The what, when and where of the volcanic playground….
Hiring a car
To put it plainly, this really is the best way to see the island. The bus system is good, granted, but all the things to see are scattered across the island and they aren’t even really in one or two discernable areas. The buses in the lesser frequented areas (the one-way road to Manjanggul Cave, for example) also come sporadically, meaning a potentially long wait on the side of the road before the next one trundles on by. HOWEVER, it is important to note that in order to hire a car here, it is IMPERATIVE that you have an International Driving Licence.
And no, this isn’t just an international license that you have from driving in your home country, but a proper specially ordered, permit that you have to order in your home country before travelling. Sure, other countries suggest having these or often have it as a requirement, but until we had come to Korea, we’d never seen it actually enforced. You simply won’t be able to pick up your car if you don’t have one, as the rental agencies aren’t able to ensure the vehicle unless you’re in possession of the special permit. They’re only about $20 and last a year usually, so worth having.
Using the bus system
And, because of aforementioned international licensing rules, the one time neither of us actually had an international permit was the time we really needed it. So instead, we had to rely on the bus system. While we read a lot of online guff about how terrible Jeju’s bus system was, we were genuinely surprised at how great it is.
For starters, the timetables are all electronic, meaning they’re in real-time and you can actually see where the bus is when it’s incoming. Secondly, the routes are extensive and do reach most corners of the island, even the most obscure. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they’re CHEAP. A two-hour journey can cost you barely $1.50 if you take the inter-city non-direct buses. The one thing I will say though is to do yourself a favour and plan ahead. There’s no point getting to the Daepo Jusangjeolli cliffs, looking around for an hour, and then realising that a bus left five minutes ago and the next one isn’t for another 45 minutes.
Just do yourself a favour and downscale what you were hoping to see if you’re relying on public transport. Your journey times will be far more time-consuming, so be selective with what’s important. It’s also probably smart to base yourself in Jeju.
Top tip: Buy a T-money card. They cost 2000 won and you can buy them at any convenience store. They’re rechargeable cards that allow you to transfer twice onto other buses, so long as they’re within 30 minutes of each other. Otherwise, you’ll have to ensure you have the perfect amount of cash every time you board a bus, and you won’t get a single transfer.
Google Maps is a real hit-and-miss situation in South Korea, and it also doesn’t display walking times. Naver is a great app with accurate times for public transport and the best routes for heading somewhere on foot. And, to put it plainly, there is simply no other option.
Ignore the hype, it’s not that hard. A lot of online chatter seems to deduce that this is an Everest-style mountaineering affair, and it certainly may seem that way for otherwise mostly flat Korea, but for outsiders it’s maybe a 5 to 6 out of 10 on the difficulty scale.
In other words, don’t fear if you bypass Koreans with large day packs, hiking boots and proper outdoor gear. One thing we will say though, is that come prepared in winter.
We headed off for a jaunt in our shorts and basically-out-of-tread gym shoes and encountered thick sheet ice and snow covering the entire track in parts, blistering winds, and a blanket of cloud obscuring any view at the top. For Instagram it was not.
It ain’t cheap, but my god it is good. The famed “Black Pork” street is where you’re told to go in many a guidebook and internet forum, and try that we did, which was fine, but we actually preferred venturing out a bit off the beaten track.
If you’re looking for a truly authentic experience, head out to kinda near the airport. Put this guy in your Google Maps – 깜돈흑돼지 – for a really lovely, family affair that caters mainly to locals. Otherwise, on Black Pork Street, head for Hwaro Hyang. They’re friendly (ish), they cook your meat for you, but better yet, they don’t pressure you to order more than your comfortable with. Just do yourself a favour and avoid Dombedon.
Other things worth seeing
Osulloc Tea Museum: Absolutely lovely little spot. Do a (free) tea tasting and wander through the, admittedly very sparse, tea museum. By all means try the famed green tea ice cream, but be prepared to pay about $7 for glorified soft serve. (Okay that might be a bit harsh, it is delicious glorified soft serve)
Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff: I’m going to be honest here and admit that I did not get this as a tourist attraction. To me, these were simply slightly jagged cliffs and a coastline I should not have to pay 2000 won to access. However, my husband absolutely fizzed over these hexagonal, volcano-shaped craggy rocks. And I’m told they’re reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. (On a much smaller scale. Don’t get too excited). Worth it if you’re in the area, but probably not worth a trip from Jeju City.
Manjanggul Cave: Due to aforementioned volcanic geology-induced disappointment, it’s fair to say I was not expecting much from this. However, I’m pleased to report that I was absolutely pleasantly surprised. This huge underground cavern spans for 13 kilometres in total, of which tourists can explore a whole kilometre worth. It also features the tallest lava column in the world. Sign me up for 4000 won of that, over some slightly jagged cliffs, any day.
Seongsan Ilchulbong: what the actual fuck is a tuft cone? If you, like me, had no idea, prepare to be schooled – and maybe a liiiiitle bit disappointed. Hiking up to the top of this picturesque crater on the eastern side of Jeju is a steep 10 minute climb that affords a view of basically a grassy paddock that is kind of cone shaped. Nonetheless, the views out over the surrounding landscape, including Udo Island, are lovely on a clear day. Plus, you’ll still basically be inside a volcano.
The Jeju ‘mermaids’: given that you’re already at Seongsan Ilchulbong, it would be a shame not to pay a visit to these wonderful wahines. The Jeju ‘mermaids’ are female divers who scout the underground world for bounty each day, and have done so ever since the men who once did the job up and left Jeju for no other reason than seemingly life was too hard.
The prices for the fresh seafood they catch seemed slightly on the extortionate side, but given that they’ve just caught it and it’s sitting in a tank right in front of them, from which they grab it out and disembowel it right in front of your eyes (jokes, there’s no disemboweling really, you’re eating every part of that lil sea creature), it’s about the freshest catch of the day you’re going to get.
The daily performances are a bit of a gimmick (a song and dance for the gimpy tourists, before they plunge into the icy depths for a bit of a splash around before ultimately coming back with little to no bounty) but considering these women all look about 65-80 years old, I was impressed nonetheless.