Jeju Island is the largest volcanic island in Korea and it has a mild oceanic climate throughout the year with the smallest annual temperature range in South Korea. Officially called Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, this best tourist destination boasts mild weather, as well as scenic beauties of beaches, waterfalls, cliffs and caves. The island is 73km wide and 31km long with a total area of 1,848.85km2. Jeju is the largest island in South Korea.
Around the island, you’ll see evidence of a rich local culture quite distinct from the mainland, most notably in the form of the hareubang – these cute, grandfatherly statues of volcanic rock were made for reasons as yet unexplained, and pop up all over the island. Similarly ubiquitous are the batdam, walls of hand-stacked volcanic rock that separate the farmers’ fields: like the drystone walls found across Britain, these were built without any bonding agents, the resulting gaps letting through the strong winds that often whip the island. Jeju’s distinctive thatch-roofed houses are also abundant, and the island even has a breed of miniature horse; these are of particular interest to Koreans due to the near-total dearth of equine activity on the mainland. Also unique to Jeju are the haenyeo, female divers who plunge without breathing apparatus into often treacherous waters in search of shellfish and sea urchins. Although once a hard-as-nails embodiment of the island’s matriarchal culture, their dwindling numbers mean that this occupation is in danger of petering out.
Jeju City is the largest settlement, and whether you arrive by plane or ferry, this will be your entry point. You’ll find the greatest choice of accommodation and restaurants here, and most visitors choose to hole up in the city for the duration of their stay, as the rest of the island is within day-trip territory. Although there are a few sights in the city itself, getting out of town is essential if you’re to make the most of your trip. On the east coast is Seongsan, a sumptuously rural hideaway crowned by Ilchulbong, a green caldera that translates as “Sunrise Peak”; ferries run from here to Udo, a tiny islet that somehow manages to be yet even more bucolic. Inland are the Manjanggul lava tubes, one of the longest such systems in the world, and Sangumburi, the largest and most accessible of Jeju’s many craters. All roads eventually lead to Seogwipo on the south coast; this relaxed, waterfall-flanked city is Jeju’s second-largest settlement, and sits next to the five-star resort of Jungmun. Sights in Jeju’s west are a little harder to access, but this makes a trip all the more worthwhile – the countryside you’ll have to plough through is some of the best on the island, with the fields yellow with rapeseed in spring, and carpeted from summer to autumn with the pink-white-purple tricolour of cosmos flowers. Those with an interest in calligraphy may want to seek out the remote former home of Chusa, one of the country’s most famed exponents of the art. In the centre of the island is Hallasan, an extinct volcano and the country’s highest point at 1950m, visible from much of the island, though often obscured by Jeju’s fickle weather.
Jeju is one of the few places in Korea where renting a car or bicycle makes sense. Outside Jeju City, roads are generally empty and the scenery is almost always stunning, particularly in the inland areas, where you’ll find tiny communities, some of which will never have seen a foreigner. Bicycle trips around the perimeter of the island are becoming ever more popular, with riders usually taking four days to complete the circuit – Seongsan, Seogwipo and Daecheong make logical overnight stops.