Jeju Island, or the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, to give it its full title, is a South Korean island around 53 miles off the southwest of the peninsula. A volcanic island with a culture, cuisine and dialect quite separate from the mainland, it is a hugely popular short break and honeymoon destination for Koreans (who do not have as much paid holiday as us), Chinese and Japanese. Dominated by the county's highest peak, Mount Hallasan, the main interest of Jeju-do is its natural beauty and outdoor activity possibilities. The island does have two major cities but there is little of interest in either. With a Western-style resort coplex, several UNESCO-listed attractions and a warm climate, Jeju Island makes for a nice little getaway from the hubbub of the mainland's cities.
Although the island has two cities, Jeju City in the north and Seogwipo in the south, neither has very much to offer. The northern city is home to the National Museum, where you can learn a little about the island's history and see some artwork, as well as the rather cheeky Jeju Love Land, a sculpture park whose works are pretty explicit yet highly amusing. In Seogwipo there really is not much at all to see, although it is not a bad idea to stay here in order to be closer to some of the island's natural attactions (see 'To See').
It is in the northeast of the island where most of the interest lies. In terms of museums there is the Seongeup Folk Village, a typical Joseon-era walled town with thatched houses and traditional architecture, and the Haenyeo Museum, dedicated to the famous women divers unique to the island. A centuries old tradition, these free divers, most of whom are now quite elderly, go beneath the water's surface in search of such delicacies as conch, abalone, octopus, sea cucumber and seaweed. It is possible in various places around the island to eat freshly caught seafood, although it is quite particular.
Just off the northeast coast is Udo Island, or Cow Island, so called as it is said that it resembles a resting cow when approaching it. It is a pleasant place to walk around, admiring the cliffs, caves and pair of lighthouses. There is also a beach here.
In the southwest of the island is Jungman Resort Complex, a huge infrastructure with luxury hotels, a marine theme park, a botanical garden, a shopping centre, a casino, restaurants, golf courses and beaches. There are also several museums here such as the Teddy Bear Museum, Eros Museum and Ripley's Believe it or Not. There is nothing particularly Korean about all this, but might be fun for a few days if you have kids with you.
If you are more the active type then the island's 19 Olle-gil will certainly be of interest to you. These end-to-end walking trails, each one around between around nine and 12 miles long, go right around Jeju-do and are not especially taxing. Each one takes around a day or so if you take it easy and so to complete them all would take a fair while!
Back to the northeast of the island, there are some pretty unique natural phenomenon to be seen, including two UNESCO sites. The first of these is the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System. Between 200,000 and 300,000 years old, there are a total of five tubes down there, but only one, Manjanggul is open tot he public. Around 1km in length, it is remarkable for its lava pillars and stalactites and is also home to a colony of bats.
The second UNESCO site in the area is the stunning Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), an archetype tuff cone which justs into the sea and from where there are magnificent views. Formed by underwater eruptions between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago, it is a great place from which to observe the sunrise. Once on site, the ascent takes around 50 mins, although in the heat we suggest you take it easy and drink plenty of water.
To the south of the island, around the second city of Seogwipo, are several waterfalls worth seeing. There is a small entrance fee for each but the cost is justified by the delightful surrounds and their beauty. Jeongbang Falls is perhaps the least visited but is in fact the only waterfall in Asia to empty directly into the ocean. Cheonjeyeon Falls is a spectacular sight, split into three separate falls, while the other one worth seeign is Cheonjiyeon, meaning 'pond where heavan and Earth met'.
For those hikers out there, a trip to Mount Hallasan National Park is a must. There are several day hikes that terminate at the peak of South Korea's highest point at 1,950m, none of which are highly demanding. No matter which path you choose to take, the views are sure to please and you can even visit Gwaneumsa on the way, Jeju's oldest Buddhist temple. The park is open all year round and is a sight to behold whether in the spring when the azaleas are in full blossom or in winter when covered in snow.
There are two ways to get to Jeju Island: by plane or by ferry. The vast majority of flights to Jeju are from Seoul (Gimpo, the city's domestic airport) or Busan. There are also services between Jeju-do and several large Asian cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian and Changchun. Thanks to competition, prices remain quite low although shoot up during the summer months (July and August).
If yuo prefer to take the boat then you have three departure city options: Incheon, Mokpo and Wando. The journey from Incheon is an overnight affair and takes over 13 hours. From Mokpo the crossing is between three and four hours depending on which ferry you catch and from Wando it can take between two and five hours, again, depending on the service.
If at all possible, try and avoid the peak season in the summer and any school holidays as the place does get pretty packed.
It is perfectly safe to travel to and around Jeju Island, just as it is throughout the whole of South Korea. Jeju-do is probably one of the country's most popular tourist destinations so in theory there are more targets for potential wrongdoers. However, the crime rate is extremely low and bar taking the usual common sense steps to discourage theft, you should not be too worried about experiencing anything untoward. What should be of more concern is following the social etiquette that Koreans hold so close to their heart. One should always nod slightly or bow when greeting someone. Before entering a private abode or a restaurant, remove your shoes and leave them by the entrance (making sure not to be barefoot). You should always bring a gift (to be offered with both hands) if invited to someone's home and insist they accept it despite their probable efforts to refuse it. Do not leave gratuity in South Korea as tipping is not part of their culture.
Being some distance from the mainland and, at one point, being an independent territory, Jeju Island has developed its own culture and traditions. And of course part of that is its cuisine. While in the rest of the country rice is very much at the centre of all meals, this is less the case here as it is not grown very much. Unsurprisingly, seafood is at the heart of Jeju's diet. Amongst the specialities on the island are jeonbukjuk, a type of porridge with abalone, okdom gui, grilled tilefish and haemul ttukbaegi, a kind of seafood hotpot. Locals also eat a blick pig and cook the pork over hay before grilling it. In Seogwipo, the island's second city, you can find all of these dishes and more along the Arangjoeul geori, an alley lined with restaurants.
Jeju Island is not the best place for shopping. While the island does have two big cities, there is little of interest in either and the shops do not sell anything you could not find anywhere else in the country. Shops mainly sell clothing (not necessarily typical) and gimmicks. You will find too any supplies you might need for the beach or for hiking. Leave your souvenir buying to the mainland.