Jeju Island – An Unexpected Delight In South Korea
As I mentioned in my previous post, my desire to go to South Korea started with the Starbucks at Incheon Airport. I had a layover there in 2018, and got a cup of green tea. With the first sip, I found the flavor so delicious I ran back to the counter and asked if they sold the tea. Thankfully they did. I learned it’s called Jeju green tea and I bought a box. Back in New York, running out of said tea, I went to a local Starbucks, only to learn they don’t sell Jeju green tea in America. It was $60/box on Amazon. I decided I’d rather go visit South Korea one day and buy it there. So, I finally did!
Because of my obsession with Jeju’s green tea, I decided I should go to Jeju Island and see its tea firsthand. The flight is a mere one hour trip from both Seoul and Busan. So, I fly to Jeju from Seoul, and plan to go to Busan on my way back. I quickly learn that Jeju often has high winds. My flight there is delayed but we eventually take off and land in Jeju city. Another lesson is that renting a car is a great way to get around the island, but you can’t do it unless you have an international driver’s license. Oops.
I’m spending a week in Jeju and decided to spend half my time in Jeju City and the other half in Seogwipo. I’ve booked two tours – to see the east and then the west of the island – and the tour buses all depart from Jeju City, which is why I’m spending some time there. On my flight to Jeju, I end up speaking with my seat neighbor, Jin, who takes my number and invites me to hang out while I’m there. First order of business – I enjoy a Korean barbeque dinner with her husband and his friends the very night I arrive! It’s delicious, accompanied by Soju and great conversation.
My tours of the East and West side of Jeju Island are nothing short of spectacular. I do a big bus tour for the west, and a smaller mini-bus tour for the east. Along the way, I have spectacular weather and see a huge bonsai park, waterfalls, amazing scenery, and my favorite part – seeing the women divers Jeju is so famous for. What’s surprising about them is that they’re older, 60s and 70s and can hold their breath for up to 3 minutes diving for seaweed and molluscs that they later sell. I’m realizing that I could definitely spend a lot more time in Jeju. Most tourists to South Korea don’t go here, and it’s a pity. And, you do need at least a week to feel like you’ve seen anything, especially with the unpredictable weather.
Of course I also enjoy a visit to O’Sulloc Tea Plantation. It’s the main plantation on the island, but definitely not the only one. The tour stop is too short, so on one of the other days I have free, I take a bus there. (It’s a bit of an adventure, but the tourist office is very helpful with figuring out the bus lines.) They have a cafe where you can taste several of their teas, as well as their famous green tea ice cream and other green tea desserts. There’s also a gift shop where you can buy everything you want, and a short walk down a path later, you’ll also find an Innisfree shop! This is a great way to stock up on Korean skincare because it’s made from local Jeju ingredients, much less expensive than some of the other brands, and, this is a duty-free shop so they take the tax off immediately if you have a passport with you. No need to do anything further at the airport!
Amazing Food & Kindness
My mini-bus tour has only 11 people on board. A few of them used the same guide the day before and want to eat at the black pork barbecue restaurant for dinner because the guide recommended it. Black pork is a specialty specific to Jeju Island. They’re named for their black gristly fur. At the end of the tour, everyone on the bus decides to join in for the barbecue dinner. Our guide, who deserved to go home for the night, volunteers to come with us, and helps us understand how to properly cook the pieces of pork, which still have the gristle attached. It’s delicious! It’s also my first taste of raw, marinated crab which is a delicious delicacy. I can’t get enough of it. He then drives each of us home, now hours after the end of the tour time. We all give him a nice tip to thank him for going above and beyond!
Jin, the woman I met on my flight, and her husband are incredibly kind. They have offered to drive me to Seogwipo! On the day we go, they invite me to their place. It’s beautiful and in a neighborhood I would never have otherwise seen. We have lunch at one of the most amazing resturants I’d never find without them. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and the chef is also an artist, so my bowl of soup is a literal work of art, as well as delicious. (Watch the video at the bottom of this blog post for an idea of how amazing it was!)
On our way to Seogwipo, we stop at the Hello Kitty museum! Jeju is full of many of these theme museums. I’m not sure why they’re there, but you gotta go to at least one! (Check out my article with my top 12 recommendations of things to do on Jeju.) We get to my hotel (Seogwipo Rest Hotel) and my friends tell me they think it’s a love hotel! I didn’t even know these existed, so, now you know, these are a thing in South Korea. It turns out my hotel is NOT a love hotel, but it’s immaculate, comfortable and has a washing mashine in my room! All for less than $30/night. Jeju is even more affordable than South Korea.
I absolutely love Seogwipo. Jeju has really taken me by surprise and, strangely, I could imagine living here. I find a wonderful artist street – Lee Jung Seop Street. There’s a museum with his works, and the street is lined with shops full of locally made items. It’s where I find the green hat that I’ll be wearing for the rest of my time in South Korea.
One of my favorite Seogwipo discoveries is the best kimbap in all of Korea! Well, I have no idea if it’s the best in the country, but it was the best I’ve ever tasted! Oneunjeong Gimbap looks like a hole-in-the-wall, and if you go at the wrong time, there will be a 45-minutes wait for your food. You can’t go wrong for about $3/roll (one is enough if you’re not that hungry) and I suggest trying some different flavors if you have the appetite. The anchovy one was excellent. Seogwipo’s Olle Market has excellent food stalls as well. I discovered a delicious seafood pancake at one of them, where I had my first taste of Makgeolli, a peanut flavored liqueur.
In the center of Seogwipo is one of the main waterfalls, Jeongbang. I decide to walk there. On the way, I see three women with buckets on the rocks. I’m not sure what they’re doing. I continue on to the waterfall and relax for a while. On my way back, there’s a huge crowd surrounding the three women on the rocks. I see they’re preparing food. Oh no! I’ve missed out. I run over and try to understand what’s happening. They are taking what appear to be living molluscs out of the buckets, cutting them, and preparing the slices on plates which everyone is eating. These are the fisher women selling their catch! I don’t understand how it tastes, and I’m the only single person there. I see people are paying about 50 USD for a plate. I don’t know how to order, or ask for a smaller plate. No one seems to speak English. I take some photos and I guess I take too long, because one of the ladies begins yelling at me in Korean. Though I have no idea what she is saying, her body language makes it clear it’s something like, “If you’re not buying anything, get out of here!”
I feel upset at missing out and being yelled at until I meet a nice Korean man the next day who, when I relay the experience, says they should feel badly for their rude behavior, not me. The day after meeting him, I meet a Korean American woman who tells me she gets yelled at by older Korean women all the time, and to just take it in stride. LOL.
The day I take the bus back to O’Sulloc, I notice a beautiful view, not too far out of Seogwipo. I bookmark it on Google Maps. A few days later I have a coffee at Blossom Cafe and when I look at Google Maps, I realize I’m not too far from that bookmarked view I saved! I take a walk over and that’s when I discover the Hwanguji Coastline walk. It’s stunning, and had it not been for that bus ride, I would have missed it. I spend about an hour there between the walking (it’s a steep staircase for part of the walk) and the staring at that gorgeous view.
I have been on the verge of changing my plans and extending my stay in Jeju. There is so much more to see, and with its small size it feels so accessible. However, I want to meet some friends in Busan and have the chance to some more of South Korea so I keep my flight. I decide to take a taxi since I’m a little too far from the bus stop in Seogwipo to go on foot with my bag. The driver keeps staring at me in the rear view mirror. As we drive, he asks me if I would like a morning coffee. I’m trying to understand how he can expect someone going to the airport to want to stop for a coffee. I decline and become uncomfortable. As we progress, it gets windy. When we arrive at the airport the driver insists I pay by credit card and overcharges me and then ignores me. I guess he was insulted. I feel all the more happy I refused a coffee with him!
Once inside the airport, I learn my flight has been canceled due to high winds, and an airline agent tells me to wait for an email which will tell me what flight I’m on. I wait a few hours and then see the lines getting longer, and decide to take action. It ends up being a wise decision, because, apparently, I wasn’t going to get an email, and the only way to be rebooked was with a ticket agent. They want to put me on a flight the next day, but I insist as I’ve paid for my hotel that night already in Busan. Thankfully, I make a 6pm flight out. So long Jeju. I will definitely be back!
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