Dramatic sea vistas and lava formations add to the allure of South Korea's balmier latitudes
MOST OF South Korea is aglow in autumnal colours as the temperature drops below zero and the trees turn glorious reds and yellows before they shed their leaves.
At least that’s the situation around Seoul, to the north of the country. In the south of South Korea, though, you can still get a tan.
The subtropical lower latitudes embrace Jeju, dubbed “the Island of the Gods”, which is resplendent in lush vegetation and adorned with beautiful beaches. Little wonder it’s such a popular honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds.
Hanwha Aquaplanet Jeju is Asia's biggest aquarium, awash with species from around the world.
“The honeymooners come because Jeju has an exotic vibe and it’s so much warmer than other parts of the country,” says tour guide Park Ong Ju, who invites us to use her “Thai nickname” Pin, which she picked up while living in Chiang Mai and learning Thai from TV dramas.
A one-hour flight gets you there from Seoul and we arrive in time for a welcoming dinner of abalone served in the traditional style, another of Jeju’s attractions.
Sipping soju, a local spirit, we feast on chilled jellyfish salad, several kinds of fish sashimi, Korean-style shabu and a congee of fresh abalone, packed with protein and vitamins to boost the traveller’s energy level.
Lashed by sea breezes the next morning, we’re off to Hanwha Aquaplanet Jeju, run by Hanwha Hotels and Resorts. With 48,000 marine creatures and plants representing 500 species from around the world, it’s the largest aquarium in Asia.
The Munseom Tank displays colourful reefs and tropical marine life, such as strawberry and giant plumose anemones from King George Island, threadfin butterfly fish, orange-spined unicorn fish and blue tang from Bali. Fetched from Okinawa in Japan are clown and red-toothed triggerfish and white-spotted puffers.
In the Five Oceans hall, youngsters watch in amazement as huge schools of fish wonder how they got here (the fish, not the kids) from their original habitats in the far-flung seas of the world.
Harbour Planet is now home sweet home to adorable, round-faced spotted seals from the Atlantic and Pacific and also has African penguins bobbing about.
The gigantic Tunnel Tank is where families pose for keepsake photos against backdrops of docile sand, nurse and tiger sharks, pitted stingrays, bow-mouthed guitarfish and flap-nose rays.
In the Ocean Arena, Russian acrobats perform spectacular feats of synchronised swimming before clever dolphins and seals take their turns onstage and steal the scene by doing somersaults both in the air and underwater.
A short drive from the aquarium is Seopjikoji Hill, at the eastern edge of Jeju. Its name derives from Seopji, which this area used to be called, and koji, meaning a “sudden bump” in the land in the local dialect.
It’s a pleasant stroll along the scenic pathway amid flowering grasses. On top of the hill is a remarkable lighthouse and terrific vistas of ocean and pastureland.
Nearby is a famous rock with a fairytale attached to it – Hyeopjayeondae. The legend says it is (or was) the son of a sea god who turned to stone in dismay when a nymph spurned his love.
Seopjikoji Hill is a prime locale for gazing at the deep blue sea.
Next, it’s further uphill for us, to the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic peak thrust up from the sea 100,000 years ago. The name means “sunrise” and it’s important enough to be a Unesco World Natural Heritage site.
The 205-metre stairway up to Seongsan Tuff Cone can leave you gasping for breath, but the ascent is well worth the effort. Capping the peak is a vast crater ringed by 99 sharp rocks, as if giving it a pointy crown. The views of the sea and the village of Seongsan itself are breathtaking.
Back on earth again, we watch women of the seagoing Haenyeo community show how they dive for seaweed and shellfish (more abalone for everyone) without the need for oxygen tanks. Their feats of endurance have also been duly noted, earning them a place on the UN’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Haenyeo women are renowned for deep diving without oxygen tanks.
Pin says Haenyeo women are their families’ breadwinners because so many of their husbands have died fishing in the deep.
“The seawater is quite warm, so they can dive to gather seafood throughout the year. Their average age is 70 to 80. But the younger people in the community don’t want to earn their living this way anymore, and Vietnamese women have been trained to do the diving instead.”
These modern-day mermaids don rubber wetsuits and a belt of rocks and plunge into the water with fishing nets in hand. What they haul up from the deep is offered first to impressed visitors, a helping of the freshest imaginable abalone going for 10,000 won (Bt300).
Seongeup Folk Village at the foot of Halla Mountain invites guests to tour its charming, traditional residences fashioned from black lava stone and topped with a thatch of dried grass. The entrance to each has a stone “grandfather statue” called a harubang protecting the occupants from evil.
The large, lava-wall homes of Seongeup Folk Village are capped with thatch.
“Using lava rock walls to block the wind is part of the local wisdom,” says Pin. “And you can tell when someone’s not home and when they’ll be back by counting the logs placed to close off the entrance.
“Each mansion features many houses for the sons and their families, who all have their own separate kitchens too. In the past it was common for women to head the family because so many of their men were killed in the war. The husbands often remained hidden in the house to keep safe.”
Our final day on the island begins at the hallowed Yakcheonsa Temple, which resembles Buddhist monasteries of the early Joseon Dynasty, but its history dates back only to the 1960s.
Kim Hyeong-gon, a Confucian scholar, spent 100 days in a cave there praying and regaining his health by drinking its mineral water. He erected the Yaksuam Hermitage in gratitude to the Buddha and remained there for the rest of his life. The temple itself was established in 1981.
Yakcheonsa Temple has a fascinating history all its own.
Inside is a revered five-metre-tall statue of the Vairocana Buddha, which draws pilgrims seeking good health and success.
Fans of Sulwahsoo, Innisfree and Etude cosmetics, which have green tea as their chief ingredient, will want to visit the Osulloc Tea Museum, where the tea originates.
It’s a lush plantation run by Amore Pacific, complete with a cafe serving great green-tea drinks, chocolate and much more.
Next, keen to get some Vitamin C into our bloodstream, we sign up for a quick class in picking tangerines at “Mrs Hur’s orchard”. Her family’s been cultivating the fruit for 40 years and now tricks tourists into helping with the hard labour.
It’s loads of fun, though, and you learn which tangerine to pluck and which to ignore. “If you want a sweet tangerine, choose a yellow one,” a Hur daughter-in-law says.
She points out the ring of tall trees acting as a wind barrier for the more delicate fruit trees and the barriers of lava stones demarcating the property’s boundaries.
Head to Mrs Hur's orchard for pick-your-own tangerines.
Oedolgae Rock is to Jeju Island what Hin Ta Hin Yai is to Koh Samui. Jutting up in the near distance, it’s a 20-metre-high lava pillar some seven to 10 metres in circumference, dramatically sculpted and pockmarked by centuries of waves.
Pin tells us a story about this tower of tougher-than-basalt grey trachyandesite. Apparently a military general – Choe-yong of the late Goryeo Dynasty – managed to deter enemy forces by making Oedolgae look like a giant warrior. It scared them off.
That’s why, to this day, Oedolgae is often referred to as General Rock.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.