Travel

The Majestic Volcanic Island Most Americans Still Don’t Know About

It’s got “post-pandemic vacation goals” written all over it.

Jeju Island
Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

As the grind of the pandemic drags on, more and more urban dwellers are yearning to swap their apartments for something a little more... remote. Maybe it’s a drive around the coast with some psychedelic scenery, or up winding mountain passes for a cozy small town escape. For South Koreans wanting the best of both worlds, all it takes is a  quick domestic flight to Jeju Island. 

Located just beyond South Korea’s southwesternmost tip, this tropical island is known for its swaying palms and next-level beaches (of both the white-sand and black-sand variety), gushing waterfalls and charming villages, imposing mountains and trippy volcanic rock formations.

Though it’s long been a cherished honeymoon spot, tourism to Jeju actually increased this summer as pandemic-fatigued locals fled Seoul for a rejuvenating break in nature. Though Jeju remains out of reach for Americans right now, it’s got “post-pandemic vacation goals” written all over it—especially once the island’s festivals and tourist attractions fully reopen. 

From the high-key hikes and adventure sports to the low-key meditation retreats and museums, there’s plenty to explore on Jeju. Once it’s safe to visit, here are the must-dos and must-sees.

Sunrise Peak crater
Jeju’s massive Seongsan Ilchubong crater is also known as Sunrise Peak. | Adnan Ami/Unsplash

How to get to Jeju Island

Coming from Seoul, the simplest way to Jeju-do (“do” means island in Korean) is a 70-minute flight. Fun fact, this is the busiest domestic flight route in the world (yes, really) with more than 100 flights per day. While it’s possible to pack the highlights into a weekend (and many Koreans do), the island is best experienced slowly. So aim for at least three days, if not much longer.

You can explore Jeju by bus or taxi, but it’s infinitely more convenient to rent a car. The island is made up of two municipalities, the capital Jeju-si (“si” means city) to the north, and Seogwipo-si to the south. Each has its own downtown center (or “shinae”), with the summit of Hallasan Mountain—the tallest in the country—towering in between.

Cheonjiyeon waterfall
Explore the brilliant blue pond below Cheonjiyeon waterfall. | hitsujikumo33/iStock/Getty Images

Jeju Island’s best beaches and waterfalls

Water babies flock to Jeju Island for kayaking, surfing, scuba diving, parasailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, rafting… you name it. A popular place to get out on the water is the Soesokkak Estuary, where the freshwater stream of Hyodoncheon meets the ocean. You can paddle down this wide, slow-flowing river in a kayak, water bicycle, or traditional Jeju raft (called “Tewoo”).

Jeju is also renowned for its spectacular waterfalls (or “pokpo”). Two of the most famous include Cheonjiyeonpokpo Falls and Jeongbangpokpo Falls, the highest waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean.

If you’d rather just take it easy on the beach, you’ve come to the right place. The best beach within easy reach of Jeju Shinae is Hamdeok Seoubong Beach, where kayaks are available for rent and tasty seafood restaurants edge the shore. This stretch of coastline also features incredibly cool black lava pools.

Heading east, it’s self-evident why Woljeongri Beach, with its striking white sands and numerous beachfront cafes, brings in the crowds. But do check out Gimnyeong Seonsegi for something slightly mellower—you might even spot a dolphin. There’s also Pyoseon Haevichi Beach, located a bit southeast, a vast expanse known for its namesake lighthouse. 

In the south, Jungmun Saekdal boasts four different colors of sand, plus cliffs and a cave to explore nearby. And in Andeok, Hwasun Golden Sand Beach is backdropped by the stunning Sanbangsan Mountain. Finally, Hyeopjae, out west, is a white-sand beach with access to a campground, temples, a lava tube, and a view of Biyangdo—a tiny volcanic island just off the coast.

The Yeongsil Trail at Hallasan National Park | Pichit Tongma/Shutterstock

Tackle one of Jeju’s majestic hiking trails

The aforementioned Hallasan Mountain is the island’s grand volcanic gem: a 6,388-foot mountain that’s also a designated national park, and, according to Korean folklore, home of the spirits. Six different trails ascend the mountain, but only two—the longer Seongpanak and steeper Gwaneumsa—go all the way to the top. (Note that both are currently closed due to the pandemic).

Another beloved trekking option is the Olle Trail, a long-distance walking path that encircles the island in a series of 26 numbered stretches. Route No. 7 is particularly beautiful, heading west along scenic coastal cliffs to the famous Oedolgae rock formation.

Out east, hikers can tackle Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone, an absolutely massive crater that was created when hot lava mixed with cold water. In the same area is Seopjikoji​​​​​​​, a chill coastal walk with views of donkeys, Seonbawi Rock rising out of the ocean, and other rock formations when the tide is low. Other low-intensity hikes include Yongnunioreum Volcanic Cone, where horses grazing in pasture will keep you company, or through one of Jeju’s many Gotjawal forests.

woman picking tangerines
Sweet hallabong tangerines are sold at hawker stalls and stands around the island. | insung yoon/unsplash

Eat and drink your heart out

The Jeju culinary scene is defined by both time-honored local favorites—including its massive hallabong tangerines and, of course, its seafood—and a recent infusion of international restaurants, like the Middle Eastern Wardah located in Tapdong.

If pork is your thing, be sure to sample Jeju’s own heuk dwaeji—a black pig variety of samgyeopsal barbecue known for its greater marbling and softer texture (there’s an entire street in Tapdong dedicated to it). Also try momguk, a Jeju speciality that mixes gulfweed with a broth made of pig bones and intestines, which pairs well, according to custom, with a cup of makgeolli (rice wine). And if pork is decidedly not your thing, vegans will love Hallim’s And Yu Cafe.

Other Jeju dishes include gogiguksu (pork meat noodles), kkwong memil kalguksu (knife-cut buckwheat noodle soup with pheasant), and lots and lots of seafood stews, like abalone porridge, and hairtail, sea urchin, and cold raw cuttlefish soups. For one of the freshest meals you’ll ever eat, head to a nearby Haenyeoui Jip (Haenyeo’s House), the restaurants run by the island’s famed female free divers who harvest seafood.

Don’t forget about Jeju’s traditional spirits, including its extra strong Hallasan soju and special hallabong makgeolli. But you can also mix things up at Jeju Beer, the island’s original craft brewery, made in partnership with Brooklyn Brewery. Its other brewery is Magpie, which also operates a pizza and beer joint called Bluebird in downtown Jeju-si.

The Osulloc Tea Museum
Wander the expansive green tea fields next to the O’sulloc Tea Museum. | EQRoy/Shutterstock

Catch your breath at a museum or two

From glass art and illuminated painting galleries, to over-the-top Hello Kitty and teddy bear collections, there’s no shortage of museums in Jeju. Up north, take a stroll through Jeju Stone Park, an outdoor and indoor exhibition that shows visitors the history of Jeju through the myth of its creator, Grandmother Seolmundae. 

Modern art lovers can check out Arario in the Tapdong area; southwest in Andeok, tea aficionados can learn about Korean tea tradition, watch a tea master, and tour the expansive green tea fields at the Jeju O’sulloc Tea Museum. Some of the best tea in the world comes from right here.

Finally, and importantly, anyone visiting Jeju should know about the Jeju Uprising—also known as the 4.3 Incident as it happened on April 3, 1948—when the Korean government massacred 30,000 protesters, about one-tenth of Jeju’s population. You can learn more at Jeju 4.3 Peace Park located in Bonggae-dong.

volcanic rock formations
More psychedelic volcanic rock formations at Yeongmori Beach. | Douglas MacDonald/Moment/Getty Images

Where to stay on Jeju Island

If you’re on a tight schedule, Jeju Shinae makes for a convenient home base on a visit to Jeju. Restaurants, bars, shopping, and entertainment are all within a short walk or taxi ride. Plus, its intercity terminal is the central hub for buses running to other parts of the island.

But the true beauty of the island lies east, south, and west. If you can swing it, rent a car or take a cab (the Kakao T app makes it easy to hail one), and work your way around Jeju’s perimeter.

In the east, some standout spots include Woljeong-ri (“ri” means village), Seongsan-ri, and Udo, a tiny island, accessible by ferry, known for its peanut farms and signature peanut makgeolli. If you want to spend the night, book a room at a villa like Robin & Blue. Gasi-ri, a mountainous village in southeastern Jeju, is a bright shock of yellow come April, when it hosts the annual canola flower festival. It’s also one of the best places to check out Jeju’s art scene and ranching culture.

For a traditional resort vacation, do as the honeymooners do and head to the island’s southern coast. But do be sure to explore the more rural areas of Pyoseon (where you can stay in a log cabin), Namwon, Jungmun, and Andeok. There, Sun & Moon offers seaview rooms, a rooftop pool, and an outdoor barbecue setup. Out west, check out Hyeopjae and Hallim, where a nice hotel option is Built in Garage.

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