Jeju Island is not on many Western tourists' radar. This speck of land off the southern coast of South Korea is hugely popular amongst domestic tourists and is the honeymoon destination of choice for Korean newlyweds. Large parts of Jeju remain stunningly natural, with windswept coastlines, green forests, waterfalls and volcanic mountains creating an almost-perfect atmosphere for nature viewing. Hiking and bicycling are as popular among Jeju's visitors as beach-going and theme-park visiting.
To East Asian tourists, Jeju is probably best known for its whimsical (sometimes bizarre) themed attractions. These sites range from Jeju Loveland, a sex-themed garden with explicit statues and phallic sculptures, to the Teddy Bear Museum, which includes a wide array of indoor and outdoor exhibits featuring the globally popular stuffed animals. Jeju's other buzzed-about attraction is its annual fire festival, which draws curious tourists and culture aficionados from around Asia and the world.
With locally sourced food widely available and public buses and bicycles the most convenient forms of transport, this Korean paradise would be an interesting and exotic addition to anyone's East Asian eco-tourism itinerary. Despite its exotic aura, the island is quite accessible to Western tourists. There is even an English language magazine called Jeju Life that gives would-be visitors the lowdown on goings-on on the island.
Jeju is one of the easiest places to pedal a bicycle in all of South Korea. Wide roads and light traffic in most areas make biking a breeze, provided the weather co-operates (rain showers are a frequent occurrence, and it does get chilly, if not freezing, in wintertime). One of the main thoroughfares on the island, Highway 12, boasts a bike lane, as do some of Jeju's shoreline roads. Rentals are easy to find at guesthouses and local shops. Traveling light is also possible on a motorbike. These two-wheelers are likewise widely rented in the island's population centers. However, with Jeju's bike-friendly features, going gas-powered is not a necessity.
Jeju has a reliable bus-based transportation system. Most buses start in Jeju City or Seogwipo and subsequently travel to other parts of the island multiple times per day. Some attractions require an additional hike after the bus ride. Between buses and bicycles, getting around with an acceptable level of environmental-friendliness is a breeze.
For people staying in or near Jeju City, Halla Mountain (called Hallasan in Korean) is the main event when it comes to eco-tourism. At more than 6,000 feet, it is South Korea's tallest peak. Halla is climbable, with several trails leading up its slopes to the summit. These trails range from long but gently sloping paths that are over seven miles long to short, three-mile routes that feature quick, leg-straining changes in elevation. All trails pass through multiple ecosystems as they rise in altitude. Though Halla's slopes are thoroughly natural, the trails are easily accessible, with the island-wide bus service stopping at most trailheads. The trails are also accessible by bike or taxi from Jeju City or Seogwipo.
Another natural feature that sits in the shadow of Halla's summit is the Halla Arboretum. This botanical garden features regional plant species and can be reached on foot from the outskirts of Jeju City. Some visitors climb through the gardens not to appreciate the plant life, but to find scenic spots on the grounds that overlook the seashore and the city.
Perhaps even more impressive than the trails that wind up Halla Mountain are the Olle hiking trails, a network of more than a dozen paths that follow the island's coastline. Each section of trail can be traveled by experienced hikers and fit novices in five to seven hours. Some sections contain terrain that is rocky and uneven, but following the trail is a great way to take a lengthy hike through some of northeast Asia's most beautiful natural landscapes. Maps are widely available and trails are marked with distinct blue arrows.
One of Jeju's biggest spectacles occurs in late winter or early spring (depending on the lunar calendar). The Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival is, as its name suggests, centered around bonfires. Though this is a heavily visited (read: over-crowded) event, it is photo-worthy and interesting. The fest grew out of a local practice of farmers, who burned the grass from their pasturelands as a way to combat harmful insects.
Jeju's Bijarim Forest features evergreen trees that are over five centuries old. The forest is also home to rare orchids and plants that are used for medicinal purposes. For a more tourist-oriented attraction, visitors can head to Hallim Park. This park features trails that run through thick forests, as well as lava caves and themed gardens. Numerous species of birds also inhabit Hallim's grounds. The Jeju Stone Garden, meanwhile, offers a different set of attractions. This venue displays the numerous types of rocks that make up Jeju's geology, with rare volcanic stones as part of the collection. Hallim and the Stone Garden are two examples of Jeju's tourist oriented, nature-themed parks.
Of course, Jeju is an island, so water sports are a viable itinerary addition. Sea-kayaking tours pass around the coast and allow visitors to explore inlets and coastal areas and also to reach the many islets that sit in the waters off of Jeju's coastline. Because ocean currents give Jeju's coastal waters warm temperatures, diving is possible even when the air temperature gets chilly. Munseom Island, an islet just off of the coast near the Seogwipo area, is the ideal diving spot because of its clear water and unique underwater landscapes.
Seafood is a major part of Korean cuisine and even more central to the cuisine of Jeju Island. The freshest, locally sourced seafood (much of it caught by locals) is widely available. Also, since the volcanic soil is fertile, other locally made ingredients are easy to come by. Organic produce is making inroads, with local producers selling their natural fruits and vegetables on the island. Actually, one of the best places to get organic food is in the island's schools, which serve meals made with organic products.
For meat-free menus, visitors can head to Mulmaegol, a unpretentious eatery that serves temple-style vegetarian dishes. There are also several locations of Loving Hut, a popular Korean chain that specializes in vegan food. All these places are viable eating options, though any local place where you can overcome the language barrier will serve you authentic, locally sourced food.
One of Jeju's best characteristics, from a low-impact traveler's perspective, is the high number of small scale inns and bed-and-breakfasts. This is one island destination where huge hotels and resorts do not dominate. The Jeju Hiking Inn in Seogwipo is, as its name suggests, a guesthouse for backpackers. Rates are low, and bike rental and trekking maps are available. The Honey Crown Hotel, in Jeju City, is a similar small-scale hotel with natural surroundings and an eco-friendly attitude.
Upscale accommodations can also be a shade of green. Shilla is a high-end hotel set on a cliff near the seashore. The extraordinarily scenic setting is reason enough to splurge on a room here, but Shilla has an eye on nature and offers programs that combine resort-type excursions with nature-themed activities like hiking, bird-watching and fishing.
Jeju Island is growing as a tourist destination. This is mainly due to an increase in visitors from South Korea and also a growing number of tourists from other countries in the Asia Pacific region. However, this idyllic, nature-heavy island offers plenty for eco-tourists and also for people in search of somewhere exotic where they can enjoy a low-impact vacation that has both cultural and natural elements.
MNN homepage photo: KOREA.NET/Flickr