Something happens to your body when you visit Jeju Island: you’ll feel a sudden spike in energy. Your heart rate will jump. You won’t feel pain. It’s called epinephrine, or adrenaline, and our body secretes it when we’re angry, fearful or excited.
Or that’s what I’ve been told.
This little island off the southern coast of South Korea has been making a name for itself as an Asian adventure destination. No surprise: Pyeongchang’s Winter Olympics brought 1.4 million sports visitors to South Korea, where they found 21 resorts and hundreds of kilometres of snow trails.
There aren’t many adventure tourists to Jeju yet. Although the island welcomes more than 15 million tourists a year, they’re mainly found enjoying its tax-free shopping or lying on its beaches.
Jeju’s beginnings are as dramatic as the adventures its marketing material promises. It was blasted from the sea more than two million years ago when a chain of volcanoes erupted, and those eruptions left a pockmarked landscape with the domineering Mount Hallasan at its centre. Although the last volcano erupted some 5,000 years ago, many of them are still considered not extinct, but dormant.
Jeju is only 1,848 square kilometres in size, so the beaches, restaurants serving signature black pork and mountains handing out those adrenaline rushes are all easily accessible. And it’s somewhere you can find all four seasons at once: it can be snowy on the crater of Mount Hallasan, but sparkling summertime on the beaches of the East China Sea.
Did Jeju fire adrenaline through this adventurous travel writer’s veins? I brought along a photographer, Mike, who’s capturing this 48-hour extreme itinerary, to find out.
Hike Mount Hallasan
Standing at 1,950 metres tall, Mount Hallasan is the highest mountain in South Korea – and it knows it. The shield volcano attracts hardcore climbers, as well as these two Hongkongers who decide to hike to Baengnokdam, the crater lake at the top, in wintry February when the snow is ankle-deep.
The mountain is surrounded by Hallasan National Park (worth a visit even if you decide not to clamber to the top), which is washed with purple azaleas in summer and rust-coloured maples and firs in autumn. Whatever the weather, there’s usually snow at the top – which is what we’re hauling ourselves through today.
Of five trails to the summit, we choose the short Yeongsil Trail, which gives panoramic views over the southern coast. After a gentle walk through the park’s fir trees and quiet streams, we ascend quickly – pulling ourselves using the rope railings on the sides of the path. After two hours and numb biceps, we’re not even close to the crater lake, but the views are blockbuster: a smear of smaller volcanic hills spilling down the mountainside all the way to the coast.
But what goes up must come down. And it came down, very inelegantly, on its bum.
Adrenaline rating: 4/5
Paraglide over pine trees
To a paragliding launch site in the midst of a rather charmless western Jeju town, attended by two scruffy corgis. We zip up a nearby pine-covered volcanic hill with the intention of casually throwing ourselves off it. It’s windy. While I’m screaming a few choice NSFW phrases, my instructor, Cha, from Busan, says cheerfully of the brisk thermals we’re riding on: ‘It’s getting dangerous now. But just dangerous for me.’ Doesn’t he realise we’re strapped together? I’m silent as we spin face-first towards blue-roofed farm huts and the brown Jeju earth. (You’re reading this now – I did make it down safely.)
Adrenaline rating: 5/5
Cycle along the coast
We could have hired push bikes and notched up a few more adrenaline points. But we were exhausted from pulling ourselves up a dormant volcano face, so gratefully chose electric bikes instead. Jeju’s coastline is ringed with designated bike paths, so we cycled off from Seogwipo town and followed the sunset to the coast.
Adrenaline rating: 2/5
Hike the Olle Trail
Jeju is zigzagged with the 422 kilometre Olle Trail, a moderate walking route that, even if you hike a couple of the 26 routes that circle the island, would give you a good snapshot of life on Jeju: coast, village, forest, farmland. The trails are incredibly easy to follow – watch out for the blue and orange ribbons tied to trees.
Adrenaline rating: 2/5
Visit the Seogwipo Natural Recreation Forest
The Seogwipo Natural Recreation Forest, at 750 metres high, is nowhere near as adventurous (or as undignified an experience) as crawling up Hallasan. But the gently swaying Japanese cypresses, noisy murder of matt-black crows and slippery paths of the forest’s 2.2 kilometre Ecological Observation Trail make it a pretty morning hike.
Adrenaline rating: 2/5
Horse-ride along Jungmun Beach
The sun is setting behind the palm trees, giving Jeju’s Jungmun Beach an odd gold-and-red-tinged LA feel. We saddle up at a local horse-riding outfit: me trotting along on a shaggy white horse, with Mike following on a touchy-feely mahogany steed that keeps stopping to eat the flowers on the side of the track. The adrenaline factor amps up when mine spies a trough of food and starts galloping. Did I mention I’ve been scared of horses since I read Gulliver’s Travels?
Adrenaline rating: 3/5
Cruise the southern coast
Jeju’s southern coastline is full of craggy rock formations. There’s Jusangjeolli, volcanic rock formations (similar to Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway) that were the result of Mount Hallasan’s lava erupting into the sea two million years ago; and Jeongbang Falls, the only waterfall in Asia to fall straight into the sea. We cruise along the coastline on a yacht, the sun twinkling above, and stop to sling fishing rods over the side. I was empty handed from fishing – but had a cold mug of Hite beer in the other, so…
Adrenaline rating: 1/5
Where to stay
The sprawling Shilla Jeju resort, on the coast of Seogwipo, is one of the island’s most premium properties. There’s direct beach access, a dizzying array of swimming pools (including an adults-only hot tub – ideal for sore Hallasan muscles) and it’s right on Route Seven of the Olle Trail. The concierge can organise adventure activities for guests through the GAO programme. There’s also soft adventure without even leaving the hotel grounds with the new glamping dining experience. A chef barbecues fish and meat for you to eat in a heated, luxurious tent, with wine matching, vinyl records and boardgames. Take it from me when I say that the most adventurous thing is trying to relax while doing this romantic experience with a colleague.
Want more ?
In summer, Jeju’s waters are warm and ideal for diving (it’s also possible in winter with a dry suit). Failing that, visit the haenyeo diving women, who hold their breath for up to three minutes at a time to pluck squid and urchins off the seafloor.
Jeju’s Mediterranean-looking Aewsol Handam beach is the best place on the island to kayak. Post-workout, grab a coffee and slab of cake at beachside Cafe and Villa, a hipster cafe mixing Edison bulbs and an equine theme.
The island’s zipline will whizz you over Jeju’s tea terraces with views of Mount Hallasan. Visit the onsite cave cafe for a green tea afterwards.
The small island of Udo, 20 minutes off Jeju’s eastern coast, is known as Peanut Island. Cycling around it will take a leisurely couple of hours, and you can stop for a signature peanut ice cream as you go.
If Hallasan looks too steep, try hiking Seongsan Ilchulbong, known as Sunrise Peak. On the eastern tip of Jeju, the peak is where hundreds gather each morning to watch the sunrise. It’s a short 20-minute scramble to the top.
And for an entirely different kind of adventure, visit Love Land. This bizarre amusement park, supposedly designed to teach Jeju’s cohort of honeymooners about sex, features penis statues and other sculptures of humans having sex. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Cathay Dragon flies to Jeju from Hong Kong four times a week