While Western memories are already fading, Jeju Island was front and centre of every news report only a few months ago. Sadly, for all the wrong reasons.
On 16 April while en route between Incheon and Jeju Island, the MV Sewol capsized in calm seas, sinking and resulting in the death by drowning of around 300 South Koreans…the vast majority being high school students on what was supposed to be a fun filled excursion.
Understandably, the grief and anger resulting from such a tragedy were in evidence in the numerous cities in which we stayed.
Despite this sad introduction to Jeju Island, the three days we spent there made for some fantastic experiences, ranging from 8-hour volcano hikes to the exploration of an hilarious sex-themed amusement park!
Jeju Island is renowned amongst the South Koreans as being the honeymooner’s isle, replete with stunning coastline, verdant national parks, and more amusement parks than I ever thought possible! At the same time, it has also swiftly become a destination of choice for thousands of Chinese tourists, with Korea recently making special dispensation for the Chinese by removing Visa requirements for Chinese nationals.
Much of the literature we had read suggested that it was an island of untamed beauty, a little bit rural and a place to get away from it all. While that may have been true 20 years ago, the Jeju Island of today consists of two large cities (Jeju City and Seogwipo) rapidly expanding, consuming all before them as they inexorably encircle the ragged, volcanic coastline. In the heart of the island, centred around the awesome husk of a volcano known as Mt Hallasan, remains an element of tranquillity. Likewise in the remote islands offshore and some of the far flung towns, scattered across Jeju’s interior.
But before we could tackle any of these natural wonders, I needed to tackle my first ever experience driving a vehicle on the ‘wrong’ (right-hand) side of the road!
It was with much trepidation that I crawled my way out of the Kumho hire car complex, keeping one ear on the ever-so-polite English GPS, and both eyes on the road ahead! I had high hopes of getting through the next three days without an abusive toot on the horn by another irate driver, only to find myself on the receiving end at the very first set of lights that we pulled up at, failing to realise that you could actually turn right on a red signal! As it turned out, that was as bad as it got, thank goodness. Although my first roundabout did cause a mild case of panic when I almost failed to give way to the left, couldn’t work out which of the two lanes I needed to be in, and then tried to exit out the left hand lane…!!
As an island that has been formed through volcanic action, Jeju’s perimeter consists of some incredible volcanic cliffs rising almost vertically from the sea below. With this also comes the unique natural experience of many streams and rivers terminating at these cliffs, creating massive waterfalls that cascade over the organ-pipe like rocks and down into the salty waters below. Our first day was spent touring the seaside in the vicinity of our accommodation, visiting more waterfalls in a single day than I ever thought possible!
Here’s a selection…
And my favourite part of the day…chowing down on these freshly baked mandarin cakes (for which Jeju Island is famous), all washed down with a bottle of freshly squeezed mandarin juice!
And here is evidence of one of the funniest experiences we had on the whole holiday…the locals were mortified to see a bloke step up and pose behind this sweet lady! They tried to convince Karen to take my place but she was having none of it! Much hilarity ensued…