast on Jeju, you will think it rains all the time, so it makes sense to pay close attention to the hourly forecasts and find little windows of sunshine. In one of those we head out to O’Sulloc tea plantation that also has a tea museum. The parking lot at the museum is full, so we are directed to the further lot. All cars are white, so our light grey car stands out. The entrance to the tea fields and museum is free. Driving past it we couldn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t go inside the fields and just hang around the first few meters? Soon we get an answer, as there are dozens of signs “Beware of the snakes!”. But Jeju takes the warnings to the next level, as there are warnings about everything, poisonous plants, slippery roads and even at the waterfall is a proud sign in broken English: “No swimming, You will have died of heart attack”.
We do go inside the tea fields for a couple of pictures and then have a wonderful meal in the cafe and some tea ice cream and tea cakes in the other cafe, as there are two. You can try some freshly brewed tea here and also buy some, but it is extremely expensive, can be as much as 30 euros for 35 g of tea. We buy some tea spread to take home, it is a lot like chocolate spread for sandwiches just matcha powder instead of cocoa! You can also buy some Innisfree cosmetics here, it is very famous in Korea.
After the tea fields we just keep on driving around, seeing where the road will take us. I keep on the lookout for the famous gate poles that used to indicate if the inhabitant is at home. If there is one pole displayed diagonally, it means “I am not home but within calling distance”. The ones we see, all indicate no one is home, so it makes you wonder if they are still actually used.
We stop in small villages at the sea, watch the stormy waters and find out that some of the seaside attractions are even closed due to the large waves. It is very hot, and some people are swimming, but not on the usual beach but in something that looks like a pool but is still connected to the outer waters. Most swim clothed. It is not fashionable to be tanned here, most women wear not just leggings and long sleeves, but also oversized hats and special masks for their faces to avoid every sunray!
In the afternoon we stop at the Cheonjeyeon falls, the ticket costs roughly 2 euros. Most places in Korea are relatively cheap, and often include the price for parking! There are several waterfalls around Seogwipo, including Jeongbang, which is one of the three waterfalls in Asia that falls directly into the sea.
We want to see the sunset at the hexagonal columns of Jusangjeolli, they remind us of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. The water is crashing against the columns and they almost seem artificial, so accurate in their shape! As the sun is approaching the cliffs in the distance, guard asks us to leave, as the park is closed. It seems an odd local custom in Jeju that nearly everything closes right before sunset and you have to leave the area before dark.
The Nr 1 attraction on the island is Hallasan volcano. In spring it is almost an enchanted place, covered in pink azalea flowers. In summer it has blue hortensias and bright green surroundings. In autumn it is one of the best foliage locations in Korea.
There are several hikes to take, starting with 3.7km Yeongsil til 9.6 km Seongpanak, the distances showing one way. You are only allowed to stay there during the day. Many choose to hike up one of the paths and take another for descent, but then you have to take care to plan either a ride the bus to your car or order a taxi. Longest trails allow for lake-viewing, but even the shorter ones are really nice.
We choose a shorter one, Yeongsil, but the hike is still not that easy, as we have to climb up the stairs nearly all the time. The paths are well marked, with handrails and at times we laugh that they have thought of everything here! There are signs depicting how far you need to go and what is the difficulty of the trail in which area. If you don’t reach certain point on the trail until certain hour, you are not permitted to climb up higher, so most choose to arrive very early to reach the summit. We only hike up to 1700 m, and most of the distance is done with the car til the parking lot anyway. You must leave with everything you have brought, there are no garbage bins, but there are toilets at the entrance and at the peak. It seems bathrooms are a thing here, and definitely pleasant surprise for someone with a small bladder, as there are bathrooms in Jeju near every attraction!
There is a small cafe at the top, and it only serves one dish, instant soup, no more than two per person. They don’t sell even hot water. You must take your trash back with you, including the plastic soup bowl! There is a stream almost at the top of Yeongsil, so you can fill up your bottles there, but do take plenty of water anyway, as this is near the very peak.
It gets very busy at the trail. Most people say hello, and when we sit down on a stone to rest, a Korean family joins us, giving us their watermelon, cut up in nice little pieces, and we share our chocolate bars with them. Although Jeju is especially famous as a honeymoon destinations and you will often see couples in matching outfits holding hands, there are plenty of family vacationers as well, and this hike is no exception.
You can see deer in the park, if you look carefully, and when we see the first ones in the bushes, we show them to the passing Koreans. A Korean girl, starts shouting “doru, doru!” when she sees it, almost like she had never seen one in her life! The hike really is as beautiful as we hoped it would be, and we leave when ours is the last one in the parking lot.
Driving to our next hotel we stop in one more place called Mysterious Road, where due to an optical illusion water seems to be flowing up the hill and car in neutral drives up the hill as well. It only looks like it is going up the hill, but it is enough reason for hundreds of tourists to visit every day!
Our next morning on Jeju starts before sunrise, with a little hike to Seongsan Ilchulbong volcano crater. It was last active over 100 000 years ago. Despite the fact that this early park is officially closed, hundreds of people are going inside to hike up the steep crater. If at first it almost seemed chilly, then going up numerous flights of stairs it soon becomes very, very hot. The climb is 180 m. But the view is good – the diameter of the crater 600 m and it has 99 sharp peaks at the top and that’s why it is often called the Crown.
Afterwards we drive near the cost and see surreal blue water, sandy beaches and volcanic stones with herons looking for prey. We pick up seashells and enjoy the beautiful day.
Just before reaching Jeju city, we visit Manjanggul lava tubes that formed over 200 000 years ago. It is very hot outside and it almost seems like our car will melt, but underground it is always between 11 and 21 degrees Celsius. In summer, cold water dripping from the ceiling, it gets cold very soon. It is the only lava tube system visitors are allowed to enter, and only about a kilometer of the 9km long tube is accessible. You might think the walls and ceiling is nothing special, but informative exhibits provide a whole geology lesson on how the lava moved around, explaining every type of pattern seen on the walls! It is believed that not all lava tubes on the island have been discovered yet. Some, like this one, are inhabited by bats, and the largest bat colony in Korea consisting of 30 000 animals, lives here.
Evening in Jeju City
We spend our last evening on Jeju enjoying Hyeopjae beach, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches on island. You can see Biyangdo island from the shore and it looks like a sleeping elephant or mammoth. The sea is rustling and people are swimming even after the sun sets.
Water does not seem too warm in the hot day, but the weather forecast claims it is 24 degrees Celsius and can reach 28. Once it gets dark, large lights are turned on at the beach and people continue enjoying themselves. Children building sand castles, someone walks their dog, others meditate, sitting on the stones. There are hundreds of lights at the shore, small ships scattered around the waters. Planes keep going over our head and it is easy to understand why this place is so popular! Warm climate, cheap prices and plenty of things to do!
All hotels booked were without breakfast. All had complimentary parking
We stayed at:
- Jeju Aerospace Hotel 78 eur. It is near tea plantation and aerospace museum
- Howard Johnson Seogwipo Harbor 45 eur. We used a coupon, so ended up paying only 23 eur. Near waterfalls, valet parking.
- Seongsan Beach Hotel 45 eur. Near Seongsan Ilchulbong.
- Check Inn Jeju Hotel, 50 eur, not far from the airport, which is important, as streets get busy during rush hour, so we could reach airport early enough to have time to return the car.
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