This South Korean island is so calm and peaceful, it is possible to wander in silence in fields and orchards where wild flowers dance and tangerines ripen in the sun, but this quiet place has been home to many sounds: mighty rumbles of the volcano from the northwestern rim of the Pacific forming the island long ago; whispers of the island's poignant legends passed down through the ages; hopeful promises of peace firmly declared at the World Summit held here; roars from frenzied fans at the island's World Cup soccer match; rustles of wind down the slopes of sacred Mt. Hallasan; crashes of explosive waves against the rocky shore and a hiss from the sea settling on the golden beaches.
Jeju Island or Jeju-do, the 'do' meaning 'province,' offers special attractions for nature lovers, even more so for garden lovers. In fact, it has been designated an UNESCO Nature Site.
Located 100 km. from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, at 1,248 sq. km. (73 km. west to east, 41 km. north to south) it is South Korea's largest island. To drive around the coast road without stopping takes five hours. Thousands of years ago, an under-sea volcano erupted, spewing lava to create the island. Another eruption formed Korea's highest mountain, Mount Hallasan, or Halla, in the centre of the island, seen from almost every point and declared a National Park, occupied by 160 species of birds and a variety of mammals from deer to weasels. Locals and visitors hike trails to the mountain-top crater or merely enjoy the unique flora, fauna and scenery.
Start in Jeju City on the island's north shore, a bustling place with a population of 300,000, offering a wide range of accommodations and restaurants. First stop is the Jeju Folklore and Natural History Museum, providing an excellent introduction to the past and present. Don't miss the gallery of fascinating ancient world maps.
In the city, there is the living museum of Mogwanaji and its adjoining Gwandeokjeong Pavilion, one of the oldest buildings in Jeju. In this complex, visitors learn about Jeju's dynastic rulers and take photographs of the costumed guards or enjoy a cultural performance or historical reenactment.
Then, there's Samsonghyol Hole, the calm and beautiful sacred site within a small Jeju City park where legend suggests that three demi-gods emerged from a hole in the ground, became enchanted with the surroundings and settled as first to inhabit Jeju. They became founding fathers of the island's three main families, and every spring and fall, members of these clans gather in a ceremony to honour revered ancestors. Mysteriously, moisture from rain and snow does not penetrate into the hole, while lovely surrounding trees grow around the site at an angle, seeming to bow to the three ancestors.
One of Jeju's famous gardens is on the outskirts of Jeju City and not large, but you have not experienced a garden such as this before. Mok Suk Won exudes a remarkable atmosphere, and has been selected by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Twelve Monumental Gardens of the World, consisting not of flowers but of wood and rock formations amongst trees, shrubs, mosses and ivy, surrounded with stone walls and examples of Jeju's beautiful tree gates. The wood formations are from the roots of the Jorok tree, found on Mt. Halla at an altitude of 700 m. above sea level. After the tree dies, the remaining resin often is transformed into natural wood sculptures. Un-Chol Baek, the collector and founder of this garden, has displayed these remarkable pieces of wood with titles that complement the viewer's imagination.
There are natural rock formations, many in amazing realistic human shapes gathered also from Jeju Island and arranged to recount the legends and myths of the island. The most charming display depicts the love story of Gabdori and his wife Suksumi, recounted through natural rock sculptures with the help of 24 carved bronze plaques (in English and Korean) set in a low stone wall.
The grounds contain carved stone statues, traditional thatched buildings and a thatched gallery devoted to photographic exhibitions. These thatches are unusual in that
they are covered with a grid of wild-grass ropes, weighted with stones that help the thatch withstand the summer typhoons that may sweep the island.
The island's famous symbol is the rock statues known as Dolhareubang or 'Stone grandfathers.' Their history is obscure, but it is thought they were grave guardians; today, they are found all over the island: large ancient originals and miniatures for tourist souvenirs.
In the gardens are collections of stone statues called Dong-ja-sok, smaller pieces than the 'grandfathers' that resemble little children. This beautiful place is equally peaceful and an inspiration to gardeners in its use of stones and wood.
There's quite a different atmosphere to be found at Hallim Park, 33 km. west of Jeju City. This enormous site offers many different experiences in one: the Subtropical Botanical Garden, Water Garden, Hyeopjae and Ssangyong Caves, Jeju Stone and Bonsai Garden, Garden with Beautiful Birds, Jae-Am Stone Exhibition Hall, Folk Village, Palm Tree Road, Cherry Blossom Garden and Pine Tree Hill. With the large gift store, two restaurants and the charming bird house coffee shop, this site might engage you for most of a day. The coffee shop is surrounded by caged birds and ostriches who peer in the windows while you enjoy lunch!
Try to visit Hallim Park on a week-day as this is a popular destination for local families and quieter during the week. Highlights for me were the superb bonsai gardens, kiwi vines which I'd never seen growing before, and the vibrant birds.
Your enjoyment will be heightened with a little history. In 1971, a Jeju resident and garden lover, Bong-Gyu Song, recognized that tourism would become an important industry and developed a plan for a world-class recreation park near his home. He acquired a piece of barren land where nobody lived. Tons of stones were removed, replaced by a thousand truckloads of soil, and the lush gardens were born, amazing to realize that they have been in existence only since the 70's.
Two caves formed by an eruption of Mt. Halla were opened up and considered geologically unique not only because they form the longest lava cave system in the world (17,000 m.) but also because they contain stalagmites and stalactites - seldom found in a lava cave - as well as fossilized sea shells. A 500 m. portion of the cave is open to the public within Hallim Gardens.
The Yeomiji Botanical Garden in Chungmun Tourist Resort Complex is one of the largest gardens in Asia with 2,000 greenhouse species and 1,700 in the gardens outdoors, many rare or endangered. A soaring glass conservatory houses five eco-systems: an exquisite flower garden, including orchids; cactus display; jungle glasshouse and water lily garden, while at the centre of the complex is a 38 m. high observation tower served by an elevator for views of the outdoor gardens which include Japanese, Italian and French designs as well as traditional Korean gardens. Watch for the topiary peacock with flowers for his trailing tail plumage. There's a little 'train' to transport visitors who do not wish to walk to the outdoor gardens.
The island is literally a wildflower garden. Spring, when cherry blossoms and azaleas bloom and the island is blanketed in the yellow flowers of the rapeseed (canola) plant is the locals' favourite time of year. In September, the island is scattered with marigolds and pink, purple and white cosmos flowers.
Yeomiji gardens are located in the island's main tourist region, known as the Chungmun Tourist Resort Complex, adjacent to Jeju's second-largest town - Seogwipo, the location of the World Cup Soccer stadium. Chungmun, known as the honeymoon capital of Korea, offers a wide range of additional attractions and sports facilities including golf, beautiful sand beaches and accommodation of every description. The octagonal Hyatt is an island landmark and the vast Lotte Hotel is literally jaw-dropping in size and opulence, the only hotel I have encountered with fresh flowers (red roses) in the elevators!
A drive to the western end of the island to Mt. Sanbangsan is a must. Legend says this huge mass of rock, rising 395 m. above the sea, was ripped out of the summit of Mt. Halla, leaving Paengnoktam Crater Lake in its place. Halfway up Sanbangsan, there's a natural grotto holding a temple and offering wonderful views. Nearby, stands the monument to Hendrik Hamel, who wrote the first western account of experiences in
Korea. Jeju was probably the first part of Korea to come into contact with the west when Hamel and 36 other Dutch sailors shipwrecked in 1653. Hamel wrote of the 13 years spent in Korea before managing to return to the Netherlands.
Visitors now are mainly Koreans and Japanese, many of the latter to view the famous gardens. I met and chatted with a few British and Canadian tourists and some young Canadians living in Jeju and teaching English.
Exploring Jeju, locals seem shy with speaking English although most have learned it in school, but you will be met with unfailing grace and friendliness as revealed in the island's favourite slogan: samda, sammu, samnyeo ... the first item refers to three things Jeju has in abundance: wind, stones and women; the second to the three things the islands lacks: thieves, beggars and gates and finally, the three most beautiful things to be found on the island: generosity of the people, scenic beauty and juicy sweet fruit.
Some details ...
Jeju is served by air from major cities in mainland Korea as well as from Osaka, Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
Car/passenger ferries also connect the island with the mainland. The overnight ferry from Busan, every night except Sunday, takes 11 hours with prices ranging from Won 180,000 (C$200) for a deluxe double cabin to the simple passage charge of Won 24,200 (C$27).
Jeju City bustles, but beyond the city limits, you find the island calm and quiet, with good roads, courteous drivers and clear signs; renting a car is a pleasant way to go, with excellent free parking at major attractions and near the beaches.
Intercity buses are inexpensive, extensive and easy-to-use alternatives with all buses departing from the main bus terminal in Jeju City or in Sogwipo. There's an excellent tourist map in the bus station; point to your destination and you will be assisted to the correct bus. The main routes of interest are the coastal road that rings the island and the two cross-island highways that pass either side of Mt. Hallasan.
For those who like to travel in style, make private arrangements with taxi rivers to act as chauffeurs and guides for the day.
Travel during spring or fall. These shoulder seasons are perfect. Jeju is very popular with Koreans during the high-summer school holidays, and there is plenty of accommodation built with this high season in mind; thus, if you avoid summer months, you will find lots of choice from tangerine farms to the Hyatt!
Admission prices throughout Korea are modest. The large gardens, for example, which offer hours of pleasure, are C$6 or $7 with reductions for seniors.
Authorities strive to make this island a model tourism destination with strict environmental measures in place to keep balance between the traditional lifestyles of the local people and preserving the island's natural beauty and resources while at the same time developing 'attractions' to appeal to a broad spectrum of people: gardens, children's attractions, historical re-enactments and such.
The island prides itself on being virtually crime free, and some young Canadian teachers I met told me that they gladly accept rides from strangers when offered.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/