The mass of islands draping off Korea’s southern coast fades into the Pacific, before coming to an enigmatic conclusion in the crater-pocked JEJU ISLAND, known locally as Jejudo (제주도). This tectonic pimple in the South Sea is the country’s number-one holiday destination, particularly for Korean honeymooners, and it’s easy to see why – the volcanic crags, innumerable beaches and colourful rural life draw comparisons with Hawaii and Bali, a fact not lost on the local tourist authorities. This very hype puts many foreign travellers off, but while the five-star hotels and tour buses can detract from Jeju’s natural appeal, the island makes for a superb visit if taken on its own terms; indeed those who travel into Jeju’s more remote areas may come away with the impression that little has changed here for decades. In many ways it’s as if regular Korea has been given a makeover – splashes of tropical green fringe fields topped off with palm trees and tangerine groves, and while Jeju’s weather may be breezier and damper than the mainland, its winter is eaten into by lengthier springs and autumns, allowing oranges, pineapples and dragon fruit to grow.
Around the island, you’ll see evidence of a rich local culture quite distinct from the mainland, most notably in the form of the hareubang – these cute, grandfatherly statues of volcanic rock were made for reasons as yet unexplained, and pop up all over the island. Similarly ubiquitous are the batdam, walls of hand-stacked volcanic rock that separate the farmers’ fields: like the drystone walls found across Britain, these were built without any bonding agents, the resulting gaps letting through the strong winds that often whip the island. Jeju’s distinctive thatch-roofed houses are also abundant, and the island even has a breed of miniature horse; these are of particular interest to Koreans due to the near-total dearth of equine activity on the mainland. Also unique to Jeju are the haenyeo, female divers who plunge without breathing apparatus into often treacherous waters in search of shellfish and sea urchins. Although once a hard-as-nails embodiment of the island’s matriarchal culture, their dwindling numbers mean that this occupation is in danger of petering out.
Jeju City is the largest settlement, and whether you arrive by plane or ferry, this will be your entry point. You’ll find the greatest choice of accommodation and restaurants here, and most visitors choose to hole up in the city for the duration of their stay, as the rest of the island is within day-trip territory. Although there are a few sights in the city itself, getting out of town is essential if you’re to make the most of your trip. On the east coast is Seongsan, a sumptuously rural hideaway crowned by Ilchulbong, a green caldera that translates as “Sunrise Peak”; ferries run from here to Udo, a tiny islet that somehow manages to be yet even more bucolic. Inland are the Manjanggul lava tubes, one of the longest such systems in the world, and Sangumburi, the largest and most accessible of Jeju’s many craters. All roads eventually lead to Seogwipo on the south coast; this relaxed, waterfall-flanked city is Jeju’s second-largest settlement, and sits next to the five-star resort of Jungmun. Sights in Jeju’s west are a little harder to access, but this makes a trip all the more worthwhile – the countryside you’ll have to plough through is some of the best on the island, with the fields yellow with rapeseed in spring, and carpeted from summer to autumn with the pink-white-purple tricolour of cosmos flowers. Those with an interest in calligraphy may want to seek out the remote former home of Chusa, one of the country’s most famed exponents of the art. In the centre of the island is Hallasan, an extinct volcano and the country’s highest point at 1950m, visible from much of the island, though often obscured by Jeju’s fickle weather.
Jeju is one of the few places in Korea where renting a car or bicycle makes sense. Outside Jeju City, roads are generally empty and the scenery is almost always stunning, particularly in the inland areas, where you’ll find tiny communities, some of which will never have seen a foreigner. Bicycle trips around the perimeter of the island are becoming ever more popular, with riders usually taking four days to complete the circuit – Seongsan, Seogwipo and Daecheong make logical overnight stops.
Jejudo burst into being around two million years ago in a series of volcanic eruptions, but prior to an annexation by the mainland Goryeo dynasty in 1105 its history is sketchy and unknown. While the mainland was being ruled by the famed Three Kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo, Jeju was governed by the mysterious Tamna kingdom, though with no historical record of Tamna’s founding, it is left to Jeju myth to fill in the gaps: according to legend, the three founders of the country – Go, Bu and Yang – rose from the ground at a spot now marked by Samseonghyeol shrine in Jeju City. On a hunting trip shortly after this curious birth, they found three maidens who had washed up on a nearby shore armed with grain and a few animals; the three fellows married the girls and using the material and livestock set up agricultural communities, each man kicking off his own clan. Descendants of these three families conduct twice-yearly – in spring and autumn – ceremonies to worship their ancestors.
More prosaically, the Samguk Sagi – Korea’s main historical account of the Three Kingdoms period – states that Tamna in the fifth century became a tributary state to the Baekje kingdom on the mainland’s southwest, then hurriedly switched allegiance before the rival Silla kingdom swallowed Baekje whole in 660. Silla itself was consumed in 918 by the Goryeo dynasty, which set about reining in the island province; Jeju gradually relinquished autonomy before a full takeover in 1105. The inevitable Mongol invasion came in the mid-thirteenth century, with the marauding Khaans controlling the island for almost a hundred years. The horses bred here to support Mongol attacks on Japan fostered a local tradition of horsemanship that continues to this day – Jeju is the only place in Korea with significant equine numbers – while the visitors also left an audible legacy in the Jejanese dialect.
In 1404, with Korea finally free of Mongol control, Jeju was eventually brought under control by an embryonic Joseon dynasty. Its location made it the ideal place for Seoul to exile radicals. Two of the most famed of these were King Gwanghaegun, the victim of a coup in 1623, and Chusa, an esteemed calligrapher whose exile site can be found on the west of the island. It was just after this time that the West got its first reports about Korea, from Hendrick Hamel, a crewman on a Dutch trading ship that crashed off the Jeju coast in 1653.
With Jeju continually held at arm’s length by the central government, a long-standing feeling of resentment against the mainland was a major factor in the Jeju Massacre of 1948. The Japanese occupation having recently ended with Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the Korean-American coalition sought now to tear out the country’s Communist roots, which were strong on Jejudo. Jejanese guerrilla forces, provoked by regular brutality, staged a simultaneous attack on the island’s police stations. A retaliation was inevitable, and the rebels and government forces continued to trade blows years after the official end of the Korean War in 1953, by which time this largely ignored conflict had resulted in up to thirty thousand deaths, the vast majority on the rebel side.
Things have since calmed down significantly. Jeju returned to its roots as a rural backwater with little bar fishing and farming to sustain its population, but its popularity with mainland tourists grew and grew after Korea’s took off as an economic power, with the island becoming known for the samda, or three bounties – rock, wind and women. Recently tourist numbers have decreased slightly, with richer and more cosmopolitan Koreans increasingly choosing to spend their holidays abroad, though Jeju still remains the country’s top holiday spot.