Postcard: Jeju Island, South Korea

I’ll admit, what drew me to KJ International Tours‘ Lights and Paradise package wasn’t the Seoul portion of the itinerary … it was its final stop to Jeju Island.

As a Korean drama fan, many shows that I’d seen in the past would often involve at least one scene of a couple or family spending a vacation in Jeju — South Korea’s version of Hawaii. I know I’m from Hawaii, where I can already find beaches in my own backyard, but something about the way those dramas would depict this South Korean paradise was intriguing. It piqued my curiosity in that I wanted to see how this place compared to my own home.

After our last few hours in Busan — where my mom and I joined our local guide, Young, for some shopping, a walking tour of the Jalgalchi Fish Market and lunch at a seafood restaurant — we headed to Gimhae International Airport to depart for our next and final leg of our tour: Jeju Island.

We arrived at Jeju International Airport just before 7 p.m. That’s where our driver picked us up and took us to our hotel, Shilla Stay Jeju, in Jeju City.

After unloading our luggage, we decided to grab a snack. We found a cute cafe around the corner called A Twosome Place, a European-style dessert cafe, and grabbed a quick bite. We then rushed back to our hotel to get some shuteye because the following day promised to be a long, packed day.

We awoke bright and early the next day, ate breakfast at the hotel, and walked across the street to where our tour bus picked us up.

Our first stop: Horseback riding. Yes, horseback riding … in Jeju Island!

  1. Horseback riding

I think the last time I’d ever gone horseback riding was when I was in middle school, so I was ecstatic for this part of the tour.

Initially, I envisioned myself heroically galloping through the mountains of Jeju, surrounded by lush scenery with my hair blowing in the wind. But when we got to the horse park, I was surprised to see a modest, small track where horses trotted around in a circle, carrying excited tourists donning corny cowboy hats.

My mom decided she would stay back and watch while I eagerly made my way toward the area where visitors were getting on and off the horses. One of the workers helped me onto the horse, and then it began sauntering around the track.

The ride felt so liberating and exhilarating, but I’ll admit I got a little nervous when my horse picked up speed toward the end as my hands tightly gripped the handlebar, turning my knuckles white. But I’m sure these horses were well trained, so I knew I was in good hands.

2. Seongeup Folk Village

After taking some photos, our bus drove us to Seongeup Folk Village, an old-fashioned village of thatched-roof homes and black lava rock walls. Surprisingly, people actually live here, and one of the residents was our tour guide. He showed us everything from unique sculptures to a black pig (before it turned into dinner).

3. Haenyeo Museum

Our next stop: Haenyeo Museum, where we learned more about haenyeo, or female divers. In Jeju, there’s a community of women whose main job is to dive into the ocean to collect shellfish and other sea life — all without oxygen masks — to sell. Traditionally, girls would start training at a young age and continue working into becoming full-fledged haenyeo. Today, there are women over the age of 80 who are still doing this. Sadly, though, haenyeo are on the edge of extinction as many young women leave the city or pursue other professions.

Side note: If you’re interested in learning more about haenyeo, I highly recommend the novel “Island of the Sea Women” by Lisa See.

4. Gwangchigi Beach and Seongson Ilchulbong Peak

We then stopped off at a restaurant for a yakiniku-style lunch (where we got a chance to get to know some of our fellow tour members) to fuel up for what would be a strenuous hike up the Seongson Ilchulbong Peak. But first — a quick photo op of Gwangchigi Beach.

We arrived at the base of Seongson Ilchulbong Peak — a tuff cone crater, formed by an underwater eruption roughly 5,000 years ago. Known today as a popular hiking spot to see the sunrise, visitors have several different paths to explore the site. I opted for the slightly more advanced path that would weave up to the top for scenic views, while my mom stayed back with a few other tour members.

The climb to the top — starting with a cobblestone path that led to a combination of wooden stairs and bare rock sections — was a little more challenging than I had anticipated given that I had not expected to actually get any cardio in on this tour.

After a few short breaks to take in the scenery (and catch my breath), I finally made it up to the top to find several benches and even a theatre-like seating area to rest and enjoy sweeping views of the ocean and surrounding neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, it was slightly overcast, but the view was breathtaking nonetheless.

5. Manjanggul Cave

You’d think an arduous hike to leave us breathless and drenched in sweat would be a good way to end a day tour around Jeju, but it wasn’t over yet. Our last part of the itinerary was a walk through Manjanggul Cave.

Something I didn’t realize about Jeju that I found fascinating was that it was created by a massive eruption some 2 million years ago, and evidence of volcanoes is everywhere — from its hundreds of small mountains and lava tubes to surfaces made chiefly of basalt.

Jeju is also home to the longest lava tube in Asia — Manjanggul Cave, which was formed by cooling lava — which spans more than 8 miles.

Walking through the cave was an experience unlike any I’d ever had.

As I descended into the cave, the temperature felt like it dropped about 20 degree and was humid. Though there were some lights installed throughout to help visitors see where they’re going, there was no paved pathway, so you’d have to walk on slippery rocks, making for a nerve-wracking journey.

I walked straight ahead for about 30 minutes or so before having to turn around and make the precarious trek back to the entrance.

I don’t recommend Manjanggul Cave to anyone who has walking issues, but I don’t regret doing this myself.

Our last night in South Korea ended with a delicious Korean BBQ dinner near our hotel. It was a little bittersweet as my mom and I reflected on our week-long trip to such a beautiful country that’s rich in culture, unique food and kind people. I thoroughly enjoyed my second trip here with KJ International Tours and am truly grateful that I was able to make so many precious memories with my mom. Till next time, kamsahamnida !

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