When Koreans seek a getaway and a breath of fresh air, one place immediately comes to mind: Jeju, the most iconic island in the Korean Peninsula.
Although it is a small island, in Jeju, you can experience all four seasons, with rainy months and snowy winters. It is the most visited spot in the country during summer break, with heavy local tourism in search of rest. But lately, it has also attracted many foreigners due to the fantastic experiences this place offers. Being a remote place, far away from the mainland, Jeju feels like a completely different world. Its unique nature showcases mountains on one side and emerald waters at the beach on the other.
The island is renowned for its endless landscapes with green tea fields, Jeju horses (a smaller native breed), and volcanic rocks that have been transformed into Jeju’s staple sculptures. The dol hareubang, “stone grandfather,” are totem statues with popping eyes, rounded heads, and hands on their belly that can be seen all around and have become the island’s symbol. Jeju is also home to a unique fruit, a sweet yet sour type of tangerine known as hallabong, which is only harvested here and during autumn. And most remarkably, the tallest mountain in the country is located in the core of the island. Considered a sacred place to Koreans, Hallasan Mountain rises at 6,398 feet and has different hiking routes to explore its beautiful mountain scenery.
Although fishing is a task typically ruled primarily by men across the world, this isn’t the case in Jeju. Here, women dive more than twenty meters underwater with only their wetsuits, diving masks, and very capable lungs. Even more impressive is that most are mothers and grandmothers (some are up to eighty years old), continuing this centuries-old tradition. These women are called haenyeo, which translates to sea women, and they are known for their independent spirit, iron will, and determination. Collectors of abalone, shellfish, oysters, octopus, and a variety of sea life, their knowledge is mainly inherited and recognized for its cultural value.
As a tourist, diving can become an unforgettable experience full of diversity: volcanic rocks, colorful soft coral, tropical reef fish, and sea life. However, if you’re not an avid diver, don’t worry; there are plenty of activities to enjoy on the island, depending on the season. During the summer, it is a paradise for surfers. Spring and autumn are great for hiking and exploring natural gems, such as waterfalls, floral fields, and parks, perfect for capturing amazing photos wherever you go. For a thrilling experience, try motorless gravity racing at 9.81 Park, among other fun attractions within the site.
Jeju is a great place for solo travel but is also popular for families and couples who frequent the island. Lots of young people are drawn to the multiple cafes, shops, and dessert culture, which are outstanding. The night market is a must-visit, as Jeju is renowned for its fantastic gastronomy, flavorful pork meat, and delicious local street food.
The island carries the charm of a small town, with kind, friendly people and fewer buildings than the rest of South Korea. Most are small houses, allowing you to often gaze at the horizon and enjoy the landscapes. Jeju Island offers a glimpse into a world that feels both familiar and refreshingly different. It is a little piece of heaven on earth.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 2 of Álula Magazine, with the headline: “Beyond the Mainland. From Haenyeo Divers to Spectacular Landscapes, Discover Jeju Island, South Korea’s Beloved Getaway.”