There are a few ways to tour Jeju; the best one, of course, is by rented car (don’t forget your International Driving License) where one can go anywhere and literally cover all corners of the small island in a couple of days. The worst, as expected, is public transportation; Jeju has an excellent bus network, and fairly cheap too, but it can only be useful to those with plenty of time under the belt (and no small children in toll). This method of getting around has the obvious limitation of destinations which one can reach by bus, but combined with hiking along Jeju’s numerous Olle trails becomes the best way to enjoy the natural beauty of the island. We, however, were in no position to either spend the day walking or hopping on and off buses, and we didn’t have an International Driving License, so we had to choose between going on an organized tour or hiring a taxi for the day. Organized tours are a tempting alternative for those that enjoy being taken around without any sort of initiative on their part. They can be booked through the hotel or by directly contacting Yeha Tour (seems to be the most reputable company). There is a tour in English six days a week, with two alternating itineraries, covering different areas of Jeju. I had never been a fan of mass tourism and there wasn’t much brainstorming before we decided against joining for a few reasons: (a) tour stops were mostly not what we wanted to see (b) cost of 158000 KW (for two) was higher than getting a taxi (c) much more inconvenient with a baby.
When I looked for information about hiring a taxi to explore Jeju, I saw Mr. Won’s contacts mentioned on more than a few occasions. I am generally skeptical as such praises for a job well done could very well be fictitious, but took down his coordinates just in case: firstname.lastname@example.org, Home: 064.752.2303, Cell: 010.3697.2303. Speaks English, Japanese and Chinese. We contacted him first (via email), but he was booked on the days we needed him, so I cannot vouch for how good he truly is.
We instead went with the driver suggested to us by the hotel – 120,000 Korean Won for the luxury of being understood in English. The drive was clearly meant to be a ‘deluxe’ experience – the chauffeur, a nice guy in his 40s, wore a uniform and the car, albeit an older model, was clean and well maintained inside. As far as I understand, ‘black taxis’ in Korea are considered the best kind for all of the above reasons.The taxi picked us up after breakfast, at 10am sharp. We stationed Miss Z. in her car seat and showed the driver our map of desired destinations to cover in the next eight hours.
We first headed for Hallasan, Jeju’s highest peak with the hopes of covering the shortest of the four trails going to the top. The driver warned us that it may take about 4 hours to climb up and then go back, but we tried anyway. Miss Z. was strapped to Hubs in a baby carrier and it wasn’t long before he gave up under the added weight. I didn’t insist on going any further; we only had 8 hours and didn’t want to waste half on a hike. Decided to come back the next day (a related blog-post to follow) and moved on to our next stop.
Sangumburi Crater (산굼부리) – a vegetation-overgrown crater with a circumference of about 2 km and depth of 100m, located on the southeast side of Jeju. Entrance to the park was 3000 won, working hours 8:30am to 5:30/6:30pm in the summer. We seemed like the only visitors until a whole school of children poured out of 7-8 full size buses at the parking lot. And then we saw another group of youngsters; I guess organized trips to national places of interest are not uncommon in the life of the Korean schoolchildren.The crater itself could not be visually appreciated from the ground. It is too wide and deep to even partially fit into a picture, but the surrounding area was serene and pleasant on the eyes. There was a variety of plant-life here – red-thorn trees, magnolia trees, maples, mountain strawberry trees.The area around Sangumburi offers a good view towards Mt. Hallasan, Jeju’s highest peak, though on this particular day, there were clouds blocking the view.Using the stroller was not a hurdle this time, there were only a few sets of stairs at the beginning and the remaining trail was covered with a rubberish surface, which was suitable for anyone with reduced mobility. Weed had begun to take over through the holes but there were a couple of women manually plucking up the vegetation along the trail. Notice how their entire bodies are covered in clothes, hats included? I am assuming that’s because culturally in Korea (and some other Asian countries for that matter) pale skin is ‘better’ and any tanning as a result of sun exposure is undesirable. I couldn’t quite understand though the need for manual labor when weed could be chemically eradicated much faster and as effectively.There wasn’t much to see beyond what we saw, so after half an hour we decided to move forward to our next stop. On the way to the parking lot, Hubs went to use the bathroom, and that’s when a group of schoolgirls spotted Miss Z… In less than 5 minutes, we were circled by a core group of 10-12 kids all reaching to touch and play with the baby. Another 50 children or so came and went. There was lots of Korean spoken around (no clue), but by the gestures and smiles on the faces of these girls, I could see that Miss Z’s popularity level had reached unseen heights. She was undoubtedly enjoying the experience, giving away smiles with unusual generosity.
Bijarim Forest – A natural nutmeg (bija) grove, the largest of this kind in the world, with over 2000 trees, aged 300-800 years old. This forest is presumed to have formed when the bija seeds were flown around the area during the sacrificial rites to the gods. A few years ago a walkway was formed at this site for the citizens and tourists to be able to enjoy an effortless walk among the trees. In the middle of the forest is an 800-year-old tree, the oldest tree on Jeju-do Island. Naturally, it came with its own #1 plate (the trees in the forest were numbered).When I was researching about places of interest in Jeju, I stumbled upon a pretty picture of Bijarim and thought it would be nice to see in person.The visit, however, did not entail much more than a pleasant stroll through the woods and Bijarim didn’t look much different than any other forest to my untrained eye of a non-botanist. We walked about 20 mins to the Millennium tree, took pictures and went back to the empty parking lot. There was only one other group of people besides us, though they weren’t so matter-of-factly and were taking their time. Cost to enter was 1500 won per person, operating hours: 9am – 5/6pm (in summer).
Seongsan Ilchulbong – a peak, which rose from under the sea in an eruption some thousands of years ago. Located on the eastern end of Jeju, there is a huge crater at the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong. It got its name, (in English: ‘Sunrise Peak’) because back in the days, Jeju islanders believed that every morning the sun rose from inside the crater of Seongsan Ilchulbong. Nowadays, climbing atop the peak and viewing the sunrise from there had become ‘a thing to do’ for many visitors of Jeju. The opening and closing times reflect this: 1 hr before sunrise to 8/9pm in summer. I read reviews on the web, however, that claimed the view of sun rising above the ocean and nothing else to catch your eye around, was rather unculminational. I tend to believe that.
Seongsan is one of the symbols of Jeju and this aerial view photo can be seen on every tourist book about Jeju. I think this is a bit unfair of a marketing approach though; there are no scenic flights offered to the general public and the ‘general public’s view from the ground is far less spectacular…The entrance to Seongsan is located in the Seongsan village, notable for its multiple seafood restaurants and a disproportionate number of marts for its size. There is even a Dunkin Donuts nearby, it was so out of place. In contrast with the previous two locations on our way, there were lots and lots of visitors here, mostly organized groups of schoolchildren. We gave up on climbing before even getting out of the car because Miss Z had fallen asleep and we didn’t want to wake her up.
Seopjikoji – a scenic area, not too far from Seongsan. Famous among Koreans as the location, where the local TV Series ‘All In‘ had been filmed. The picture below shows the ‘Convent’ where one of the main heroines Min Soo Yeon had grown and lived.I had come to notice that Jeju is a popular spot for filming Korean Drama and movie productions, so popular, that in fact there are even tours on the net specially catering to those who want to visit certain filming sites. Many sightseers had come around, almost as many as we saw in Seongsan, so many, that it was hard to take a picture without people in it (not that that’s a bad thing).
Cheonjiyeon Waterfall – In English: ‘sky’ connected with ‘land’ waterfall… Apparently receives a large number of tourists and is one of the main tour attractions on Jeju island. It was the closest to our hotel and we saved it for last on the way back. We were kind of rushed, because the driver was in a hurry to go back before six, and so were we, because we did not want to pay extra for the overtime exceeding the pre-arranged 8-hour fee. We bought tickets (2,000 won) and took the 10 min walk to the Fall on the landscaped trail, which started at the park entrance, following alongside the stream made by the waterfall, and separating the tourists from those coming and those leaving. Snapped a quick photo and ran back to the car.We managed to get back to the hotel only 10 minutes past our originally intended time of 6pm and we didn’t end up paying extra. I had read on the web that tips are not customary in Korea and people actually can get offended by the mere act of tipping, but after the fact, I felt that our driver expected a tip for his services. I wish guidance on these kind of things were more obvious…