IF you’ve been to many of Asia’s tourist-heavy beach islands, you can certainly pin down what to expect after a few of them: Clusters of multi-hued corals, tourists tanning on lazybeds, raucous beach parties till sundown, and scores of luxury beach resorts looking out to the blue waters.
But Jeju Island, on the contrary, is far more unpredictable. There’s an air of mystery that envelopes the island, not least because of its dark and hidden past that has slipped under the radar of many visitors.
On sunnier days, it’s popularly considered to be the “Hawaii of Korea”, an isolated island off the southern tip of South Korea that’s proven a top spot for Korean honeymooners and couples to get away for a weekend.
Here’s why it’s worth flying out for.
The museums are… interesting
Museum-hopping may seem an odd choice on a tropical island. But on Jeju, you’ll want to visit a few.
Loveland is the most talked-about, an adult-only enclosure of erotic sculptures where art and sex meet. Because sex is a largely taboo subject in South Korea, the museum piques the curiosity of many.
Even if offbeat, these museums are a fun way to spend the afternoon, an experience you’ll be hard-pressed to find on any other Asian island.
It’s home to the highest peak in South Korea
Jeju is a haven for natural landscapes and views that include gorgeous seaside cliffs, rugged volcanoes and unique rock formations.
Hiking to South Korea’s highest summit, Mount Halla, is the best way to cop a view of the wonders of Jeju. The trails up the mountain are led by well-maintained steps, making it a fairly easy climb even for beginners.
At the peak, gaze down below at the magnificent crater lake, a deep blue recess set against a backdrop of green. It’s best to time your hike after the rain clears so that clouds don’t obstruct the views from the top.
You get to meet the inspiring Haenyo divers
Haenyo – or sea divers – refer to the female divers in Jeju that venture into the sea beds for shellfish to sell. These women – some into their seventies – strive to carry on the legacy of women divers that spans generations.
These “Korean mermaids” free dive into cold waters and can hold their breath underwater for several minutes simply to harvest seafood such as abalone, sea urchin and octopus.
Because of the semi-matriarchal family structure practised in Jeju, women are seen as breadwinners in their families just as men are, and are known to be tough and burly.
The tradition is slowly dying off as younger girls are given opportunities to pursue tertiary education and opt for less strenuous professions such as tourism.
It’s the birthplace of bibimbap
If you’re not already aware, bibimbap is one the most delicious things to eat in South Korea, if not in Asia. Literally translating to mixed rice, it’s a bowl of colours, flavours and textures like no other.
Warm rice is scooped into a bowl before topped with a melange of ingredients such as sautéed carrots, julienned cucumber, pickled radish, Korean chilli paste, soy sauce, sliced beef and a raw egg.
Before eating, use a pair of chopsticks to stir the egg and vegetables with the rice until it becomes a gooey, delicious mess. Sit down to a decent bowl at Gogung Insadong.
SEE ALSO: 10 things to eat in South Korea
You can explore the island on foot
Circling the island are the Olle trails, a 26-kilometer-long trail that gives visitors a “crash course” on Jeju’s natural wonders. The paths are well-marked and free to use.
Along the way, you’ll encounter postcard-worthy views of mountains, beachfront shores and unlikely village backyards.
You can choose to stroll farm roads fringed by tangerine orchards, walk along rocky coastlines and traverse some of the local neighborhoods that you might otherwise overlook.
The trails really are the best way to discover Jeju Island in the span of a long walk, and a great way to kick off a trip on an island bounteous of so many natural wonders.