One of the destinations in Korea I’d researched heavily prior to moving here was Jeju Island. Jeju is a volcanic island located in the southwest part of the Korean peninsula and is sometimes referred to as the “Hawaii of Korea.” When I first read about Jeju Island, I was immediately intrigued by its beauty. One of the sites that comes up with any “Google Image” search of Jeju Island is Hallasan (which translates to “Halla Mountain” in English.) The island was formed by Hallasan lava overflow several million years ago. Now a dormant volcano, it is one of Korea’s most popular local and tourist destinations.
Several weeks after arriving to Korea, Ashley, one of my coworkers, asked me if I wanted to go spend Seollal on Jeju Island with her over the Lunar New Year. Seeing as how this was one of the top places I’d wanted to visit, I was definitely interested. We decided to secure a spot with an organization called the Seoul Hiking Group, who is one of the leading groups expats in Korea use to take trips around the country. The main draw to this particular trip was the fact that we would be able to climb to the summit of Hallasan.
To get to the island, we took a five or so hour bus ride from Suji to a ferry, which took us to Jeju Island. Once we got there, it was a bit rainy, but we explored the island a bit and got some lunch. Being a vegetarian in Korea is not the easiest, and it certainly wasn’t any better on Jeju. The island is known for its fresh seafood, and the meat from horses and Jeju’s “famous” black-colored pigs. Ashley tried baby octopus for the first time at our lunch, and I don’t think she was a fan.
The Seoul Hiking Group rented a pension for the weekend, and we got a pretty great room. Each of the rooms were large enough to fit about six to seven people and had balconies which overlooked the ocean. Although it was colder than we would have all liked it to be, it was still wonderful to be able to hear the sound of the ocean outside our windows. The next morning, we woke up early to prepare for the eight hour hike. Ashley was meeting a guy she’d met a few months prior, so I opted to do the majority of my hike solo. It was so refreshing to be alone with my mind in such a vast and beautiful space.
However, I was definitely NOT alone throughout this hike. Koreans are known for their love — almost obsession — with hiking. There were SO MANY people who were also climbing up as well as ascending at the same time – it was almost overwhelming at some points. On the way up the mountain, I met some really awesome people who I continue to hang out with to this day. Climbing Hallasan was one of the most physically challenging things I’d done in a long time. Snow covered the ground, and it was quite easy to lose your balance.
After several gruelling hours, I successfully (and proudly) made it to the top. It was such a beautiful sight to take in. It was so neat to see something I’d been viewing on my computer via Google Image and countless blogs in person. After taking in all the beauty around me, I began my way down the mountain. The way down was extremely hard. It was definitely much more challenging than the way up. At some points, I decided to just slide down on my butt to make it go faster. I nearly crashed into a few trees while doing so, but I’m still alive to type this so who cares? As the kids say, #YOLO.
After the group reunited, we boarded the bus and independently got our own food. Ashley and I decided to eat some pizza from a Korean chain called Mr. Pizza. Following the meal, we all headed back to our pension, where we relaxed and had some beers together.
The next day was a lot of fun. We went to many of the destinations Jeju Island is most known for. One of the coolest spots was Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, which translates to “sky connected to the land” in English. Despite the fact that it was raining when we arrived, it was super pretty to see. We also hiked along the beach, which was pretty fun. I definitely want to go back to this area once the weather gets nice.
Later that afternoon, we all went to relax on the beach. Some of the girls I’d met on the hike and I decided we wanted to get a massage since our bodies were in such pain from the hike. We walked around the beach and found a local spot to check out. However, it was closed. The funny thing about this is that the door to the establishment and office was open. There’s an unspoken trust and respect policy in Korea, which I think is pretty fantastic. Having just moved here from Chicago, I was completely taken aback, as that would never be okay to do in the United States.
After we stumbled into the seemingly closed massage spa, we decided to get some lunch. I was excited because there was a chain called The Loving Hut on the island. Luckily some of the girls were also interested in eating there, but alas, once we got there it was closed. So I went to a hamburger restaurant where most everyone from the group was getting food and ordered a salad. I was a bit unsure of what the dressing was, as it was listed as “balsamic vinegar, strawberry and lemon vinaigrette.” I was not terribly surprised when this odd sounding concoction happened to be barbecue sauce atop my iceberg (gross) lettuce. A swing and a miss, Korea. A swing and a miss.
After doing a bit more exploring, the group gathered together again to head to dinner at a local restaurant. I ate some delicious bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish which translates to “mixed rice” in English. The dish consists of rice, vegetables such as carrots, bean sprouts, lettuce and mushrooms with a fried egg and a chill pepper paste to garnish. It’s amazing. A big group of us decided we’d wanted to go out that night to a norebang, which is basically just a big private karaoke room. First things first, we went to a jimjibang to relax. Jimjibangs are gender-segregated saunas and are a major staple in Korean culture. They generally cost about 8,000 won, which is about $9 USD for an entire day or night. After the jimjibang, we all congregated in our pension to have a few beers before heading to the norebang. It was such a fun night! The next morning, our groggy selves boarded the bus to return to Seoul. I read a little bit of the book I was reading at the time and fell asleep for the rest of the trip. It was quite nice to be back in my bed that night.
Although Jeju Island is generally a summer getaway spot, I had such a wonderful time. I can’t wait to go back!