In early May last year, there was an unusual long 4 day weekend. The date for Buddha’s birthday that year (May 6th) and Children’s Day (May 5th) happened to be right next to each other. Unfortunately, on long weekends, airfare tends to skyrocket and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a reasonable plane ticket to anywhere, unless booked far in advance. I had hoped to travel abroad during that weekend, but I didn’t plan far enough ahead of time, so I decided to sign up on a WINK (When in Korea, a tour group catering to expats in Korea) tour to Jeju Island.
Jeju is South Korea’s largest and most visited island, and the southernmost part of the country. It is also a volcanic island home to the largest peak in South Korea, Hallasan, or Halla Mountain. During the 80’s, it was the most popular honeymoon destination for South Koreans, partly due to the fact that during the military dictatorship South Koreans mostly could not obtain passports. Since the restriction was lifted in 1989, the amount of Koreans that travel abroad has skyrocketed, and Jeju is no longer the top honeymoon spot for Korean couples. However, it is still a highly popular vacation destination for Koreans, so much so that Seoul to Jeju is the world’s busiest air route. In recent years, Jeju has seen a large influx of Chinese tourists as well, and the Chinese influence is quite apparent on the island, as a majority of vendors, hotel workers, and tourist guides can speak Mandarin. Mandarin can also be heard almost equally as much as Korean on the streets of Jeju City, the largest metropolis on the island. Due to it’s volcanic formations and fame among Koreans and Chinese as a honeymoon and vacation spot, it has sometimes been called “the Hawaii of Korea.”
Despite its popularity, Jeju does have its detractors, and I had read a few comments on social media and travel forums saying that Jeju was overrated and not that impressive. But since I had a desire to travel and the full price of WINK’s Jeju tour was cheaper than any plane ticket available, I decided to visit. Because of the comments I read, though, I didn’t expect to be very impressed by any of Jeju’s beaches, waterfalls, or volcanic formations.
I was pleasantly surprised. While Jeju may not be Hawaii (I assume, I haven’t been to Hawaii), I really enjoyed my trip there and I thought the island was definitely worth seeing while in Korea. The overall scenery isn’t as impressive or dramatic as Ulleungdo, Korea’s other volcanic island, but I thought parts of it were stunning.
The tour I joined covered the main attractions on the island, though there wasn’t much beach time on the trip as it was too cold for the beach in early May. Hiking Hallasan was optional, and I decided to opt out of it since the hike takes all day (about 8 hours), so Hallasan is not included on the list, though for voracious hikers it would probably be Jeju’s main attraction. Out of all the things I did, these were my top 3.
1. Sangbangsan/Yeongmeori Coast
I’m including these two together because they are located literally right next to each other. Sangbangsan is a small, scenic mountain with a temple near it’s base and a cave grotto dating back to the Goryeo dynasty.I didn’t get to the grotto as I had been walking all day and was unwilling to climb the steps in the rain, but the temple near the bottom was lovely.
The Yongmeori Coast, right next to the mountain, has some majestic cliff formations created due to lava. I thought it was the most impressive of the natural sights on Jeju. It’s a bit of a hike, but not that difficult. From my understanding, it can close during high tide, so it’s important to visit during low tide. Both the coast and Sangbangsan have small entrance fees, but they are well worth it.
2. Udo Island
Udo is a small island located a 15 minute ferry ride east of Jeju. When arriving at the ferry dock, there’s quite a few options to get around the island, such as scooter, ATV, and bike rentals, plus a tour bus. I and several others in the tour used the bus, but the bus is a bit confusing without knowing Korean, and we depended on the Korean tour guide to explain when to get off and which bus to take. I think renting a scooter or ATV would be the best way to explore, but that requires an international license.
Udo boasts a great view of Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak, and has plenty of haenyeo, or woman divers, around searching for catch. The white sand beach is very nice although small. Overall I thought it was a beautiful place to explore.
3. Seongsan Ilchulbong
Seongsan Ilchulbong, an old volcanic crater, is one of the most popular landmarks on Jeju, and it’s easy to see why. Supposedly it has a great view of the sunrise, but we went in the afternoon. It’s a hike to the top, but it isn’t difficult at all. At the top, the crater itself isn’t that spectacular, but the view beyond the crater certainly is.
There are a number of other places we went to on Jeju that I also enjoyed, including the Jusanjeolli cliffs, Cheonjeyeon waterfall, an Olle trail, and the manjanggul caves. Jeju is well known for it’s more kitschy attractions, such as the teddy bear museum, the Ripleys museum, the African museum, and a sex sculpture park, but our tour didn’t go to any of them (except Loveland, the sex park) which I appreciated. In addition to WINK, Seoul hiking group and Adventure Korea do pretty frequent trips to Jeju, so it saves on having to plan out the trip. I thought WINK had a great itinerary, and the motel location was excellent as well. The motel the group stayed in was on Hamdeok beach, which is a very nice beach about 20 minutes from Jeju city. (Featured image picture). I can’t rate it as Jeju’s best, since it was too cold to visit many beaches when we went, but it’s a great place to stay. Plenty of restaurants and convenience stores are around the area.