The eastern half of Jeju is wonderfully unspoilt – the coast is dotted with unhurried fishing villages, while inland you can see evidence of Jeju’s turbulent creation in the form of lava tubes and volcanic craters. Buses to the region leave Jeju City with merciful swiftness, passing between the sea and lush green fields, the latter bordered by stacks of batdam. Seongsan, on the island’s eastern tip, is the most attractive of Jeju’s many small villages, crowned by the majestic caldera of Ilchulbong.
Just offshore is Udo, a bucolic island whose sedentary pace tempts many a visitor to hole up for a few days. A cluster of natural attractions can be found south of the port village of Gimnyeong, most notably Manjanggul, which are some of the world’s longest underground lava tubes. Further south again, Route 97 heads southeast from Jeju City across the island’s interior, running past Sangumburi, a large, forested volcanic crater, and two rewarding folk villages: one a working community with a patchwork of traditional thatch-roofed houses, the other an open-air museum which – though devoid of inhabitants – provides a little more instruction on traditional Jeju life.Read More
You’re unlikely to be disappointed by SEONGSAN (성산), an endearing rural town with one very apparent tourist draw looming over it: Ilchulbong (일출봉), or “Sunrise Peak”, is so named as it’s the first place on the island to be lit up by the orange fires of dawn. The town can easily be visited as a day-trip from Jeju City but many visitors choose to spend a night here, beating the sun out of bed to clamber up the graceful, green slope to the rim of Ilchulbong’s crown-shaped caldera. It’s an especially popular place for Koreans to ring in the New Year – a small festival celebrates the changing of the digits. From the town it’s a twenty-minute or so walk to the summit; a steep set of steps leads up to a 182m-high viewing platform at the top, and although the island’s fickle weather and morning mists usually conspire to block the actual emergence of the sun from the sea, it’s a splendid spot nonetheless. Powerful bulbs from local squid boats dot the nearby waters; as the morning light takes over, the caldera below reveals itself as beautifully verdant, its far side plunging sheer into the sea – unfortunately, it’s not possible to hike around the rim. If you turn to face west, Seongsan is visible below, and the topography of the surrounding area – hard to judge from ground level – reveals itself.
Besides the conquest of Ilchulbong, there’s little to do in Seongsan bar strolling around the neighbouring fields and tucking into a fish supper, though the waters off the coast do offer some fantastic diving opportunities. South of town is Sinyang Beach, where the water depth and incessant wind make it a good place to windsurf; equipment is available to rent.
Visible from Ilchulbong is UDO (우도), a rural speck of land whose stacked-stone walls and rich grassy hills give it the air of a Scottish isle transported to warmer climes. Occasionally, the nomenclature of Korea’s various peaks and stony bits reaches near-Dadaist extremes; “Cow Island” is one of the best examples, its contours apparently resembling the shape of resting cattle. This sparsely populated dollop of land is a wonderful place to hole up for a few days, and one of the best places to spot two of Jeju’s big draws – the stone walls (밭담; batdam) that line the island’s fields and narrow roads, and the haenyeo, female divers long famed for their endurance.
Other than these – and the diving grannies are almost impossible to spot these days – there are very few tourist sights on Udo. Those that do exist can be accessed on the tour buses that meet the ferries. Usually under the direction of charismatic local drivers, they first stop at a black-sand beach for half an hour or so, which allows just enough time to scamper up the hill to the lighthouse for amazing views that show just how rural Udo really is. The buses stop at a small natural history museum – whose second floor is home to some interesting haenyeo paraphernalia – and continue past Sanhosa beach before returning to the ferry terminal.
A short way east of Jeju City, a group of natural attractions provide an enjoyable day-trip. Foremost among them is Manjanggul (만장굴), a long underground cave formed by pyroclastic flows. Underwater eruptions millions of years ago caused channels of surface lava to crust over or burrow into the soft ground, resulting in subterranean tunnels of flowing lava. Once the flow finally stopped, these so-called “lava tubes” remained. Stretching for at least 9km beneath the fields and forests south of the small port of Gimnyeong, Manjanggul is one of the longest such systems in the world, though only 1km or so is open to the public. This dingy and damp “tube” contains a number of hardened, lava features including balls, bridges and an 8m-high pillar at the end of the course.
With a volcanic crater to see and two folk villages to explore, rural Route 97 – also known as the East Tourist Road – is a delightful way to cut through Jeju’s interior. All three attractions can be visited on a day-trip from Jeju City, or as part of a journey between the capital and Seogwipo on the south coast, though it pays to start reasonably early.
Heading south from Jeju City on Route 97, the first place worth stopping is Sangumburi (산굼부리), one of Jeju’s many volcanic craters; possibly its most impressive, certainly its most accessible, though currently the only one you have to pay to visit. Hole lovers should note that this particular type is known as a Marr crater, as it was produced by an explosion in a generally flat area. One can only imagine how big an explosion it must have been – the crater, 2km in circumference and 132m deep, is larger than Hallasan’s. A short climb to the top affords sweeping views of some very unspoilt Jejanese terrain; peaks rise in all directions, with Hallasan 20km to the southwest, though not always visible. The two obvious temptations are to walk into or around the rim, but you must refrain from doing so in order to protect the crater’s wildlife – deer and badgers are among the species that live in Sangumburi. Consequently there’s not an awful lot to do here, though there’s a small art gallery on site.
Seong-eup Folk Village
A twenty-minute bus ride south of Sangumburi brings you to dusty Seong-eup Folk Village (성읍 민속 마을), a functioning community living in traditional Jeju-style housing, where you’re free to wander among the thatch-roofed houses at will; the residents, given financial assistance by the government, are long used to curious visitors nosing around their yards. Here you’ll see life carrying on as if nothing had changed in decades – farmers going about their business and children playing while crops sway in the breeze. Most visitors spend a couple of pleasant hours here, and if you’re lucky you’ll run into one of the few English-speaking villagers, who act as guides.
Jeju Folk Village and around
Route 97 buses terminate near the coast at the Jeju Folk Village (제주 민속 마을). This coastal clutch of traditional Jeju buildings may be artificial, but provides an excellent complement to the Seong-eup village to its north. Information boards explain the layout and structures of the buildings, as well as telling you what the townsfolk used to get up to before selling tea and baggy orange pants to tourists. The differences between dwellings on different parts of the island are subtle but interesting – the island’s southerners, for example, entwined ropes outside their door with red peppers if a boy had been born into their house.