The island is home to some of South Korea’s best food and gorgeous landscapes, thanks in part to Jeju’s “Haenyeo” – a small traditional community of women divers or “women of the sea” who harvest seafood by hand – and the rich volcanic terrain giving rise to unique landforms and the country’s highest peak, Mount Halla. Stuff yourself with fresh seafood and grilled meats, seek out waterfalls, hike up mountains or go deep into hidden river valleys – Jeju offers adventures aplenty.
There are two main urban areas: Jeju City in the north, and Seogwipo in the south, both of which have plenty of accommodation, dining and sightseeing options. Public transport is infrequent so rent a car, which is best booked online at least a month in advance by any driver with a valid international driving licence. Driving is the most painless way of getting to some of the more remote attractions and speciality restaurants, such as the coastal Haenyeo-chon – literally, the villages of the Haenyeo – where you can savour the best local seafood.
These include hwoe-guksu (a cold noodle and sashimi dish with spicy sauce, served and eaten in a manner similar to rojak), seongge-guksu (generous servings of sea urchin in clear, hot noodle soup), and jeonbok-juk (a hearty abalone rice porridge). The fresh seafood comes courtesy of the Haenyeo, who are up by dawn, diving with nothing but a wetsuit and a lead weight belt on, scouring the seabed for the best picks. The prices are incredibly affordable at about 8,000 to 10,000 won (about S$10-S$12) per dish, a far cry from the premium city dwellers pay elsewhere for these prized ingredients.
Jeju is also known for its horse meat that can be cooked in a number of ways at select restaurants. One restaurant popular among locals, Malirang Heukdosaegirang, for instance, features a 10-course horse feast which includes tartare, sashimi, stewed, deep fried and grilled variations. A more common Jeju dish is black pork, which is mostly served barbecued and is readily available at almost every street corner. Eating well is a great way to fuel up for day trips out to the many trails and attractions across the island.
Early risers will appreciate the northeastern Seongsan Ilchulbong, a fortress-like peak where you can watch the sun rise over the lip of a 600m-wide volcanic crater. If you turn to face west from your vantage point at the top of the crater, you can also get clear panoramas of Jeju City slowly coming to life. Then, take in nearby Seopjikoji, a stretch of coastal hills exposed to crashing ocean waves and a winding path up to an iconic lighthouse perched atop sheer cliffs. Visitors can snack on tender grilled sea snails and squid at the entrance of this trail.
Also in the northern region is the snaking Musucheon River, which in drier months empties out to reveal an almost-magical valley of blue-tinged rock and sparkling little pools under an arch of gently swaying foliage from trees lining what would have been the river banks.
Make your way down to the empty river bed and enjoy a quiet stroll through one of the best-kept secrets of Jeju.
On the southern side of the island lie some of South Korea’s most impressive waterfalls, including the Jeongbang falls, which Jeju tourism folk say is the only waterfall in Asia that leads directly into the ocean. Not to be outdone is the Cheonjeyeon waterfall, which has three sections, beginning at the top with a mesmerising, reflective emerald-blue pool.
If it’s hot, take a refreshing dip in any of the other more secluded pools near these falls, such as the hidden ocean rock pools along the Hwangwooji Coast, about a 10-minute walk east from Oedolgae Rock.
Then there is the dormant volcano of Mount Halla, which occupies the centre of the island, rising majestically above the sleepy towns and lush greens, with trails of various difficulties that give stunning views of Jeju.
At 1,950 meters above sea level, Mount Halla has two tough trails that cut through forests to the summit. Some of the best views, however, can be enjoyed from the comfort of gentler paths, such as the less obstructed and more family-friendly Yeongsil trail, on southern side of the mountain.
This trail may not take you to the peak’s crater, but it provides breathtaking sights of Seogwipo from above the clouds, commanding cliff faces and bright bursts of purplish-pink azaleas.
Don’t leave for home without some hallabong – a seedless local tangerine named after Mount Halla because its tip resembles the mountain-top crater – and island-made makgeolli, or Korean rice wine, which comes in a variety of flavours. They’re perfect for a quiet evening at home, raising a toast to the good food, scenery and hospitality of this island of natural treasures.
This story first appeared on www.straitstimes.com
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