I spent a few days travelling solo on Jeju Island in South Korea. I rented a car, explored the beaches, visited temples, ate some great food and generally just had a lovely time doing exactly as I pleased. Here’s what you can expect if you want to do the same…
It was December, I was road tripping the coast of Jeju Island in my rented KIA Morning. The sat nav beeped manically to alert me to every upcoming speed bump, my stomach was full of cake on cake, and I was pumped to climb Mount Hallasan the next day. As the highest spot on Jeju and a UNESCO site, it was the second reason for my trip.
The first, was that I’d wanted to drive all the way around an island. I’ve always loved the feeling of being on the edge of the world. Knowing that when I stand on that coastline to look out, all there is for miles and miles is sea until my eyes metaphorically meet with someone else looking out, on another coast, far, far away.
And so, after researching how I’d spend my week in South Korea, I decided to dedicate half of it to driving around Jeju Island, off the country’s south coast. The idea that I could complete the circular drive in a few days satisfied my need for a sense of completion. At just 45 miles east to west and 25 miles north to south it would be a mini adventure not one of my many travel friends had accomplished.
I planned to climb Mount Hallasan, relax on the beaches, and indulge in the underrated, as then unknown Korean cuisine.
Turns out, I would fail on all accounts.
Driving around Jeju Island
I wasn’t allowed to pick the car up a minute before my booked time. Cue me sat at AJ Cars, with the car just metres in front of me, and the keys behind the counter until dead on 12. After months of flying in and out of huge airports, I hadn’t counted for the mere minutes it’d take me to exit Jeju International Airport and be ready to drive.
No problem, I could study the map. Locations on Jeju Island are mapped by phone number – it’s the only way you can programme them in the Korean sat nav. Unless, of course, you can speak, write and understand Korean while you’re driving along.
“Do you understand how to use it,” asked the concerned attendant as I fiddled with the sat nav once I was finally in the car.
I didn’t, but I was eager to set off, having embarrassed myself spending at least 10 minutes trying to start the car before I called them over to show me what turned out to be a simple ‘start’ button.
I told myself I’d work the sat nav out later. ‘Later’ turned out to be day 3 of my four-day trip.
Google Maps doesn’t work in South Korea you see. They haven’t granted them their map data and so you use ‘Naver’ – which I hadn’t got along with walking the streets of Seoul, never mind driving the roads of Jeju.
But, with a rough route plotted on the map, some phone numbers written out, I was ready to go.
READ MORE: My Complete Guide to Road Tripping on Jeju Island is here
Gwakji Beach and Aewol
My first stop was Gwakji Beach. God it felt good to be by the sea and out in the open after four days in Seoul. The foaming waves lapped at the black stones that I was currently stepping over. I ran along the sand, surprising myself with the sudden boost of energy the sun and the beach brought me.
After Seoul public transport, the freedom of my own car was invigorating.
I left for the small fishing village of Aewol. Parking up in the tiny car park I handed over a few South Korean Won to a lady who may or may not have been an official parking steward. The fact I didn’t pay for parking anywhere else on the island could suggest the latter.
Aewol Beach area was cafe after cafe. A sheltered cove in the centre of the village had a string of octopus carcasses drying out in the sun, while kids paddled nearby. Korean day trippers wandered the coastal path while all I could think of was how hungry I was, having skipped breakfast.
Following the higher view, as I had nothing else to guide my way, I ended up at the famous Montsant Cafe – run by K-pop star G-Dragon (GD). This was my launchpad into the strong cafe culture of Jeju Island. I sat out the front with cake, while Korean fashionistas put on a show for me, and all their Instagram followers too.
I had a lot to cover in my 4 days, and if all the villages were as scenic and cute as this, a lot to see, too.
Driving in Jeju
The best thing about driving around an island is that you can’t really go wrong. You just follow that coast. There’s the joy of exploring a new charming little road when you see it, and the fun of trying to get back out of it again too.
Driving on Jeju is slow. There’s one road that goes 70km/h but most are 50 and the signs make you slow down to 30 about half a mile before a roundabout. That’s 30km/h not mph.
I felt safe.
I stayed at the Olleyo Resort that night for less than £20, complete with a bath in my room overlooking the gardens. It was here that I managed one of my few proper meals of the Jeju trip, Heuk Dwaeji Gui (black pork BBQ) – with all the sides as traditionally served in South Korea.
I bathed and went to bed. Tomorrow was for Mount Hallasan, and I wanted to be rested.
READ MORE: The Best Places to Stay on Jeju Island
I woke up to rain.
Mount Hallasan is a dormant crater right in the centre of Jeju island, with a lake on top. It’s a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve, surrounded by another 368 volcanoes, and apparently it’s an incredible sight.
I say ‘apparently’ because I didn’t actually make it up there.
I could cite many excuses, all valid: it was raining, I hadn’t properly prepared, I’d be on my own, I didn’t have the right equipment, would there even be a view in this weather?
Essentially, something just didn’t feel right, and I chose to listen to my gut feeling.
Instead, I consoled myself with a misty view of Mount Hallasan from the 360 degree window of the 38-metre observation tower at the Yeomiji Botanical Garden.
I explored the impressive Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls instead – three different waterfalls, each one bigger and better than the last.
The epic bridge led over to the Jungnum Complex – a tourist area filled with museums on everything from teddy bears to K-pop to one of those Believe it or Not Museums. It was filled with the novelty factor I’d come to learn the average Korean loves so much.
I drove back to the coast, in search of some lunch. I attempted to get the Korean favourite of abalone and porridge – sea snails. I wasn’t fully committed to my order in the first place, and when two specialist restaurants told me they had none left, I was relieved to give up. Tangerine and carrot cake it was then. Tangerines are in season in Jeju in December, you can’t fail to miss the fields of them growing from the roadside.
That night I was staying in Seogwipo, the second city on the island after Jeju City.
Home to the Chilsimni Food Street, I was excited to get stuck into some local food. Beyond a bibimbap I was stumped on what to order, still. I’d done the Korean chicken and chips in Seoul, and seeing as I was at the beach, seafood seemed right.
As I wandered I saw a lady come out of a restaurant with a two pronger grabber in hand. She stabbed with precision at the huge tank of live eel outside. I stopped in my tracks as she held it up victorious – eel still squirming – ready to take inside for her hungry customers.
Fresh, but not for me.
The Haenyeo women
The next day I was up and out ready for the eastern point of my anti-clockwise Jeju road trip. This was where I’d find some of the most iconic locals on all of Jeju: the Haenyeo women divers.
Every day the Haenyeo women divers dive for mollusks, seaweed, and other sea life from the ocean. The women are generally 60+ and dive without tanks to harvest the marine delicacies from below.
One of the most popular spots for it is around the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, aka Sunrise Peak. A 182-metre high tuff cone, with a bowl like crater. Another iconic thing to do on Jeju, but another thing I didn’t – this time it was closed due to the high winds.
I stayed nearby though, with a view from my floor to ceiling window, from my bed. With all the rain outside it seemed the perfect way to see it.
Road trip round Jeju Island
The next morning the rain had cleared, so I headed for the beaches on the north coast. Cake for breakfast again, as the cake shop was the only place open.
Cruising that incredible coastline around Woljeongri Beach I just felt so free. It was December: the waves were high, the skies dramatic and I knew we were feeling the calm after the storm, and before the next one. I loved the drama, safe from the warmth of my car. I reckon autumn in South Korea would be so beautiful too.
There was one last call I wanted to make, to the Bukchon Dol Hareubang Park. Dol Hareubangs are a strong feature and force in Jeju, as you’ll see around the island. The statues are known for their good luck and Koreans place them near graves to calm the spirits.
I wandered around, took a few pics, and marvelled at yet another world I knew nothing about.
Jeju Island had been a journey. One I’d admittedly gone into with faith and minimal planning, but no matter how much planning you do, you can’t control the weather.
Four days in Jeju solo
Back in the car to the airport, I thought about the sights I’d seen over the last four days in Jeju. I hadn’t seen a western tourist, and barely spoke to anyone. The road trip had been reflective, quiet yet just what I needed as a calm adventure away from normal life. I may not have eaten live eel, or climbed Hallasan, or even the Sunrise Peak, but I’d had my own journey unmarred by the influence of those before me, on my terms, and eaten some damn fine cakes (for breakfast and dinner) along the way.