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Mythical Jeju Island, South Korea

Oyster diving grandmothers

Rapeseed blossoms in spring

Jeju interior
by Nick Walton

[From Summer 2010] The tiny island of Jeju, in South Korea, is not only famous for its fields of yellow flowers and bands of hardy diving women, but also as a place of myths and legends, and pristine nature.

Jeju-do, as it’s known in Korean, translates as the Peace Island, and with good reason. A blanket of tranquility seems to have descended over this little rocky outcrop, located 48km from the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. Jeju is an isle shaped by the elements and coloured by the seasons, making it a perfect location for families looking for nature and culture and couples looking for romance and seclusion.

In spring, the island is blanketed in bright yellow rapeseed flowers which dance in the gentle yet almost constant sea breeze. They seem to cover everything and have become an unofficial symbol for the island. Unlike the Korean capital of Seoul, Jeju has a laid back, welcoming ambiance, one that makes visitors feel like they are entering unexplored territory.

The people of Jeju, often darker and more down to earth than their mainland brethren, are quick to smile, inquisitive (especially the children) and welcoming. The pace of life on Jeju is slow but sure; markets bustle in the early morning hours when different styles of bright red kim chi, preserved cabbage in chili, are mixed in massive bowls, and sticky rice dough is kneaded, ready to be pan-fried. As the warmth of the day settles over the island, the pace slows again and it’s easy to find your own corner of paradise, away from virtually anyone, from which to enjoy the sun, the surf and the breeze.

Jeju boasts a rich tapestry of biospheres and protected environments, and has often been compared to Peter Pan’s Never Never Land. Its rural-esque persona, national and county parks and quiet, modern roads make it perfect for self-driving tours staged over two or three days.

Jeju-do is in fact a series of islets, with Jeju proper the largest. Water activities remain among the most popular attractions. Visitors can visit the postcard-perfect 22 metre-high Cheonjiyeon Waterfalls, or drive to the coast to glimpse the famous Haenyo, the diving women of Jeju, who, like their ancestors, dive for shellfish without air tanks. They can be seen basking and gossiping in their black wetsuits, many already grandmothers but still as hardy as the younger divers, each protecting their favourite dive sites from rival groups.

From the top of Mount Halla, South Korea’s tallest peak and an active volcano, you can look down across the craggy coastline and out to the tiny islands which ring Jeju and which include the Seongsan Ilchulbong crater. The remains of an extinct volcano, this unique island is a national monument and boasts more than 400 species of plant and animal life inside the 100m deep crater. Visitors can walk around the crater rim and see examples of the exotically shaped rocks which resulted from its final explosion.

Another testament to Jeju’s volcanic origins is Manjanggul, one of the world’s longest lava tubes. Located in the island’s north, a visit to this impressive cave system (also a designated national monument) is bound to be a geological field trip to remember. Jeju is also home to several sun-drenched beaches, include Jungmun Beach, a popular filming spot at the base of the Jungmun resort area. One of the island’s best walks is to Marado islet, which marks the end of Korean territory.

Jeju Island is a place of spirits and legends, myths, ghosts, demi-gods and magic and after day trips to deserted islands and beaches, visitors can check the island’s numerous Buddhist temples and shrines dedicated to these ancient island gods. Jeju’s history is punctuated by stories of resident spirits, which include the three demi-gods Ko, Pu and Yang, who founded the first settlement. In fact, it can be hard to escape the island’s constant symbolism, including the ever-present dwarf-like Tolharubang fertility statues, lovingly referred to as "old grandfathers."

For Koreans, Jeju is a honeymoon destination, a sweet reprieve from city life. Everywhere on the island there is romance as couples, often newly introduced and recently married, descend for weekend honeymoons. Many hotels employ social specialists – like cruise ship entertainment teams - whose sole purpose is to organise games and karaoke to get these notoriously shy couples to open up, relax and use their time as best they can before rushing back on Sunday afternoon to their new lives in Seoul or Busan.

As a destination, there is little that Jeju, despite its size, can’t provide. From luxury hotels and resorts nestled in the valleys that lead to the glistening sea, to modern museums, restaurants and even aspects of a night life (think bustling Korean BBQ followed by tea-laced karaoke). But it’s the way the island is removed, both physically and perceptively, from the rest of fast-paced, ultra-modern Korea, that makes it so appealing.

If You Go:
Korea has two international airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, both of which have hubs at Incheon International Airport outside Seoul. Both offer domestic flights onwards to Jeju.
There are many hotels on Jeju, including the The Shilla Jeju; The Lotte Hotel; and the Hyatt Regency Jeju.
The Korea National Tourism Office has a wealth of information on Jeju and other parts of Korea.

Photographs by Nick Walton

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