Jeju is a volcanic island located off the coast of mainland Korea, just a quick one-hour plane ride from Busan. It’s a popular vacation destination for Koreans, and is filled with gorgeous hiking trails, offbeat museums, and beautiful beaches. I went there while I was teaching English in Korea, mostly because it was so conveniently located and my vacation time was limited. It turned out to be an awesome trip, and while you definitely knew you were still in Korea, it had a more relaxed feel to it.
Jeju is a relatively small island, about 45 miles long and 20 miles wide. While it only takes a couple of hours to drive from one end to the other, transportation can be slow. Short of renting a car, the best ways to get around are by taxi or by bus. If you do decide to rent a car, you’ll need an International Drivers Permit. You can obtain this from AAA before your trip for $20.
You’ll want to stay in one of the two major cities on Jeju: Jeju City (where you’ll likely fly in) or Seogwipo. Most of the attractions are outside of the cities, but they’ll offer the most convenient hotel and dining options. Here are some of my favorite spots in Jeju.
1. Olle Trail 6.
The Jeju Olle Trail is a system of walking paths across the island that provide an excellent look into the diverse topography of Jeju. There are 13 different routes altogether, which range in length and difficulty. Route 6 is great for all ages and physical abilities, offering gorgeous views of the coastline, impressive waterfalls, and a meander through the city of Seogwipo.
There are a couple of interesting things to note about Loveland, Korea’s infamous adult-themed sculpture park. I find it ironic for a country that has a national ban on pornography to have a sex-themed park as a major tourist attraction. It was filled with Koreans (as Jeju is a popular vacation spot for Koreans), so it’s not as if this is made for visiting foreigners. I was more than a little uncomfortable following the phallic arrows from sculpture to sculpture while being trailed by a Korean family (and their 8-year-old son). Eek.
Second, as subversive as Loveland tries to be, all of the love and sex portrayed here is very heteronormative. That is, you will find no lady love or man-on-man here (although, to be fair, there is some bestiality). It seems if they were really trying to push the envelope, they would include a more diverse selection. However, this is Korea, and same-sex sex is still very taboo.
All of that said, I think Loveland is definitely worth checking out. But maybe leave the kids at home.
3. Hyeopjae Beach.
If you’re looking for the picture-perfect Instagram post, look no further than Hyeopjae Beach. Soft white sand and turquoise waters make this beach an absolute paradise. The only downside is that it gets quite crowded in the summer, so be sure to arrive early to snag a good spot.
Seongsan Ichulbong (Sunrise Peak).
Seongsan Ichulbong, or Sunrise Peak, is obviously best hiked at dawn but is quite impressive any time of day. The hike is pretty easy, and the views are well worth it.
After the hike, be sure to walk down to the beach and check out the hanyeo at work. These female divers collect the abalone served in restaurants all over the island. The most impressive aspect of these divers is their age: the average age of the hanyeo is 75, with many more who are even older. They use only the most rudimentary equipment to dive, and have been doing this for their entire lives. This is a practice that, while widely respected among Koreans, is dying out. There aren’t exactly many young Korean women scrambling to take over this profession.
5. Abalone Porridge.
Have I ever written a post without instructing you to eat something? After seeing the hanyeo at work, head to one of the restaurants in town and dig in to a bowl of abalone porridge. This type of dish is a staple in Korean diets, especially on coastal areas like Jeju. Oh, and don’t forget the soju!