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While most revellers choose to go on a bender to ring in the New Year, Justin and I decided to embark on our first trip in 2019 on New Year’s Day. No spectacular fireworks or champagne and certainly no toasts made but nothing like starting a brand new year on an exciting note.
A special self-governing province located south west of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju (also spelt Cheju) is oval-shaped and Korea’s largest island, often known as the “Islands of the Gods” or “Hawaii of Korea”. We have to admit that we picked Jeju out of our love for our favourite country – Iceland with both places sharing beautiful natural landscapes with unique volcanic topography.
We arrived in the late afternoon on New Year’s Day and after checking into a city hotel, we explored the city on foot and as expected, all was quiet on the street. After an obligatory ‘chimaek’ (wondrous but artery clogging pairing of fried chicken and beer) dinner, we retired early as we figured there is plenty to explore on an entire island designated as UNESCO World Heritage.
Getting Around Jeju Island
Jeju Island boasts a relatively efficient bus system that covers most of the island including key sightseeing spots so getting around without a hired car is possible, not to mention pretty cheap too. Despite the language barrier, the locals including bus drivers are friendly and very helpful. Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal is the main hub in Jeju-si and many local buses begin, terminate or pass through here. A detailed bus route map is available from the tourist office (manned by English speaking staff) at the entrance of the bus terminal. The island’s public transportation system underwent a restructuring in 2017 to cater for increased tourist arrivals – for updated bus routes, please click HERE
Best of Jeju
We discovered Woljeongri beach, a beautiful beach town by chance – out of recommendation from the tourist office at Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal. Located east of Jeju International Airport, a bus ride will take an hour with multiple stops including Hamdeok beach, a popular spot with a pletora of accommodation options. Lined with cafes that open up to a glorious white sand beach with spectacular emerald ocean view, Woljeongri beach is a lovely getaway, sans crowd.
There are three prominent waterfalls in Jeju – Cheonjeyeon, Cheonjiyeon and Jeongbang Falls but if you had to choose one, we would recommend Jeongbang Waterfall, which is the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly in the ocean. Admission fee is 2000 Korean Won per person and access includes an easy path of several flights of stairs that descend onto the base of the fall. Do not mistake it for a smaller waterfall nearby known as Sojeongbang Waterfall, which bears the brunt of typhoon’s fury and is now closed to the public.
A popular tourist attraction owing to its magnificent natural beauty, Jusangjeolli cliff is an impressive natural monument formed by basaltic lava when Hallasan erupted into the sea of Jungmun. Getting there is relatively easy and depending on which direction you are coming from, the bus terminates at the Jeju International Convention Center (ICC). Walk for about 10 minutes to the left of the International Convention Center and you will end up at the ticket office. Admission fee is 2000 Korean Won per person.
Mt. Halla is South Korea’s highest peak at 1,950 meter and one of Jeju’s three UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites. For nature/hiking enthusiasts, there are several trails to choose from, depending on your fitness level but Yeongsil is the shortest at 3.7km. We boarded bus 240 from outside of Halla Hospital in Jeju city and from there it’s about 30 minutes to 1100 Altitude Wetlands on Hallasan with stops including Eorimok and Yeongsil ticket office. The wetlands is known for its rich wildlife including endangered species and stunning landscape, which makes for a beautiful winter sightseeing spot.
For a slice of tradition, visit Dongmun market for its scrumptious selection of fresh seafood, snacks, souvenirs and high quality tangerines. It is a popular landmark amongst the locals and tourists so be sure to get there early to avoid the crowd. The Jeju Jungang Underground Shopping Center nearby is a perfect spot for shopaholics with over 300 shops for an afternoon of retail therapy. We find that the locals speak better Mandarin than English thanks to the massive influx of cashed-up mainland Chinese tourists for Jeju’s undeniable appeal – subtropical climate, natural wonders, visa-free status and geographical proximity.