In the balmy turquoise sea south of the main Korean peninsula floats the small paradise of Jeju-do. This isle’s center is dominated by South Korea’s tallest peak – a now-dormant volcano called Hallasan – and slopes down into a fantastic, cratered landscape which tells the story of its (quite literally) eruptive history.
Jeju’s topography is comprised of opposites, which push and pull at each other as surely as its tides. Barren volcanic rock and lush forests weave together the landscape; soaring mountains rise around deep, pocketed craters; the sky and the sea mingle together on the horizon. Profuse flora, fauna, and wildlife coat the island, several species of which are only found in Jeju and nowhere else in the world.
Much like an English novel set on a moor, Jeju is known for three abundances: women, rocks, and wind. What it lacks is nearly as romantic as what it possesses: fences, thieves, and beggars. In lieu of fences exist stunted stone walls which would fail absolutely at keeping all but an under-grown toddler out.
Quite honestly, to get around Jeju most efficiently you need a car. You shouldn’t have any problem renting one with an international license. Otherwise, you can use a mixture of buses and taxis. Taxis are both plentiful and inexpensive in South Korea (starting fare in most is 2,800 won – a bit over two USD). However, they might be hard to flag in some areas.
If you’re only in Jeju for a few days, as I was, it’s best to pick a side of the island (east or west) and stick to it, so you can more thoroughly explore the area. The guide presented here is for the eastern portion.
Bijarim Forest (비자림)
Bijarim is a forest of thousands of nutmeg trees, most of which are between five and eight hundred years old. It even (allegedly) boasts the world’s oldest nutmeg tree.
This shady forest is the perfect spot to escape the harsh Jeju sun during the summer. Since nutmeg trees are evergreens, it’s worth a visit in the winter as well!
The walking paths through the forest are relatively flat, and none are too long, so it’s perfect if hiking isn’t your thing.
Tickets to Bijarim are only 1,500 for an adult (about half price for kids).
Drive Along the Kimnyeong (김녕) Coast
Twilight is gorgeous virtually anywhere in Jeju, but watching the sun sink down below the waves on the coast is extra-special. There are plenty of places where you can pull over and park your car if you want to get out and take a short walk, and snap some stunning photos to let everyone know how terribly your vacation is going.
Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산일출봉) – Sunrise Peak
One of the most famous spots in Jeju, Seongsan Ilchulbong is an enormous volcanic crater which ascended from the sea roughly one hundred thousand years ago. For a small fee, you can hike to the top, which not only offers stunning views of the crater itself, but also of the ocean and small town which lies behind it.
You can’t actually go down into the crater (like most craters on Jeju, as they’re protected), just walk around the rim. On the plus side, that means that your view is uninterrupted by tourists in bright yellow windsuits.
If you aren’t too tired of gorgeous volcanic craters just yet, Sangumburi is the spot for you. Stone walking paths are surrounded by tall grasses which are lovely in the summer, but even more delightful in the winter when they turn a delicate shade of beige and bloom.
In traditional Korean lore, different spirits live in different mountains. Legend has it that this mountain in particular was special, and prayers were sent up to the mountain spirits when people went hunting. Of course, virtually nobody believes in the mountain spirits anymore, but see if you can still feel a little special something when you come here.
Yongnooni Oreum (용눈이오름)
This is possibly my favorite spot in Jeju.
If one were the epitome of un-romantic, Yongnooni Oreum might be described as a large, grassy hill, with a few horses grazing on the side. As I’m not completely hopeless in that regard, I’ll tell you that this place is breathtakingly beautiful, and the views from the top are a feast for your eyes.
If you’ve watched many Korean dramas, you’ve probably seen Supjicoji. This barren, treeless outlet feels like the very edge of the world, with its black cliffs crumbling into the sea and strange, candyland church. Harsh winds whip over the top of the cliffs, blowing the clouds quickly further inland.
Supjicoji feels like the dark midpoint of a fairy tale – where the heroine might encounter an evil queen or malevolent imp. But remember: it’s only after the darkness that the happy ending can come.
Korean barbecue is quickly becoming the trendy thing to eat, and black pork – Jeju’s barbecue – is the trendiest of all. It can be pretty expensive compared to the rest of Korea (pork belly is around 12-18 USD in Seoul, and in Jeju it can be around $30), but it’s definitely worth the experience.
Experience Korean Café Culture
Café culture is as deeply appreciated in Jeju as it in the rest of Korea. There are thus plenty of cute coffee shops to stop at for a caffeine pick-me-up. There are plenty of cafés located directly on the seaside, so you can drink with your eyes as well.
Have you ever been to Jeju? What was your favorite thing? Let me know in the comments!
All photos are mine. Sorry about the spots on some – there was dust on my lens and I didn’t realize it until after!