7 Glorious Days in Jeju Island, South Korea
Mt. Songak (송악산)
Sanbang Bomunsa Temple (산방굴사)
Shilla Hotel Resort
Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls (천지연 폭포)
Seonim Bridge (선임교)
Golmae Eco Park (걸매생태공원)
Halla San National Park (한라산국립공원)
Sangamburi National Park
Jeolmul Recreational Forest
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I have heard Jeju Island referred to as the "Hawaii of Korea", which is a reasonable comparison given that Jeju is a volcanic island, with palm trees, white beaches, clear turquoise water, honeymooners and loads of waterfalls. It is also a dream come true for K-drama fans who enjoy visiting film locations -- Jeju Island was the setting for Korea's most famous drama, "Jewel of the Palace" (대장금, Dae Jang Geum). For outdoor sports lovers, Jeju Island has it all, from biking to hiking, scuba diving to bungee jumping, surfing, sailing, and even an international Ironman competition. There is so much to eat, see, and do in Jeju Island that it has taken me literally years to determine how best to fit this into a single itinerary. My best advice for a trip to Jeju is to stay at least one week and allow each day to unfold according to whimsy. Every day is a great day in Jeju!
Days 1 and 2: Coastal Drive and Jungmun Resort
You will fly into Jeju International Airport in Jeju City. Resort shuttles, local buses, and taxis are plentiful. Most of these will whisk you promptly out of Jeju City and to the southern resort side of the island in Seogwipo. If you can, rent a car or hire a driver, instead, so you have the flexibility to stop and explore along the way. First stop: lunch (of course)! And then make a whole day of getting to your hotel!
Yuri's Restaurant (유리네 식당, 연북로 146, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, 690-815, South Korea) is the most famous restaurant in Jeju City. The walls are the main attraction here, covered with signatures and photographs of famous people and foreigners who have dined here in the past.
As you drive through the Jeju countryside on your way to Seogwipo, pay attention to the farms. Yes, those are airplane bunkers! This is Alddreu Airfield, built by the Japanese during the era of imperialism and used during WWII for their kamikaze planes. Take some time to explore this area, known as Song-ak Mountain (송악산), with multi-layered cliffs, black sand beaches, caves used by the Japanese to hide submarines during the war (Jinjigul Caves), and terrific views of small island villages just off-shore. Maybe try a short hike for breath-taking views from Song-ak San's volcanic crater top. Near the beach area is one of several Dae Jang Geum (대장금) filming locations, for you K-pop hallyu drama fans!
The next stop along this scenic coastal highway is Sanbang Mountain (산방산) and Bomunsa grotto temple (보문사 산방굴사). Enjoy the peaceful sound of the wind swirling among the temple buildings at the base of Sanbangsan and then start climbing the steps. Buddha awaits you inside the cave at the top, with cool air and a refreshing sip of water!
The coastal highway takes you into Seogwipo's Jungmun resort area (중문관광단지). Jungmun Resort is Korea's largest tourist complex and is an absolute gem to explore. Stop in at one of the tourist centers for a free walking map, put your comfy trainers on, and start wandering! From botanical gardens, waterfalls, and angelic bridges to goofy museums (Ripley's, Teddy Bear, and the infamous Health and Sex(!) museum) and white sandy beaches, it's impossible to share the experience on a single little web page. Just go! Do it! Now!
WHERE TO STAY:
The Shilla Hotel and Casino in Jungmun Resort is one of Jeju's most iconic places to stay, although there are many options to fit a broad range of budgets and preferences. I personally preferred staying in a pension house; I enjoyed the Shilla's beach area but found the hotel a tad smokey, loud, and crowded due to the casino. Maybe try a night or two at the Shilla for the experience and then move to a fun pension house rental for the remainder of your stay.
Day 3: Out and About in Seogwipo
Like Jungmun Resort, Seogwipo itself has so much to see and do. So, get an early start!! Volcanoes are fascinating and Jeju Island happens to be a by-product of such geological tumult. Grab your coffee and head to the Jusangjeoli cliffs (주상절리, "Jusang Jolly Cliffs") in Daepo village for a first hand glimpse of nature's tribute to geometric symmetry: hexagonal columns of basalt rock, formed when lava pours out and cools slowly over time.
Continue your sea-watching with a stroll along the cliffs near Oedolgae (외돌개 "way-dol-gae"), the lonely rock. Legend says that this rock is a seaman's wife, standing eternal watch for her husband who (unbeknownst to her) was lost at sea during a ferocious storm. It is, indeed, a quiet place, with a cliff-side promenade passing a watercress farm. Watch for the unexpected art hidden among the fields as you walk along this path! Drama fans: yes, this is where Lady Han of Dae Jang Geum (대장금) met her undeserved fate...
Do you like poetry? Ok, how about a cool sea breeze and urban views? Oedolgae is near a lovely little village featuring a garden trail (Chilsimni Poetry Park, 칠십리 공원) with huge boulders imprinted with pastoral poetry. Bring your Korean dictionary along and try to get the gist of the poems, most of which are a tribute to nature, love, and eternity.
Now that you're feeling artsy after your morning dose of love stories and poetic verse, let's continue the buzz with a visit to famed artist Lee Joong Seop's (이중섭) house and art museum. Lee Joong Seop's style is similar to impressionist fauvism, with bold mood-invoking color and simple thick lines (think Matisse, Van Gogh). Lee escaped from North Korea with his Japanese wife during the Korean War and lived for several years as a refugee in Jeju. It was during this period that he created his masterpieces, eleven of which are displayed in the museum. His most famous work is titled "The Bull" ("소").
As you head back into Jeju City from a day in Seogwipo City, swing over to the International Convention Center (제주국제컨벤션센터). This is the most prominent building in the area. Built in 2003, it is an architectural beauty, with landscaped gardens and pools.
One of Jeju's best-known features is the Olle Gil, an extensive walking trail extending around the island for over 250 miles! You cannot walk through Jungmun without ending up on the Olle Gil at some point (the pale yellow and blue arrows are the first clue). Once on the Olle Gil, you'll want to keep going... and going... and going. It's well-marked, meticulously maintained, and winds through the very best of Jeju's scenic beaches, farms, small villages, grasslands, and volcanic crater parks. In Jungmun, you can experience a snippet of the trail if you head to Geolmae Eco Park (걸매생태공원). This is in walking distance from the Jungmun resort area. After exploring the Eco Park, refresh your stomach and feet at the same time by heading over to the restaurant in the stream beneath Cheonjiyeon Falls. 아주 좋아요 (very nice "aju jo-why-oh")!!
As you travel around Seoguipo and Jungmun, the startling spaceship you'll see from time to time is the World Cup Stadium. This gigantic modern piece of architecture is at odds with the otherwise rural and scenic Jeju Island, but one comes to appreciate the unexpected quirkiness of this landmark.
Day 4: Exploring Jeju's Crater Parks (Oreum 오름)
An "oreum" is the top of a volcanic crater. Yes, we all want to believe that at the top of a volcano, one sees a a roiling stew of hot fiery magma just waiting to spill over. The reality is that a sleeping volcano hides its fury beneath a benign-looking green blanket of loveliness. You can enjoy this mountainous peace through Jeju's crater parks. Today is road-trip day (bus, taxi or rental car); pack a picnic lunch and wear comfy walking shoes.
First stop is Sangumburi Crater Park, about one hour from Jungmun Resort. This national monument offers a unique ecological experience and is a place to connect with mother nature and notice her arboreal diversity as you walk around the rim. This crater is special because its eruption was so quick and violent that it did not spew lava or form a cone. It is virtually flat!
Next, drive just a few minutes away to Jeolmul Natural Forest (절물자연휴양립) to enjoy a forest bath! Drink in the lushness of 50 year old cedar trees soaring into the sky, releasing large amounts of stress-relieving phytoncide. From the cold mineral spring known to cure stomach ailments to the reflexology road that massages your feet as your walk, this park was designed to provide mental healing and relaxation. There are many walking trails in Jeolmul Natural Forest, with enticing names like Forest Trail of Longevity (walk through the Corlopsis Gotoana Love Trees!) and Bird Song Trail.
These are not your typical hard-packed dirt or rocky trails. Instead, you will walk along carefully maintained wood planking, often lined with soft rubber matting. The trail to Jeolmul Crater (절물오름) terminates at an observatory providing unobstructed views of the surrounding countryside. Glimpses of whimsical statues through the trees will have you imagining stories of fairies and elves. Enjoy a leisurely lunch and a long nap on the picnic platforms scattered here and there and just let any stress dissolve into the forest.
When you awake from your nap, hop back in the car and drive over to Sunrise Crater (성산일출봉, Seongsan Ilchulbong). As its name suggests, this crater is an ideal spot for welcoming the sun as it arises from the eastern sea. To witness this spectacular show, however, you'd have to leave Jungmun Resort about 3:00 in the morning, depending on the season. Anyways, the view is spectacular even when the sun is at its zenith, with wide sweeping views of the sea, tiny islands, and the colorful village below. There is a nice trail to the top of the crater, but it definitely gets steep near the top. Another attraction in Seongsan Ilchulbong is the horse ride along the beach. If that doesn't strike your fancy, another option is to ride a ferry from the Seongsan Ilchulbong port. Udo Island is a wonderful day trip all on its own.
Day 5: Hike Halla San
If you enjoy a challenge, the Halla San Summit trails certainly deliver! Hiking Halla San to the peak is not for the weak! It is an all-day event (including a post-hike feast, of course). Although it is less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the top, this is a serious climb...and the return trip is just as hard. Your feet and calves will yell at you the next day, but you will feel accomplished and strong!
There are two trails to the summit: Gwaneumsa (North) and Seongpanak (East). I climbed the Seongpanak (성판악) trail twice, but have not yet tried the Gwaneumsa trail. If you hike the north trail, drop me a note and tell me about it!
Note: I do not mean to scare you, but I'm an avid recreational hiker and marathon runner and this is one of the toughest courses I've hiked. There are shorter exploratory trail options available at Halla San park, if you are not up for the trek to the top.
You must be able to make it to the top and back before sunset, so along the way you will encounter maps with timetables reading "You should be here by 11:00 am" and so forth to help you assess whether the top is attainable that day. The park service closes the trail to the peak at a certain time each day, depending on the season. If you are not ascending the summit staircase by that time, you will not be allowed to proceed and will have to begin descending.
To ensure maximum hiking time, take a taxi from the Jungmun Resort area at the crack of dawn, arriving at the base by 6:00 a.m. It's about a 40 minute drive. A trekking supply store at the trail entrance has everything you might need, from boots to poles to water. Do not worry about carrying a heavy pack of food, though. This is Korea, which means there will be at least one food purchasing location for your convenience along the trail (ramen noodles and kimbap are the perfect hiking combo)! The trail also has bathrooms and spring water every few kilometers. So keep your pack light and enjoy the climb! You will experience varying trail conditions, from nicely-planked boardwalks to steep lava-rock staircases. The scent of mountain azaleas and the changing flora are interesting to observe as you ascend higher into the clouds. Hopefully when you reach the summit, the morning cloud cover will have evaporated, revealing the Baengnokdam "Lake" (or "pond" or "puddle", depending on rainfall) inside Saraoreum (crater).
Day 6: Jeju Haenyeo and Ferry Boat Tour
After hiking yesterday, give your legs and feet a rest by spending the day seeing Jeju from another perspective - by boat! Start the day with brunch at an abalone porridge (전복죽 "jeon bok juk") restaurant (Jungmun Haenyeo House 중문어촌계 해녀의 집 2658-2 Jungmun-dong, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do) to re-energize your tired body.
Korean porridge (죽, "juk") is known for its medicinal qualities; it's often given to sick or elderly people. There are many types of juk - pumpkin (호박죽, "hobak juk") porridge is one of my favorites! But when in Jeju, you absolutely must have abalone juk! Nowhere else will you get fresher abalone, since they are hand-harvested by Korea's very own diving mermaids, known as Haenyeo (해녀).
Seeing the haenyeo is reason enough to travel to Jeju Island. These female divers are a disappearing breed, with only 4,500 remaining today and 98% of them over the age of 50 (compared to 1970, when they numbered over 20,000 and just 14% of haenyeo divers were over age 50). It may not be long until they become only a cultural relic, surviving merely as a tourist attraction. When you see a haenyeo, please be polite and ask before taking photos ("사진 찍어도 될까요?" "Sajin jjik-eo-do dwel-gga-yo?" "May I take your photo please?")
Note: Abalone is similar to a scallop. Maangchi has the BEST collection of korean porridge recipes in English, including abalone porridge. Yum! Some of the other top foods you should try when in Jeju are nicely explained here.
With a taste of the sea in your belly, head over to the Seogwipo Port to catch a ride on the Seogwipo Pleasure Boat. Purchase a ticket, board the ferry and enjoy the sea breeze and nautical views! Included in the tour is the Jeju Biosphere Reserve, where you will sail around three of the more than fifty uninhabited islands surrounding Jeju. These three islands include Supseom, Munseom, and Beomseom, each with its own unique characteristics and ecology. During the tour, you will also experience terrific views of the entire Halla San volano and sail past Jeongbang Waterfall (정방폭포), a magnificent 75 foot high waterfall. Relax and enjoy the salty sea air and the sites of everyday life on the East Sea!
Day 7 and Beyond: Relax and Enjoy the Beach!
After all this site-seeing, now go relax on the beach! That's why you came here, right?? :-) Enjoy!!!
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