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Jeju Island, the Hawaii of South Korea
If you are living in or visiting South Korea for any length of time, the locals will tell you that you must visit Jeju-do (do means island in Hangul) an island located off the southern tip of Korea in the Korea strait, part of the East China Sea. It is completely covered in black, sharp-jagged lava rock. The stone walls surrounding the farms and fields are all made of it, otherwise there would be nowhere to grow crops. The stone is dark and dangerous, just like the stormy waves that lap up onto the shore. Jeju does enchant you, though, with its stories and its people and its landscape.
Jeju-do and its volcanic treasures were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007. The unique volcanic properties of the island make it a prime example of volcano science. There are three properties to visit: the lava tubes, the tuff cone, and the highest peak in Korea. You can climb the peak, find some fantastic vistas, but really if you want to see what the tuff cone looks like, it’s best to fly over it. Jeju’s latest victory comes as being included on the new 7 Wonders List as a natural wonder.
We visited the Manjanggul Cave, which is the most accessible part of the Geomunoreum lava tube system. After parking and paying your fee, you walk down into the mouth of the cave. The lave tube goeson and on. We walked deep inside. We were surprised how deep we were allowed to go without anyone else, how dark it was, and how hot and steamy it was. In my past caving experiences, some good and of course some not so good, usually the cave is cool. Not this one! After gawking at the colors, the red cockroaches (who knew?!) and the immensity of the lave tube, we’d pretty much exhausted its entertainment value.
Not surprisingly, Jeju-do is home to many fishermen. Wherever we wandered along the coast, we witnessed the daily life of people by the sea. Men mending nets, women collecting and drying seaweed on the road or cleaning, cutting up, and drying squid. I always love watching people in the fishing industry, and it makes my mouth water.
While living in Korea, I really developed a taste for squid. Prior to that my only experience was a chewy bar snack completely weighted down by too much breading, but the Koreans serve squid in all kinds of ways, and one of my favorites is just the strips of dried squid that they eat as a treat. You can buy it anywhere, so if your passing through, pick up a bag. It’s kind of sweet and salty at the same time. I love it.
Jeju-do is famous for their fishing women. More precisely the haenyo or “sea women.” As far back as the 17th century, women have had to take care of the home and feed the children as their husbands would have to man the warships or just spend a lot of time at sea doing the industrial fishing. A Jeju woman, starting about the age of 11, would train first in shallow water, then in deeper and deeper water as they became more proficient. With the ever-increasing costs of shellfish such as abalone, the haenyo are making quite a living.
They have very little gear, and you can see them bobbing in the water off of the coast or see their gear hanging to dry off of the roof. There is a museum on the island dedicated to the haenyo which is extremely interesting. We learned there that some of the haenyo were recruited to spy against the Japanese and were true heroes. Below is a photo of the haenyo memorial.
Driving around the island, there are these stocky stone men with conical hats all over the place. We asked around who they were, and found out they are called “Dol hareubang” or “stone ancestors.” They protect the island from invaders.
There is plenty to do on Jeju-do (check out the Top 8 Things to Do on Jeju Island). While we were there we visited some of the parks, temples, memorials, traditional thatched roofed houses, and even paid a visit to Loveland where displays and sculptures of a comical sexual nature made us giggle.
Getting to Jeju-do is easy from within Korea. You can get flights from practically any airport. On our trip we flew out of Daegu on a short, inexpensive flight. Another alternative is to take a ferry out of Busan, Wando, or Mokpo; check the official tourism site for current information about schedules and prices (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TR/TR_EN_5_1_5_1.jsp). Once there, it is easiest to get around by car. We rented a small car through Sixt for a decent rate with no hassles. For accommodations, I can’t really give any specific recommendations. The hotel we stayed in was forgettable (though I suppose that can be a good thing). I would just recommend finding a decent place with good reviews in Jeju-si for convenience and then explore the island on day trips.
Have you been to Jeju Island?