A fine mist sprays my face and arms as I clamber over grey moss-grown rocks. I reach a flat rocky ledge and stop to gaze at the view. Surrounded by lush green forest, this section of Jeju Island’s three-tiered Cheonjeyeon Waterfall is so scenic I could almost imagine water nymphs frolicking in the rock pools.
My reverie is interrupted by a young couple dressed in matching khaki slacks and baby pink Lacoste sports shirts. Behind them is a photographer with a camera slung around his neck and a tripod balanced across a shoulder. I happen to be visiting Jeju Island during South Korea’s honeymoon season, which is usually in spring or autumn. And the island is swarming with newlyweds who wear identical attire like a uniform to an exclusive club.
“It’s to demonstrate unity and loyalty,” says my guide Min Ju. “That way everyone knows they are a couple.”
Over the next few days, while wandering around Korea’s largest island, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the island of love where adoring couples wander around hand in hand beneath a clear blue sky.
Yes indeed, the sky above Jeju Island is clear and blue unlike Seoul where smog, skyscrapers, traffic pollution and sleek geek technology reign supreme. For South Koreans, Jeju Island is the premier getaway for a nature holiday. They call it samdado: the island of rock, wind and women.
We take a drive to Seongsan Ilchubong Peak at the easternmost tip of the island where sharp rocks surround the crater like a crown. It’s a comfortable hike to the lookout up seemingly never-ending concrete steps. But the effort is worth it and we’re rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the coastline.
This is haenyo territory; the land of women who dive into the ocean to collect octopus, abalone, sea urchin, sea slugs, cucumber and seaweed for a living. I’m intrigued to meet one so we take a drive along the coast keeping our eyes peeled for haenyo.
The haenyo are athletic sea-ninjas aged between 40 and 80. They can dive up to 20 metres into the ocean and hold their breaths underwater for as long as two minutes. They weigh themselves down with lead tied around their waists, chests and backs; around five to seven kg of lead for the younger women and more for those over 60.
The strongest haenyo usually dive in organised groups of up to 30 women. A boat drops them several kilometres offshore and they stay out in the ocean for several hours searching for treasures in deep waters.
But there are some haenyo who choose to work off the beaches.
We spot two muscular women in black wetsuits, dressed like ninjas, emerging from the sea with bulging nylon nets and polystyrene floats slung over their shoulders. A man with a truck is waiting by the side of the road to pick them up. We try to strike up a conversation but they are shy.
Jeju Island tourism
Jeju Island’s first contact with the western world was in 1653 when a Dutch United East Indian Company ship washed up along the coastline. The ship’s crew was captured and – like the characters in James Clavell’s novel Shogun – the crew played roles in Korean society and politics. Some were believed to have become bodyguards to the emperor.
Hendrick Hamel, one of the seamen escaped and published a journal of his experiences. He refers to the haenyo as “mermaids” and describes Jeju as having “one thickly wooded high mountain and many barren hills”.
A lot has changed since Hamel’s time. Most foreign visitors now stay in a luxury hotel at the Jungmun Tourist Complex which also has restaurants and convention facilities. And the island is a hotspot for serious golfers. In fact, Thai golfer Thongchai Jaidee collected €333,330 ($527,000) at the Ballantine’s Championship at Pinx Golf Club in April last year.
These days the “thickly wooded high mountain”, Mount Hallasan, is a popular hiking spot for mountain-loving South Koreans. At 1950 metres high, the extinct volcano is Korea’s highest peak and has several walk trails with sweeping views of the island all the way down to the coastline.
As we head to the foot of Mount Hallasan, we drive past hectares of tangerine orchards and low-roofed huts. Many homes have satellite dishes mounted on the ground nearby. And long stone walls built with holes for the strong winds to blow through.
Every home or village has a pair of life-sized dolhareubang, or stone grandfather. The rock statues with large protruding eyes are placed at entrances to ward away evil spirits.
Seongeup Folk Village
We wander through the Seongeup Folk Village, which is set up like a traditional Jeju Island village with thatch-roofed huts, pig pens, rock walls and a pair of dolhareubang at the village gate. One honeymooner giggles as he poses for a candid photograph snapped squatting in a stone outhouse.
There’s a legend for every place we visit and Min Ju sounds like she gobbled up an encyclopaedia of legends.
One legend tells the tale of the king of Pyoknang who floated his three daughters off to Jeju Island in a wooden box filled with cattle, horses and seeds of five different kinds of grain. The three maidens married the gods Yang-ulla, Ko-ulla and Pu-ulla. And the happy couples founded a new dynasty.
Many of Jeju Island’s museums and tourist attractions are run by enthusiastic local residents. The museums and attractions offer an alternative for rany days and range from mildly whimsical to bizarre. The most peculiar is Love Land, an outdoor park with a vast collection of pornographic sculptures created by graduates of Hongik University.
My favourite is the highly popular Teddy Bear Museum which has over 1200 teddy bears including a Louis Vuitton bear that was sold at auction for 230,000,000 won (approximately $250,000).
The museum’s History section is a nostalgic trip back through time with teddy bears populating scenes arranged to portray major events around the world such as the Apollo moon landing and the 1997 Hong Kong handover. I like the Art section with cute teddy bear versions of famous paintings like The Last Supper and Mona Lisa.
At Bunjae Artpia, owner Sung Bum Young tells us how his passion for trees drove him to turn his tangerine and pig farm into a vast 39,700-sqm garden with over 400 bonsai.
Sung’s garden is a work of art with twisted bonsai trees arranged among stone walls, ponds filled with plump koi, bridges and rock waterfalls. Sung’s enthusiasm for bonsai is contagious. He sprints around the garden showing us his favourite trees; they include a 100-year-old Jeju Hwangpi elm tree and a 300-year-old yew tree.
Leaving Bunjae Artpia, we drive through hectares of green tea plantation to the O’Sulloc Green Tea museum nearby. The museum tells the history of green tea through display boards. But it’s very Korean with glass cases that have plastic green-tea cakes, sandwiches and drinks.
The hotel I’m staying at, the Shilla, is itself a major attraction. Salvador Dali’s Space Venus sculpture sits in the main lobby and a 500-piece modern art collection is displayed in the hotel’s public spaces.
I stroll through the hotel’s cliff-top gardens reflecting on how time has brought so many changes to the island. Fortunately for now, Jeju Island is still a natural paradise in industrialised South Korea.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Korea National Tourism Organisation
Discover South Korea
Jeju Island is located 85 kilometres south of the Korean peninsula.
Where to stay
Shilla Jeju is a five-star hotel with rooms from 365,000 won ($400), tel: +82 2 2230 3685. The Mediterranean-inspired resort has hosted world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and China’s Jiang Zemin.
What to do
Seongeup Folk Village is the place to see perfectly preserved Korean traditions.
Jeju Island’s Teddy Bear Museum has over 1200 teddy bears.
O’Sulloc Green Tea museum teaches visitors about Korea’s traditional tea culture. Admission is free.
The Jeju Folklore and Natural History Museum has a haenyo section with exhibits of goggles, spades, spears and shell openers.
Jeju Island was voted as one of the final 28 destinations to compete for a spot in the New Seven Wonders of Nature list.
Korea National Tourist Organization