Don’t Skip: Jeju Island, South Korea

Nice seat huh?

Nice seat huh?

Intro to Jeju Island

Jeju is marketed as the “honeymoon island,” popular with couples who take the opportunity to visit Love Land and the Museum of Sex after their walks on the beach.  Get past the tourist promotion though, and volcanic,  subtropical, Jeju will surely reward you with its unique history, culture and charm.  Jeju is best known for gorgeous sunsets over its rugged coastlines, female free divers (haenyeo), grandfather statues (hareubang: 하르방, which guard from evil), seafood, agriculture and Mt. Halla, Korea’s highest mountain. Low, black, lava-rock fences enclose fields, homes and burial spaces. This black, porous basalt rock is put to good use in all kinds of structures and decor, making everything seem always to tie back to the source, the volcano.

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Mt. Halla

A hike on Hallasan is an excellent way to catch some beautiful views, and soak up lots of nature.  The volcano isn’t overly steep (though parts of the trails may seem so), so it’s for fun for hikers of varying levels. The Seongpanak Trail leads to the top.  It takes about four and a half hours for a one way trip, so be sure to allow plenty of time. The area around Hallasan has been designated a National Park. It is also where the famous Buddhist temple Gwaneumsa is located. The lake inside the crater at the peak is called Paengnoktam.

Jeju Sunrise Peak

Jeju Sunrise Peak

Photo Credit: Jeju Provincial Government

Seongsan Ilchulbong and the Lava Tubes

Located on the east coast, the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone (Sunrise Peak), which rises right out of the sea, is perhaps the most-photographed attraction on Jeju.  Make the steep hike to the lookout point, reading about volcanic structure and formation along the way. Views are dramatic, and we enjoyed the atmosphere of the jagged rocks in the mist on the day we visited. The sunrises here are said to be magical!  Manjanggul, one of the longest lava tubes in the world is nearby and has some spectacular formations. One of Jeju’s UNESCO sites is Geomun-oreum, an extensive lava tube system unlike anywhere else, located in the northeast of the island.  Only a certain amount of people are allowed to visit each day, and they recommend making reservations at least two days ahead. There is a good visitor’s center, and exploring the lava tubes on a guided hike takes about two hours.

Olle Trail Map

Olle Trail Map


Olle Walking Courses

One of our favorite parts of Jeju was exploring the environmentally friendly Olle routes, created in the spirit of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. The first of the routes opened in 2007, and there are 21 main routes, covering approximately 442 km.  One route stops where another begins, making it easy to continue walking on subsequent days.  Many of the areas these routes cover had not been previously open to the public, though many of the trails follow long-established traditional paths. The word olle, in the Jeju dialect, originally described the narrow pathway between ones house and the main road. Our favorite route (Olle Course 10) is about 15 kilometers, with Hwasun Beach as the departure point.  Following the ever-present blue arrows and ribbon trail markers, the trail took us first across the sand and over the lava flows. We saw caves and fishermen and lots of little sea creatures.  Mt. Sanbang was next, the area at its base opened to the public for first time with the opening of the olle.  At the top is a unique cave-temple. Back on the main trail, we soon passed the port and memorial to Hamel, the Dutchman whose ship the De Sperwer was wrecked off Jeju in the mid 1600s. He (involuntarily) lived in Korea for 13 years, and was said to give the first account of Korea by a westerner. His journal can be found on the web. Another section of the walk featured fossils, some said to be human footprints, along with those of other animals, plants and mollusks. A steep climb later, we were at the top of Mt. Songak, with a crater in the peak filled with green grass and plants, but its shape still obvious.  Mara-do (the southernmost island of Korea) and Gapa –do (island), which can be viewed on most days from this spot.  Olle 10 ends at scenic, rocky Hamo-ri Beach in Moseulpo,


Haenyeo, Korean Mermaid

Photo Credit: lovelyloey

Korea’s very own mermaids, these female divers (haenyeo) keep a hundreds-of-years old tradition alive diving for abalone, conch and seaweed.  Today, the majority (43%) are over 70, and another 37% in their 60s! There were only 2 haenyeo in their thirties at the time of our visit. Though the government is giving some support to preserve this cultural heritage (and enhance tourism), it’s difficult to interest young women in the profession. The haenyeo dive down in cold waters to as much as 60 feet or so, returning with shells, abalone, conch and seaweeds to sell back on shore.  Traditionally, this was done to feed the family, without any tools but a basket and goggles, and no protection against the frigid water.  The Haenyeo Museum is located in Jeju City.

Had to share this one! :)

Had to share this one! 🙂

Temples, Historic Sites and Museums

There are many historic sites and temples spread out over Jeju Island. We didn’t even see a small percentage of them.  We attempted to use public transportation (buses) which turned out to be extremely time-consuming and (for us) confusing.  Our advice: rent a car!  Popular historic sites include Samsunghyeol, Byeolbangjin fortress, Hangpaduri Fortress, and Jeju Castle. Picturesque spots include Jusangjeolli Cliff in Daepo, various waterfalls and sunset-viewing areas (everyone has a favorite).  Jeju is also known for a variety of quirky parks and museums, like the aforementioned Love-Land (human and other figures in sexual positions, phallus statues and hands-on exhibits--a detailed post if you want pics), Jeju Art Park, Kimnyoung Maze Park, Jeju Mini Mini Land (tiny versions of world landmarks), a Teddy Bear Museum and a very nice Botanical Garden.  There really is something for everyone.

Where We Stayed

We spent our time on Jeju Island at a small hostel called Island Guest House.  It’s not in the city, but on the southwest coast of the island in more of a neighborhood.  It’s very laid back, backpacker friendly, and the owner is super helpful (our bad luck she was leaving on a trip the day we arrived). Breakfast included in the price of the room, and includes eggs, milk, juice and jam on HOMEMADE BREAD!  It was, however, pretty pricey, and we splurged to pay around $35 a night for their double room, shared bath. If it’s a full house, the one and only shared bath is always in heavy use.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.