This past weekend, my friend Jen and I visited the southernmost province of Korea. It’s an island called Jeju and the Koreans boast about it’s beauty. They say the island is the Korean ‘Hawaii’. They’re correct only in that both islands share certain similarities: palm trees, a central (dormant) volcano, and water surrounding on all sides. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Jeju-Do (do is the Korean word for island) ‘Hawaii’ although the locale manages to have charms of its own.
You may be wondering about the title of this article. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with our trip and the skies either rained or remained gray and overcast 95% of the trip. In spite of the massive amounts of precipitation, leading to saturated socks, difficult photography, and swamp ass, we managed to enjoy the sites and have a great time.
We first stopped at an area on the southern coast of the island called Jungmun featuring miles of scenic coastlines and hiking through mountainous forest trails to ancient temples and majestic waterfalls. Similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Jusangjeolli Cliffs runs east to west along the south side of Jeju-Do and were formed in the violent, volcanic eruptions that created the island. As the lava cooled, the rocks fracturing during a process called contraction, creating the appearance of biscuits or ‘ball and socket’ joints across the surface.
After admiring the waves crashing against the jagged cliffs, we made our way inland along the rivers and deep into the subtropical forests to find the valley of the seven nymphs, or seonim. Legend states the nymphs (Pleiades, of Greek mythology) descended from the heavens to bathe in the pools near the waterfalls, so we knew we were heading in the right direction.
Continuing past Seonim Bridge, we came upon Cheonjeyeon Falls – a spectacular three tiered waterfall. However, since the water level remained lower than average spanning the past few months, the falls, pools, and even the coastal waters all over the island, appeared much less impressive. I could only imagine what they must look like after torrential downpours and flooding.
Following the nature trek of the morning, our saturated afternoon led us to Yakcheonsa Temple, a massive structure in both size and awe. The ground stretched out for miles and included a botanical garden while the building itself, flanked on both sides by drum and bell towers, stood three stories tall and was one of the largest temples I’ve seen in Asia during my travels.
Contrary to the other temples I’ve seen in Korea, Japan, and Cambodia, Yakcheonsa remains in use – Buddhist services are held weekly and the monks live on the compound in the nearby ‘rectory’ (for lack of a better word) similar to Catholic priests in Europe and the Americas.
The second day took us to the far east side of the island to a place called Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak – a crater formed from a secondary volcano – and a smaller island off the coast of Jeju called U-Do (the first picture is a view from the top of the peak).
The name U-Do is a reference to the udders of a cow and the locals stand by the opinion that the island is shaped like an upside-down bovine (we didn’t see it). The uniqueness of the island isn’t in the name. U-Do has three beaches of varying colors – white, black, and red – as well as a series of lava tube caves (underwater in some cases) and some great scenery including sunrise peak across the channel and a traditional Korean village.
For a small fee, visitors can rent either a scooter or an ATV for a few hours to speed around (though not too fast) the island. Taking advantage of the fun, we picked out an ATV and hit the gas. Our first stop was the white sand beach made of fossilized coral as opposed to sand (difficult to walk on). Korean teens skipped the larger pieces across the water, a game to see who could get their coral to skip the most times and the farthest out into the sea.
Next we headed up the mountain toward the lighthouse point and down around the other side where we relaxed near the lava caves on the black sand beach. We would’ve liked to have had warmer and sunnier weather to really take advantage of being on the beach, but both days were far too overcast and chilly to don our bathing suits. Alas, watching the boats across the water and the tourists discovering the black sand for the first time became entertainment enough.
Overall, the island is stunning even with the gray skies. Many people seemed to have the opinion that the overcast weather meant for a cooler, and more enjoyable, experience viewing the scenery. We had an great time, but some sun would’ve added in my opinion. If you aren’t already in Korea, don’t go out of your way to get to Jeju though (most of the tourism comes from China). It’s a nice stop however, there are better places to see. If you’re short on time and money Jeju is, as my students say, just so-so.
Until Next Time…