Honeymoon Paradise on Cheju Island
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Cheju Island (Cheju-do) is a small island situated not far from the main Korean peninsula. On a map, it looks as if it may be just be a simple island off of the mainland, but in reality, it is a laidback sanctuary of tropical simplicity that is more akin to Hawaii than the northern Pacific. With long sandy beaches, cascading waterfalls, rural offshore islands, nearby scuba diving, miles of forested hiking trails, and even a semblance of city life in the capital, Jeju has many gems and adventures packed inside of its tightly knit frame. Though the winter months can bring real winter weather, the summer and fall are when the mercury rises and Cheju gets a chance to shine.
Essentially a big circle that is populated near the coast, the entire center of the island is dominated by Halla-san, which at 1950m stands as the highest peak in all of South Korea. Set at the heart of UNESCO World Heritage Site Hallasan National Park, the climb to the top is more difficult than a mere stroll up the mountainside. Though possible to climb the entire mountain in only a day, there are multiple different trails that lead to the summit, yet all of them require a fairly early start. We got a mid morning start and began a brisk ascent of the mountainside, eventually popping out above the treeline where the canopy gives way to impressive views towards the coast. While like most summits the top of Halla-san proves to be windy and chilly, what makes the top of this summit unique is the massive lake that fills the summit crater. It is a little unusual to be hiking up a mountain flank for most of the day, only to emerge at a floating lake in the sky. Taking a much less travelled trail down to the park headquarters (with multiple trails to the summit it is easy to do a “loop” and find your own hidden slice of trail).
Not far from the entrance to Hallasan Park is the town of Seogwipo, the island’s second largest city, and my personal favorite in terms of regions of the island. About an hour and a half from downtown Jeju city, Seogwipo is the undisputed “beach resort” zone, where much of the activity centers around popular Jungmun Beach. When standing on Jungmun, take a minute to check out the sand. It is a collage of nearly every conceivable colorof sand, from white to black to yellow and red. Also, it is incredibly sticky and takes some effort to remove it from your feet and legs once you’ve left the beach. A fairly long stretch of sand, Jungmun is flanked by luxury resorts on either side of the beach, and the beach itself offers a watersports rentals (this is the epicenter of the Jeju surf scene), bbq areas, and large sandy areas for relaxing solo or catching up with friends. It’s a haven for Western expats in the area, and it is not difficult here to spot some NGO workers, English teachers, or retired American surfer/sailors lounging in the summer sun.
Another fixture of this side of the island are all of the waterfalls thundering down from the higher mountains towards the sea. I checked out Cheonjiyeon waterfall, which features a large brackish lake running from the waterfall towards the coast that is perfect for swimming and jumping off of the many rocks. While swimming and basking on the warm rocks, a wooden boatfull of Korean tourists came plying their way up the lake en route to the waterfall, and they ended up taking more pictures of the two random white people on the lakeside than of the waterfall itself. Either way, the spot is a relatively uncrowded gem that reminded me of so many days spent back home in Maui just being carefree in the summer sun and playing under the cool waters of the falls.
Another must-do on Cheju-do is scaling Soengsan Ilchubong on the island’s eastern tip, which is otherwise known as “Sunrise Peak”. Again, it’s a somewhat arduous climb to the top, especially in the dark, but to watch the sun breaking the horizon over the Sea of Japan from such a perch is an energizing and surreal way to startthe day. The area is so popular, that monuments have been built to the rising of the sun, displaying in eloquent fashion the exact time of the sunrise for each and every day of the year. When I visited, there was a boys high school cross country team running the mountain for a morning workout. Not a bad place for a jog.
While Cheju itself is an island, there are a number of smaller offshore islands that are worth a look–or a bike ride–as well. Perhaps most visited is Udo Island, which is so named because the shape of the island resembles that of a cow. A mere 15 minute ferry ride from shore, the island is worlds away from the quickened pace of more populous Cheju. A simple seaside town with rugged caves and coastline, it is possible to reach nearly empty beaches and explore the manicured pasturelands of this rural community in only a few hours by bike. It makes a great day trip and is an interesting view at rural Korean life. What is perhaps the most fascinating thing about the island is being able to view all of the henyo outside of the harbor on the way in from the ferry. Incredibly accomplished divers, the henyo are female divers who dive for octopus, urchins, shellfish, or anything else edible from the sea, and collect them in a floating basket at the surface. Able to hold their breath for minutes at a time, it is a physically demanding job that allegedly attracts a lot of “outcasts” and rebellious types. Keep your eye on a henyo diver’s basket, and see how long it takes until the diver surfaces next to it again.
While Cheju is notorious as a Korean honeymooner’s paradise (sporting matching t-shirts, of course), the island is a well-kept secret from the majority of the Western world that offers all of the amenities and beauty of more popular locales, and it is definitely the pearl of the North Pacific.