After three years in Korea I finally (!) made it to Jeju Island, which is located south of the mainland peninsula. It’s not that I have not wanted to go earlier, but being a lousy driver I needed someone willing and able to drive to go with me in order to go and come back in one piece.
For those of you unfamiliar with Korean geography, here’s a quick overview of the island. Jeju Island or 제주도 (Jeju-do) in Korean is a volcanic island famous for its subtropical climate, waterfalls, and mount Halla which is a volcano and Korea’s tallest mountain. Fun fact: Volcano in Korean is 화산 (火山) – hwasan – literally meaning fire mountain. Jeju is also known for its locally grown tangerines and special oranges called Halla-bong, meaning the peak of mount Halla, because this type of orange has a protruding stem that is similar to the shape of mount Halla. Cute, right?
Although situated off the mainland, Jeju is easily reached by air. In fact, this route (Seoul-Jeju) is one of the world’s most frequently flown routes with over 200 daily departures. The flight takes under an hour and a return flight will only set you back 50-100 dollars depending on airline and departure time. The downside is that you pretty much need to drive to go around the island as public transport is less frequent and less accessible than the larger Korean cities. Renting a car is not expensive, though, around 20 dollars a day + gas and insurance is quite reasonable.
I went there with a Danish friend who’s been living and studying in Korea for three years. She had been several times before and is used to driving in Korea so that was convenient for me. Our only issue was the quite misty part of inland Jeju, which made driving there… hmm…. let’s say… interesting.
On our first day we went to the 성산일출봉 – Seongsan sunrise peak, which a Korean friend had recommended to me before going. This is a huge crater that was formed from volcanic activity over 100,000 years ago. Standing at the foot of this wonder was nothing less than amazing.
Next was a visit to the Haenyeo museum. Jeju is famous for its Haenyeo – or sea women – who from their early teens well into their 80s since ancient time have made a living by diving free style to the bottom of the ocean harvesting shellfish, abalones and sea urchins. All while holding their breath for up to two minutes. In many cases, household incomes and survival were heavily dependent on this activity which gave Jeju women a special status as providers that was decades ahead of what other Korean women had to endure. But being a Haenyeo is no picnic although you may enjoy a certain status in society. It’s first and foremost a dirty, dangerous and difficult job that requires significant physical strength and endurance.
If you want to learn more about these brave women, I highly recommend the novel White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht. It brilliantly depicts the lives of Haenyeo in 1940’s Jeju and also taps into the painful history of comfort women used in Japanese military camps during the war years. A painful but truly amazing read.
After this exciting and educating experience, we headed to 제주민속촌, a folk village consisting of more than 100 traditional houses. Walking around amongst them was an amazing experience and we felt ourselves drawn back in time.
By the end of the afternoon, we were pretty tired so we decided to drive back to our hotel in Seogwipo on the south side of the island to have dinner and go to bed early. We had been up since 4am to catch an early morning flight to Jeju. On the way back, we stopped by the Osulloc green tea museum for a delicious treat.
The next day, we woke up early as a result of having gone to bed before 10 the night before. That turned out to be lucky because that meant that we were the first to visit the 천지연폭포 – the Cheonjiyeon waterfalls. This was the kind of breathtaking experience you just had to be there to understand. The falls were gorgeous and the misty weather made them look even more like something out of a fairytale. The pictures do not do justice to the true beauty of the waterfalls, but they give a vague idea of what it looks like.
Then we headed on to the Jeju Teddy Bear Museum because… Well, just because, okay. We both loved teddy bears (who doesn’t?) and the museum was well worth it. Here are some of the highlights featuring Einstein, The Beatles, and King Sejong the Great as Teddy Bears. Cuteness overload. What’s not to love?
Before lunch we had time to go to a beautiful pond full of lotus flowers. It was located in Aewol on the northern part of the island. We got some great shots there as well.
Then it was time for lunch. Since both lunch and dinner the first day had been simple Kimbap, we wanted to treat ourselves to something more delicious. We searched the HappyCow app for great vegan suggestions and stumbled on the 901 cafe. The menu looked good so we decided to drive there and check it out. It was amazing! All vegan, all organic, all tasty! I had the avocado quinoa salad with iced chamomile/lavender tea and my friend had an avocado mushroom sandwich. The food, the service and the atmosphere was perfect. The owner’s dog was adorable, and there was even a view of mount Halla from the rooftop. I’d love to have such a place nearby in Seoul.
Next, we continued on to the beach. Obviously, there are many beaches in Jeju but we decided to drive to Hyopjae beach. It had beautiful white sand and characteristic black rocks. The view from here was breathtaking as well.
After having enjoyed the beach, we went to 수월봉 – Suwolbong peak, an observation point that overlooks big parts of the ocean and island. It also had one of the characteristic stone statues of Jeju.
Then we had dinner at another vegan place – And 유 cafe – this time a vegan bulgogi burger that was surprisingly delicious. Our flight back to Seoul was early the next day, so after dinner we went back to the hotel to have an early night.
I’m so glad that I finally had a chance to go, and highly recommend visiting this beautiful island full of nature, history, and amazing food.