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The Hawaii Of Korea

Wong Sher Maine

The Straits Times


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Jeju Island’s scenic charm and amusing attractions fascinate Wong Sher Maine even on a rainy day


ON THE day the boys took a bus to climb the tallest mountain in South Korea, the rest of us decrepit dodderers — meaning the old, the very young and the female — settled for inhaling the fresh green scent of a healing forest before moving on to gaze at the most expensive teddy bear in the world.


Yes, there is a $2.1 million Steiff teddy bear all togged out in Louis Vuitton sitting pretty in South Korea’s Jeju Island. (It’s in the teddy bear museum, if you are keen.)


Our nine-person party, aged 5 to 76, visited Jeju Island in June last year. We are simple folk looking for a peaceful vacation, and for us, Jeju won over bustling Seoul by a mile.


Just three to four times the size of Singapore, Jeju Island is called the “Hawaii of Korea” because like Hawaii, both are volcanic and share the same features.


Stand anywhere on the island, throw a stone and chances are you’ll hit one of nature’s masterpieces.


Jeju boasts beaches with powder black sand, lava formations like stacks of crumbly Corinthian pillars, mountains peaking in huge bowl-shaped craters filled with emerald grass, fields of golden yellow wildflowers, waterfalls, cavernous and chilly lava tubes (tunnels formed by flowing lava) and a handful of World Heritage Sites.


Take a long walk
Jeju’s beauty can be slowly and steadily discovered by walking on one of the many Olle trails.


Trails meander all over the island. Some are easy; some are perilous.


The steps up to World Heritage Site Seongsan Ilchulbong peak, for instance, number about 600. Some are steep and hordes of tourists are usually scurrying up and down.


But the sight of the enormous green bowl-shaped crater — the image most commonly used to promote Jeju tourism — is worth the perspiration, especially if viewed at sunrise or sunset.


Trekking in the rain
Then there is Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea, 1,950m above sea level, which theoretically offers stunning views. 


The day the boys (aged 9, 28 and 42) in our group attempted the longest 20km trail to the top, it was freezing, raining and misty.


As they skipped from one wet rock to another, blue ponchos flapping uncomfortably around them, everything they wore got water-logged and icy — shoes, trousers, shirts.


Trekking alongside were old men, aunties with plastic bags, and well-equipped mountain trekkers with poles and Goretex gear. 


The boys almost did not reach the top. They saw nothing but the ground. But then the highlight of a trip is not always the best thing.


Challenge, endurance and suffering ironically made Hallasan the golden highlight for them.


Amusement for indoor lovers
For the less stoic, on days like these when the rain pours down and there is nothing to photograph, Jeju Island is peppered with man-made attractions.


Tea museum, Da Vinci museum, teddy bear museum, folk village museum, women divers museum, ceramics museum, chocolate museum, stone parks, animal parks, theme parks and indoor botanic gardens.


Clearly, the entire island is marked out for tourism.


The attractions require entrance fees, of course. And because there is so much to see, it is crucial to do some research and be aware of what each attraction has to offer so time is not wasted scrambling for information.


Our favourite was the Alive Museum, with a showcase of many optical illusions visitors can pose and take pictures with. Opened in 2012, it looks much like a Greek temple.


After snapping ourselves with the murals, we admired the magic of the artwork which showed us hanging from a building, riding on a bucking bronco and soaring on a flying carpet.


There are no direct flights from Singapore to Jeju Island in South Korea. So fly to the capital Seoul first, and then book a domestic flight to Jeju on a carrier such as Air Busan or Eastar Jet. This allows you to spend a few days in each place.


■ Getting around is not cheap. There is limited public transport, so taxis for tourists are the norm. You can also rent a car with a driver. But unlike in Singapore, it is left-hand drive in Jeju.
■ Arm yourself with a communication device, be it a smartphone with a translation app or a notepad to draw, as most people only speak Korean.
■ When travelling in June, be prepared for the occasional shower.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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