South Korea, the land of ginseng and kimchi, might be well-known for its high-tech products like cars, ships, flat-screen TVs and smartphones, but it’s like a hidden treasure when it comes to tourism.
Many people do not know much about Korea’s natural beauty, amazing historical monuments, rich culture, mouth-watering cuisine and world-class infrastructure.
Some Korean friends told me about a natural wonder in their country. Last month I had a chance to visit this wonderful place called Jeju Island, which is more than double the size of Singapore.
After having a nice breakfast at the Lotte Hotel, perhaps the best hotel on the island, I started my journey in the morning. To my utter disappointment, it was a rainy day and completely covered with fog. One couldn’t see beyond a few meters. But my guide, Won Jong-suk, consoled me, saying the weather would not disrupt our journey. I didn’t believe her words. But she was right.
After driving just 10 minutes, we entered into a different world where there was no rain and fog but only sunshine. It was like magic. Throughout the day, most of the hilly areas are covered with fog on Jeju.
Located in the southwest area of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island is an oval-shaped volcanic island that is more than 90 percent covered with basalt.
One could say Jeju is like our Bali. With its magnificent views of nature, exotic pearly beaches, lush green pastures, gardens filled with beautiful aromatic flowers, tangerine groves, clean water, fresh air, nice food and beautiful golf courses, the island is certainly an ideal place for romance and relaxation.
That’s why it was no wonder I found so many love birds and true migratory birds roaming on the resort.
“It is a paradise for honeymooners,” Lee Sun-mi, a visitor from Seoul, told The Jakarta Post.
I was so sad because I already had my honeymoon 15 years ago in Bali, the Island of the Gods. To me, there would not be any chance of competing with all of those birds in the art of love.
“Don’t worry. You can come to Jeju next time with your wife to have your second honeymoon,” Lee said, laughing.
One of the main attractions on Jeju is Mount Halla or Hallasan, the highest mountain in Korea. The 1,950-meter high mountain is the central peak of the shield volcano of Jeju. There are so many hiking trails from different places. Among them, the Yeongsil trail, which takes three to four hours, is the easiest and the Gwaneumsa trail, which is about eight to nine hours, is the toughest way to scale Mount Halla.
Since I was visiting Jeju in May, I missed the cherry blossoms on Mount Halla, but I spotted some yellow canola.
The island has so many lava domes and lava tubes. Among them, the Manjanggul lava tube, which stretches 7.4 kilometers, is the most worth seeing.
Another major attraction is Manjanggul Cave, where we can see the wonder of nature.
The island is also home to beautiful waterfalls like Cheonjiyeon Waterfall and Jeongbang Waterfall. These picturesque spots have drawn the attention of moviemakers. Korea’s popular TV dramas All In, Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace), Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi (The Legend) and Iris were shot on Jeju Island. Because of these films, so many foreign tourists flock to Jeju to see these places.
Are you looking for a sunrise peak? If so, the place to go to is the beautiful Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone on Jeju, which is also called an island of sky and sea. The cone, which is 179 meters in height, was formed when an underwater volcano erupted in the middle of the ocean some 5,000 years ago.
“The best place in Jeju to watch the sunrise is Seongsan Ilchulbong,” Won said.
The largest island in Korea has numerous museums, theme parks, farms and folk villages on every corner of the island. I found so many trekking paths, roads, carriage paths, and water and air games. The administration of the Jeju self-governing province has been trying to promote the island as a destination for relaxation, shopping and MICE activities.
“We have well-developed infrastructure on the island. We have 17 five-star hotels, 27 golf courses and eight casinos,” Park Yung-soo, president of the Jeju Tourism Organization, told the Post in an exclusive interview recently.
According to Park, the Jeju administration just recently started to promote the island on the global market.
“Our main challenge is to raise the awareness about Jeju outside of Korea. Another problem is we don’t have many direct flights from foreign countries,” Park said.
Currently, Jeju is connected to China, Japan and Taiwan through 15 air routes. People coming from Southeast Asia must come to Jeju through Seoul.
When asked about the strengths of Jeju as an international tourist destination, Park said the island had several strengths in many fields.
“Jeju has earned three crowns from international organizations, such as UNESCO. This is the first and only place to be awarded a triple crown in the field of natural beauty,” Park said.
He was referring to UNESCO’s declaration of Jeju as a Biosphere Reserve, World Natural Heritage Site and Global Geopark. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared Jeju Island as a “Safe City”.
Besides this, Park said, Jeju is well known for its mouthwatering cuisine, especially seafood and fresh fruits, and its shopping center.
“Foreign tourists like Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese love to buy Korean goods because of the quality and competitive prices of Korean products. These people love Korean food,” Park said.
In 2010, around 7.6 million tourists — both domestic and foreign — visited Jeju.
“We have received 777,000 foreign tourists mainly from China, Japan and Taiwan last year. We want to promote Jeju in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries,” Park said.
Jeju Island has so many other superlatives. It is also called Samda-do, which means island of three plenties.
“We have plenty of rocks, wind and women in Jeju,” Park said.
Talking about women, Jeju is well-known for Haenyeo, or women divers, who dive in bone chilling cold waters to reach the bottom of the sea to collect seaweed, abalone and sea cucumbers.
“We don’t use oxygen cylinders or modern diving equipment,” Yang Soon-bu, a woman diver, told the Post.
Despite all these things, there is an acute shortage of something one can’t imagine.
“Jeju is called Sammoo-do which means island of three shortages. It’s an island where there are no thieves, beggars or gates,” Park said.
The beautiful Jeju now wants to earn another crown: a place in the New Seven Wonders of the World.
“We are confident that Jeju will win the contest. It deserves it,” Park said.
Before leaving I read the JTO’s vision which reads, “The world comes to Jeju, and Jeju goes to the world.”
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