One of Asia’s most popular islands is one you might not have heard of: Jeju, off the southern coast of South Korea.
Created by volcanic eruptions more than 2 million years ago, Jeju Island, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has been likened to the “Hawaii of South Korea,” thanks to its black sand beaches, tropical climate, dramatic cliffs, and amazing lava tubes. And because of its beautiful natural landscape and 360 volcanoes dotted about the island, Jeju was named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. The diverse scenery lends itself to adventure seekers, who will appreciate the island’s excellent hiking, biking, diving, and fresh air. From South Korea’s highest mountain to the ancient volcanic craters and “Peanut Island” off the coast, here’s an action-packed guide to help you make the most of the island’s natural beauty.
Climb Mount Halla
Jeju is home to the tallest mountain in South Korea, Mount Halla (Hallasan), at 6,397 feet above sea level. It’s in the center of the pristine eponymous Hallasan National Park, which is worth a visit even if you’re not planning to hike to the top. But the trek up Hallasan is considered one of the most rewarding experiences on the island, thanks to the pristine woodlands, mountain streams, abundant wildlife, waterfalls, and views of the amazing Baengnokdam crater. The hike takes roughly 8 to 10 hours roundtrip and is best enjoyed during the spring when the flowers are blooming and most of the ice has melted—though you can expect a bit of snow at the top all year round.
INSIDER TIPYou don’t necessarily have to take the steepest, most arduous Gwaneumsa Trail—the easier Seongpanak will also take you to the peak. There are also several other possible trails to take you up the mountain, all with various lookout points. Ask your concierge to map out the trails for you if you’re not a confident climber.
Go Spelunking in the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System
Formed from volcanic explosions 100,000 to 300,000 years ago, the UNESCO World Heritage site, Geomunoreum Lava Tube System, is one of the world’s most amazing and well-preserved lava networks. After passing through a dense forest, travelers will follow paths to various caves including the most famous: Manjanggul, one of the longest in the world at 8 miles. Though you can only explore about half a mile of the cave, it’s still a memorable experience. Inside, the chilly atmosphere is favored by bats, and enormous stalagmites seemingly erupt from the cave floor while stalactites dangle precariously like icicles.
Discover the O'sulloc Tea Museum
Some of the best tea in the world is sourced from Jeju Island thanks to the nutrient-rich soil, optimal climate, and mountainous terrain. Travelers can get a sense of the country’s historic tea culture at the ultra-modern O’sulloc Tea Museum in the Seokwang tea fields. Here you’ll find a beautiful glass architecture and a plethora of activities. In addition to green tea tastings and views of the lush paddies, there’s also an indoor garden, a Tea Cups of the World gallery, an interactive space for tea roasting, and a store selling beautiful ceramics and fresh brews. The tea museum is next to the O’ssuloc tea fields, so be sure to allow time to explore the gorgeous estate.
Go for a Bike Ride on U-Do Island
Dubbed “Peanut Island” U-Do is located about 15 minutes off the eastern coast of Jeju, easily accessible by ferries that run every 15 to 30 minutes from Seongsan Port. The island is known for its peanut harvests, peanut ice cream sundaes, seafood hot pot, seaweed soup, and an incredible coastline—black rocky shores and turquoise waters. The easiest way to explore is by bike, though vendors near the ferry pier also rent electric bikes and quirky smart cars. A leisurely bike ride around the island will take about 3 hours with time to stop for lunch, ice cream, and spectacular views. In order to buy ferry tickets to Udo, you’ll need a digital copy of your passport—or the real thing—to show the ticketing office.
INSIDER TIPFor the best peanut ice cream and dramatic cliffside views, stop for a sweet treat at Jimmy’s Natural Ice Cream. The owner, Jimmy, says it is the original peanut ice cream shop on the island. The ice cream is all homemade and best enjoyed at one of the tiny tables overlooking a cove below.
Hike the Olle Trails
One of the most scenic and relaxing ways to explore Jeju’s natural scenery is on foot, via the “olle” trails. This network of trails comprises 26 interconnected treks, the longest is about 14 miles long. The majority of the trails trace the craggy volcanic coastline, but Trail 14, on the western side of the island, ambles through the lush countryside farther inland, passing by farms, orchards, and forests.
INSIDER TIPOne of the best times of year to explore the olle trails is in March and April when never-ending fields of gorgeous yellow canola flowers bloom and light up the island.
Enter a Volcano at Sunrise Peak
Seongsan Ilchul-bong, also known a Sunrise Peak, is one of the island’s accessible volcanoes. The scenic trek begins at a well-marked entryway, where travelers will pass through a ticket booth—even though there’s no entrance fee. Though steep, the 600-foot hike only takes about 30 minutes up clear pathways and a few sets of stairs. At the top, there’s a well-maintained, stadium-like viewing platform that overlooks the ocean beyond, island behind, and a giant crater in the foreground that was formed more than 5,000 years ago. Take a seat by the crater’s ridge to soak up the UNESCO Natural Heritage Site. The experience continues as you descend the wooden stairs on the opposite side of the mountain, with spectacular ocean views along the way.
INSIDER TIPThey call it Sunrise Peak for a reason—the best time to visit the crater is at dawn, so you can watch the sun rise over the massive dome. Plan to visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds, as this place can get very busy on weekends and national holidays.
See the Haenyeo Divers
Historically, Jeju has relied on the fruits of the sea for sustenance, as it’s difficult to grow certain crops on land due to the rugged terrain. The islanders developed special techniques to pluck sea urchins, octopus, squid, seaweed, and mollusks from the deep. That’s where Jeju’s famous haenyeo divers come in. Designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, these female divers don wetsuits and goggles, then plunge 20 meters into the Korean Strait without any breathing equipment—holding their breath for 3 minutes at a time.
INSIDER TIPOne of the best places to see haenyeo in action is on Seongsan Beach, right under Sunrise Peak, where scheduled demonstrations take place a few times a day. There’s also a museum dedicated to their lives and unique profession.
Explore Jeju’s Beaches
On the south side of Jeju Island, about an hour from Jeju City, the Seogwipo region is home to one of the island’s best beaches. Tucked away out of sight below the Shilla Jeju hotel, this 1,850-foot-long stretch of sand feels completely secluded thanks to the cliffs that hug the coastline. Closer to Jeju City, Hamdeok Beach is among the most popular choices for families, due to clear and calm water, photogenic lighthouse, showers, toilets, banana boats, and a few beachfront inns. Hyeopjae Beach, on the northwest side of the island, is also a scenic place to splash around. This 5.5-mile stretch of white sand is a fantastic place to stop and watch the sunset.
INSIDER TIPAt the height of summer, the beaches on Jeju fill up with travelers, but you can enjoy a more secluded swim if you visit during shoulder seasons—like late spring or early autumn.
Try Hallabong Mandarin Oranges
On nearly every corner in Jeju, you’ll find hawker stalls teeming with oranges of all size, from tiny tangerines to massive hallabongs. The latter are famous for their sweet flavor and a nub at the top, which makes them super easy to peel. While hallabong oranges are usually sold in bulk at the markets—at about US$10 per kilogram—you can sample the flavors in the form of a freshly squeezed orange juice, available at ubiquitous stands at tourist spots around the island. Some coffee shops even add a touch of hallabong orange juice into their lattes, a surprisingly delicious combination. Get an up-close and personal view of the orange orchards by picking the fruits yourself at VIP Hallabong Tangerine Farm or Gyulhyanggi Agricultural Association—ask your concierge to help make a booking if you’re running into language barriers.
INSIDER TIPThe fruits are typically harvested in the fall and sold throughout the winter and spring. If you’re visiting in November, check out the Jeju Orange Festival, where a new “Miss Mandarin Orange” is crowned every year.