Known as the Island of the Gods by native Koreans, Jeju Island is one of the most highly touted tourist destinations in Korea. A temperate subtropical island (don’t come here expecting hot sun and lukewarm turquoise seas in January, despite its billing as “the Hawaii of Korea”), Jeju has attracted visitors, both Waegook and Korean alike for many years, with its misty mountains, unique and occasionally bizarre theme parks, and in summer time, its ocean beaches.
Despite the highly crowded nature of Korea, and the resultant intense popularity of this destination in summer (the air route from Seoul to Jeju is the busiest air route in the world, with more than 10 million passengers a year making the trip), there are still areas of this isle where one can find relative peace in this deeply beautiful place. One thing to keep in mind on your travels here though is this: while there are many attractions and hotels to choose from here, do make an effort to try and stay with and patronize locally based businesses here, as many of the operations here that most people choose are run by corporations based on the mainland, shuttling the majority of your tourist dollars away from the locals that need it most.
That way, whether you scale the highest peaks in Korea in the interior, or rest on its silky sands, or geek out at its many wacky but homegrown theme parks, you will be supporting a mode of development that will sustain this place for many years to come.
In order to dive head first straight into the traditional life of rural villagers on Jeju Island, make time to check out the Seongeup Folklore Village. Unlike other contrived settlements you might see throughout Korea, this one actually has some of the original inhabitants living here as they always have. You get to observe them go about their day to day routines, but it is advised that you hire a guide to get the best possible experience, as they are very well-read on this community specifically, and they can act as a translator if you wish to ask the local residents questions about their lives here in the past, and as a living, breathing tourist attraction.
Following this, continue your journeys across this island crammed with secrets and surprises around every corner by dropping on the various museums that dot the landscape here. Topics range from the serious, with museums that document the horrific events involving the Japanese occupation in the earlier half of the 20th century, and a bloody civil conflict on the island following the Second World War (Jeju Independence Museum, Jeju April 3rd Peace Park), to the places that explore the resources and industries of Jeju (Green Tea Museum, Haenyeo Museum), to the light-hearted and fun (Teddy Bear Museum, Mini World, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not).
Finally, visitors in the winter may feel that while they are escaping the crowds by coming here in the off-season, they end up missing the buzz and energy of the warmer months as a trade-off. If you time your visit to arrive here in February though, you get to have the opportunity to take in one of Jeju’s most famous celebrations, the Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival. Originating from the need of farmers to burn their fields to rid them of harmful insects, the festival of today features massive firework displays, bonfires, and the opportunity to play traditional Korean games with the locals!
While this could be considered one of the museums that we have already covered in the paragraphs above, Loveland has attracted so much notoriety on its own, that it deserves its own section. In case you haven’t heard of this place before, it is a museum and sculpture park dedicated to various representations of … you guessed it … penises! Or is that penii? Anyhow, this place contains not only that, but actual depictions of people doing the horizontal rumba. Exhibiting a level of comfort in sexuality that most Westerners lack, this place will generate vacation photos that will be guaranteed to makes your parents blush!
After that, it will be high time to begin connecting with the natural side of Jeju Island. Start this with a trek up Mount Halla, the tallest peak in South Korea. Despite this moniker, the trail is actually fairly moderate in difficulty, and provided you wear proper shoes, and provision yourself with some food and water for the trail, it will prove to be a spectacular hike for you and the numerous Koreans who will be likely making the trek with you!
Finally, after all that climbing and running around, you will need a day or two to recuperate. Fortunately, being a subtropical island, there are plenty of stunning beaches to go around, despite the overwhelming popularity of this place (just plan a trip for September, after the official “swimming season” ends … trust us on this one). The most popular beach on the island is the one closest to the airport, Iho Tewoo. However, it tends to be overcrowded through much of the season, and the sand is of middling quality. A better bet can be found on the northwest side of Jeju, at Hyeopjae Beach. Here, the sand is a brilliant white, a spectacular view of an offshore island heightens the mood even further, and the shallow waters make for pleasant swimming through much of the long summer season.