Cheju is a large island, 60 mi/100 km off the coast of the mainland, has a distinctive history, dress, architecture, language and tradition. Jeju is an extremely popular tourist destination for Koreans, especially honeymooners. Millions of dollars have been pumped into the island to build deluxe hotels and modernize infrastructure. While development has somewhat ended the island’s isolation, it hasn’t eroded its charms it is still a great place to visit. Jeju seems a world away from the mainland, even though it’s relatively easy to reach only an hour’s flight south of Seoul or a several-hour ferry ride from Busan, Mokpo or Wando.
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If you have a choice of when to go, visit in late spring, when Jeju is covered with beautiful yellow yuchaehwa flowers. The island’s primary attractions are beaches, fishing, casinos, scuba diving, a weavers’ village (Hallim), hot springs and three stunning coastal waterfalls (particularly the Jeongbang Falls at Seogwipo, which plunge almost directly into the sea).
In friendly and festive Jeju, the largest city on the island, there’s a Folkcraft and Natural History Museum and an interesting market. About 4 mi/6 km from the city is Moksuk-won, a natural sculpture garden of stone and wood. On the south side of the island, Jeju Folk Village Museum, a collection of traditional houses with musical performances and displays, is well-worth a visit.
Also on the island is the tallest mountain in South Korea, Hallasan, which is topped with snow in the winter. There are hiking trails on this extinct volcano, and it has an impressive crater lake. Be sure also to visit some caves: According to legend, three gods emerged 2,500 years ago from the Samseonghyeol Caves to create the Jeju Island people.
On a drive around the island, note the black-lava statues of old men, called harubang: Their origin is unknown and the subject of much debate among anthropologists. You can also watch as divers (traditionally women) hunt for clams, pearls and abalone. A dying breed, these incredible women dive into the ocean’s depths for long periods of time without using any scuba or snorkeling gear. Other attractions include saltwater baths (in Sinyang, Hyeopje and Jungmun), the Bijarim nutmeg forest, tangerine groves, the Sanbanggul Buddhist Grotto, the Jungmun beach-resort area and Manjanggul Cave (the world’s longest lava tube). Plan at least two to three days on the island. Jeju Island is 300 mi/485 km south of Seoul.