Sunday, June 1, 2014

Exploring Jeju Island

In 2013 I spent a lot of time exploring the Korean peninsula – to the point where I had some Koreans telling me that I had seen more of their small country than them! But the one place on the Korea bucket list that I had not checked off was Jeju Island, located in the sea south of the peninsula. Most Koreans were surprised... "You have not been to JEJU??? It's sooo wonderful..."

Given that Jeju is by far the #1 location for domestic tourism (Seoul to Jeju is one of the most trafficked flights in the world) I agreed that I had to see the place. Would Jeju live up to its claim as "the Hawaii of Korea"??

Eating black pork was definitely the best thing to do on Jeju

Fortunately in early May a confluence of holidays (Labor Day, Children's Day, and Buddha's Birthday) created a "Golden Week" and made for several days off from work. My friend Xuanhoa visited from Vietnam, and as it was her first time visiting South Korea I thought Jeju would make a perfect trip. Unfortunately, traveling anywhere from Seoul is hellish during a holiday period – 20 million other people have the same idea to travel as you do – but I took the plunge on air tickets (3x the normal rate) and thankfully found a guesthouse accommodation through AirBnb so we didn't need to stay at one of Jeju's exorbitantly priced hotels.

The flight from Gimpo Airport on May Day Thursday was simple, just over an hour, and we were able to drop off our bags off at the guesthouse in Jeju City just in time for dinner. There is not much to Jeju City, but thankfully our accommodation was walking distance to a street full of restaurants serving Jeju's specialty – black pork! A restaurant which claimed to have a Michelin rating (??) had a long line of customers waiting outside, but we found another nice-looking restaurant nearby and were seated at a corner table. Korean barbecue is always a hit with foreigners (besides the vegetarians, of course), especially when you get prime cuts of pork thrown on the grill. Our first meal in Jeju was goooood! Very full after dinner, Xuanhoa and I spent the evening walking to the waterfront and watching the steady stream of planes landing at Jeju airport on the flight path from Seoul.

If we were driving our own car, we would have spent more time at the beaches on Jeju

I had been told by Koreans that Jeju requires renting a car to really explore, but unfortunately my international drivers' permit had expired and I haven't gone through the trouble yet of acquiring a Korean drivers license (you never need to drive yourself anywhere in Seoul). Thankfully our guesthouse hostess, Suyeon, had reserved a taxi to take us around to the sights on the east side of the island on Friday. All things considered, for the 100,000 won daily rate ($98), it was not a bad value. Our driver didn't speak any English, but I knew enough Korean to communicate with the driver where to go.

We had a list of recommended attractions from Suyeon, and started at a couple nice beaches (Hamdeok and Gimnyeong). Unfortunately with a taxi driver you can't really linger at the beaches because he just wants to shuttle you from place to place so his day ends at a reasonable hour. Next we went to Manjanggul Cave, a UNESCO World Heritage site and "one of the finest lava tunnels in the world", but frankly it was really dull. Just a big long cave that takes about an hour to walk. After Korean food for lunch (grilled fish + kimchi stew), we visited the postcard attraction of Jeju: the Seongsan Sunrise Peak. From the outside this volcanic crater looked really impressive, and we were excited to hike it on the warm May day. But at the top you don't have such a great view – there is the grassy crater next to the sea but really it is underwhelming compared to what you expect. I thought Jeju's air would be clean (I hate mainland Korea's air pollution) but from the top of Seongsan the view was still quite hazy. From there, it was a short drive to the Seopjikoji, scene of a famous Korean drama that I have never watched, and though it was nice to be along the coast it certainly was not "breathtaking", as some of the online reviewers had claimed. Our final stop on the day was the Daheeyeon Garden, a kitschy green tea plantation.

The top of Seongsan was underwhelming, but we got this cool picture with a random Korean dude in a bear costume

On Saturday we got cheap and decided not to rent the taxi again. Rather we thought we could get to the south side of the island (towards Seogwipo) by bus. Not a smart move. Though there are buses which run to Seogwipo from Jeju City we ran into trouble when we wanted to move from place-to-place along the southern shore. We started at the Cheonjeyeon Waterfall, which I had read was "Jeju's most famous waterfall", and actually was nice and peaceful. Then, with no taxis or buses in sight, the long painful walking began. We started by walking to the Teddy Bear Museum, about 30 minutes by foot, after which Xuanhoa decided the museum wasn't worth visiting anymore. So we continued the long walk (another 45 minutes) to the Jusangjeolli, described by Wikipedia as a "spectacular volcanic rock formation". However, the Wikipedia entry must have been written by Koreans because this formation was rather underwhelming – and uncomfortably crowded. When we arrived, the first words out of my mouth were "Is that it?" The Jusangjeolli was not worth the walk. To find more things to do, I did a little web research on my phone and discovered that the "most famous waterfall" is actually named Cheonjiyeon, not Cheonjeyeon. Yes, these both exist along Jeju's southern coast. I'm guessing I'm not the first English-speaking tourist to be confused by this. The second waterfall (Cheonjiyeon) was far too crowded and not a good time investment compared with the less famous, similarly named Cheonjeyeon Waterfall. After too much walking on a hot day between too many disappointing sites, Xuanhoa and I had reached the limit of our patience and found a bus back to Jeju City, where we ate at the same delicious black pork restaurant as the first night. Yum. Eating was the best thing to do on Jeju.

Cheonjeyeon Waterfall was nicely uncrowded compared to its more famous cousin

Sunday morning we caught an early flight back to Seoul. With another day on the island, we would have climbed Hallasan.

My overall verdict on Jeju: if you keep your expectations down and do not travel during a peak period (try mid-week, definitely NOT during a Korean holiday) you might enjoy it. If you are a Korean or Chinese tourist, compared to your crowded and polluted city Jeju Island might seem like a green paradise. But compared to most of the world's green nature places, including those in Southeast Asia, Jeju is quite tame. It is not a place to bookmark on your "must see places to see before you die" bucket list and definitely not a place to travel to on your honeymoon, unless you are actually Korean and craving kimchi everyday of your matrimonial celebration. I was glad to see Jeju once, but I probably won't be back. Time to explore the rest of Asia outside of Korea!

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to pop in and say great post-- been following your blog for a while, and enjoy your writing. I had been curious about visiting Jejudo -- though lately I had been getting the feeling that there was overhype (especially with overcrowding now). Anyway, craving bbq now!