During our 6-month backpacking trip, we were lucky enough to spend some time on Jeju Island. Haven’t heard of it? To be honest neither had I until a friend of mine moved there to teach English. As we were visiting South Korea, we were lucky enough to spend an entire two weeks exploring the island (with a little help from our pals who knew all the best spots). Here are some of our highlights and things to do on Jeju Island!
Hike the Olle Trails
Jeju Island is a paradise for nature lovers and those who are partial to exploring on foot. The island plays host to a series of hiking routes called the Olle Trails, most of which can be found dotted around the edge of the island. There’s an endless choice of routes, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on your fitness (or mood). What’s great about the trails is the variety they offer: we completed a few different routes and didn’t get bored. The trails are clearly marked so it’s almost impossible to lose your way, and they are all extremely well maintained. I’d say the only drawback is that everything is a bit too perfect and well planned – if you prefer adventurous wilderness hikes then the Olle Trails can feel a bit too “easy”.
Go wild camping
One of the things I love about South Korea is that wild camping is completely acceptable, just as long as you’re respectful, clean up after yourself and don’t get in the way of others. You can simply rock up next to the beach, pitch your tent, then kick back and enjoy the views. We camped in a few different spots on the coast, some of which were littered with other campers and some of which we had entirely to ourselves. We camped at Hyeopjae Beach which boasted public toilets, cafes and convenience stores (with plenty of other campers to boot), whilst another spot north along the coast from Seongsan was far more remote and tranquil.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many great cafes in one place. Jeju Island is awash with hip cafes, which our local friends informed us can be attributed to South Korea’s obsession with Instagram and Selfies. If you’re going to take a decent selfie you need to make sure you’re doing it in a sought after setting. Whilst I came for the coffee and not the photo opportunities, it was an added bonus to find so many of the cafes were akin to something you’d find in a major city. Even whilst camping on a remote beach we discovered a gorgeous little cafe with mid-century style wooden furniture, hanging lightbulbs and large windows which drenched the space in light. Another interesting spot was the mirrored exterior, and perfect “selfie spot” of Cafe Monstant Aewol which is said to be owned by the South Korean rapper G-dragon!
See the Haenyos
For me one the highlights of visiting Jeju was seeing the Haenyos (aka the seriously badass women divers) in action! Many of these women are over 80 years old, but their age doesn’t stop them plunging into the ocean to dive for fresh seafood. These feisty females are celebrated on the island and throughout South Korea as a whole, and when you see them doing their things it’s not hard to see why. In their iconic wetsuits and goggles, you’ll occasionally spot them walking across the beach with a net full of goodies, but you’re more likely to see them bobbing in the ocean for hours on end. Haenyo spotting is definitely the number one thing to do on Jeju Island.
Climb a Volcano
The almighty Hallasan looms over Jeju Island screaming to be conquered. Standing at 1950m, an early start will see you in good stead to complete the climb and descend this UNESCO World Heritage site in a day. Start early as you must reach a certain point by a certain time (depending on the season) to be allowed to proceed to the top of the volcano (more information can be found here). Just like the Olle Trails, the paths are clearly marked and made up of a mixture of uneven rocks and wooden steps in some parts. The climb is fairly steep, making the descent rough on the knees and calf muscles but otherwise not too challenging for someone who hikes often. You’ll need hiking boots and gear to suit the season and keep in mind that there is snow at the top during winter so you’ll need equipment for that.
Indulge in traditional Korean food
Kimchi, Korean BBQs and fried chicken are just a few of the yummy things that come to mind when I think of South Korea food. Of course, you can get Korean cuisine anywhere in the country but Jeju Island is a great place to eat like a true Korean. Restaurants often specialise in one dish which you then share with your whole family (or friends in our case). Because meals are designed to be shared and heavy on the meat, the only drawback is that it isn’t ideal for solo vegetarian travellers.
Don’t miss the small but satisfying Soban 소반 in Seogwipo where you’ll be served up mouth-watering pork with locally-sourced side dishes – one of my top things to do on Jeju Island.
Being an island, Jeju isn’t short of beaches. During our stay, we ventured to Jungmun beach and Hopjae beach which both boasted plenty of facilities including convenience stores and public toilets. Whilst these beaches were close to large hotels (Jungmun) and a small town (Hopjae) they were still clean and unspoilt, with opportunities for watersports such as surfing and canoeing. There are also plenty of smaller/lesser-known beaches where you can find some peace. This spot just north of Hado beach was one of our favourites and, apart from the local Haenyos, we had it alllll to ourselves (pictured below).
Have you visited? Let me know your personal highlights of things to do on Jeju Island in the comments below.