Every summer for 4 years in a row, my son and I spent our vacation cycling around Jeju Island in South Korea. It’s just over 200km to ride the circumference of the island and the first trip was when Seb was just 7 years old; he rode his Huffy BMX bike the whole way. Jeju Island is a wonderful place to explore by bike. It has heaps of beautiful scenery, volcanoes, beaches, orange orchards, submarine rides and more cheesy tourist attractions than you can imagine. Think Hawaii meets Las Vegas transplanted in North-East Asia…then add great bicycle facilities – that’s Jeju Island.
The most recent trip was a couple of years ago, when we finally convinced my wife to join us and did the ride as a family. While it’s possible to cycle around Jeju Island in 2 days or less (if you’re the sporty type), we enjoy slow travel and wanted to relish every moment and savour every part of the island. We cycled really slowly and stretched the trip out over about 2 weeks. We took the scenic route and deliberately chose longer alternative routes around the island so that we would pass by the things we wanted to see. The idea was to have a relaxing and down-to-earth 2-week vacation rather than to tick off an athletic conquest. We were simply using our bikes as a conduit for that journey. We took along a Canon SLR camera, a Go-pro and some audio equipment and interviewed people along the way – fellow travelers, café owners, locals, visiting artists and people searching for a change of lifestyle. To see the fascinating people we interviewed you can watch our film here. This is mainly an account of the actual journey around Jeju Island.
Day 1 Jeju City
From Seoul we took the KTX to Mokpo and the next day caught the ferry to Jeju Island and stayed in Jeju City. One of our favourite things in Jeju City is a spring fed fresh water pool on the edge of the river. The actual river itself is a bit dirty but the pool is kept separate from the river by a stone barrier. It’s crystal-clear and icy-cold – so cold in fact that if you dunk your head, you get a near instant headache. It’s become a kind of tradition for us to take a dip in the pool when we’re in town.
After our morning dip, we spent the rest of the day wandering around the markets and parks of Jeju City, and finished with another of our Jeju City traditions – McDonalds for dinner, eaten on the stone steps of the waterfront at sunset. On summer nights, it’s a lovely place with an enchanting atmosphere. The sunset is an explosion of pink, orange, yellow and red while out at sea the prawn boats twinkled like extravagant stars. We ate our burgers and watched other holidaymakers out enjoying the warm evening – strolling, riding bikes, fishing and walking dogs.
Day 2 Sineom-ri
In the morning we were thrilled to start out, knowing we had weeks of nothing but cycling, eating and swimming ahead of us.
The first part of the ride out of town is beside the ocean and just beautiful. Soon the route joins the main road for a bit… which is not so beautiful – we had to ride in heavy traffic including trucks and buses and there is almost no shoulder at all. Thankfully, in a few kilometres we were out of the traffic and back on the coastal road. About 17km out of Jeju City the landscape becomes peaceful and feels remarkably empty – the narrow road winds through a world of tumbled stones, waving grass and the sea – it felt like riding along the edge of the world.
For our first night on the road we found a pleasant little minbak guesthouse that was basically the upstairs room in an old lady’s house. It had a pine-clad interior and was clean and tidy with a beautiful view of the neighbouring fields. We unloaded, then rode our bikes down to the sea to cool off in another fresh mineral water spring right next to the ocean.
Day 3 Geumneung Beach
The following morning the sun was really hot and it was incredibly windy. It was no ordinary wind – it was an omnidirectional, bike-seeking headwind. No matter which direction the road turned us in, the wind was blowing straight in our faces. By mid-morning we were all grumpy – unfortunately the wind lasted all day and so did our grumpiness.
We camped in a beautiful park-like campsite just a stones throw from Geumneung Beach. Unfortunately it stayed hot and humid all night – too much so for comfortable camping. We all sweated the whole night through and spent quite a lot of time chasing a handful of mosquitoes that had managed to sneak into our tent. It was a not very good night’s sleep to cap off a pretty rough day of riding.
Day 4 & 5 Gosan-ri
An early morning swim in the clear waters of Geumneung Beach cleared our heads and reset our minds. We rode the tiny coastal road along a flat, dry and rocky section of coast. Brown tussock grass swayed and thrashed endlessly in the wind and there were dozens of huge white wind-turbines. Mid-morning we stopped at a charming little café appropriately named Café Param (Café Wind). It’s a renovated two-story house perched right next to the sea in that flat and desperately barren landscape. Here we feasted on delicious Jeju Pork (a regional delicacy) hamburgers and perfectly brewed iced-coffee.
We found ourselves near Gosan Port in the late afternoon. There are no beaches nearby – the main tourist attraction is boat trips to Chagwi Island and the beautiful rocky coastline. We found a room in a shabby motel-style minbak for $30 a night. It was on the edge of the tiny town – old, sleepy and windswept. Our room was large, clean and furnished entirely with stuff faded to a uniform shade of brown by the sun. We were the only guests and had an amazing view of the sea. We loved it so much we stayed for two days. That night we had an unexpected visitor- a giant centipede (8 inches!) that had stowed away in Emma’s bag when we camped! Luckily no-one was hurt and I bravely dispatched the beast.
Day 6 Hwasun and Sambang Mountain
We decided to cut the south-western corner off of the island and went inland towards Hwasun on the south coast. We got an unpleasant reminder of the dangers of the road when we stopped for lunch. On our way into a roadside restaurant, we passed two middle-aged men on their way out – they were tottering and stank strongly of alcohol – we watched them clamber unsteadily into their truck and drive off.
The last part of our ride that day was some of the most beautiful of our whole trip. We took a scenic detour along dirt farming tracks through meadows and tiny villages. The fields were freshly plowed and the roadside vegetation was lush and green with loads of dragonflies and other attractive insects buzzing in the air. Sambang Mountain – one of the most beautiful peaks we’ve ever seen – was draped in fingers of mist. It loomed on the horizon dramatically, always in front of us – it’s miraculous inverted-bowl shape and the steepness of its slopes almost beyond belief.
Day 7 Donnaeko and River Camping
In the morning of the next day, we stopped at a small river in a gorge carved deep into the volcanic rock and discovered a park showcasing the unique eco-system of the Jeju’s rocky river valleys – they are like little veins of rainforest sheltered below ground level. They’re packed full of lush trees, ferns, moss and flowers, as well as being home to many unique creatures including spiders, frogs and birds.
Afterwards, we rode on busy and noisy roads that are typical of that section of the island. We finished up Donnaeko a little bit uphill and inland from the coastal route– we’d located a campground on the map – but when we got there we found it was just a small field right next a large and busy road. The space was crammed with tents for hire with only a few centimetres of space between each tent. Pop music blasted out of loudspeakers – it was so loud that we could hear it before long before we could see it. There was no way we were spending the night there.
It was time for Plan B. We turned around and followed a tiny little farm road along the side of a forested creek for a couple of kilometres. Soon we found a perfect grassy little campsite by the river. It was a long way back from the road and there were no houses nearby. The river turned out to be almost dry but incredibly beautiful with huge water-sculpted boulders, some as big as cars. It was quite spectacular.
Day 8 Pyoseon
The next morning we had no food for breakfast – we’d hoped to come across a convenience store fairly quickly, but we couldn’t find one anywhere … so we rode hungry. At lunchtime we finally found a little Donkatsu restaurant and gorged ourselves with a complete lack of decorum.
In the afternoon, we waded and paddled on an empty sandy beach and soon found ourselves surrounded by huge schools of tiny red fish like anchovies. They thrashed and dashed all around us while larger fish, several feet long dashed through the school, hunting them. Some even leapt out of the water around us in their feeding frenzy – it was quite magical experience, though slightly unnerving. I couldn’t help thinking about what larger predators might be out there in the water hunting for their lunch, attracted by the small fish but not indifferent to the taste of Australian cyclist.
Day 9 Songsan Ilchulbong
Another day of riding brought us to Songsanpo in the East coast and it’s iconic mountain Songsan Ilchulbong or Sunrise Peak. We climbed the famous volcanic steam vent and watched a hazy pink sunset from the lip of the crater. It was crowded, but not crowded enough that the magic of the place was entirely lost – despite the crowds of tourists, the mood was overpoweringly peaceful and somehow sacred.
Day 10 Udo/ Cow Island
In the morning we took the ferry to Udo a nearby island. It’s a lovely place with an ancient landscape of stone walled peanut fields, old stone houses and a small forest – there are several beaches on the island and they are all stunning. They look like the sort of thing you see on travel brochures for the Mediterranean. We visited the island’s tiny Buddhist temple on a whim and the friendly monk invited us in and fed vast quantities of tea and chatted to us for ages. He introduced us to some of his friends who took us for a drive all over the island, then we met a visiting Japanese Butoh dancer, Masamichi Shibasaki who even gave a small performance in the garden of the temple. It was a magical afternoon – one of the most amazing ever. It was a timeless and wonderful thing to watch Mr Shibasaki perform slowly and gracefully in his simple white robes with no music but the sound of the wind.
Day 11 Gimnyeong Beach and Manjanggul Lava Tunnel
The weather clouded over and become hazy but still hot for the last few days of our ride along the wind-blasted northeast coast. At Gimnyeong Beach we joined the holiday-making crowds and swam in blue water with perfect white sand. The next day we rode south away from the ocean and visited the Namjongul Lava Tunnel – a huge cathedral-like cave that was formed by flows of molten lava when the island was a live volcano – now it is very large, very cold, very dark and very impressive.
Day 12 &13 Citrus Orchards and back to Jeju City
We finished our ride by abandoning the popular coastal route and riding inland to Jeju City through thick subtropical forests, interspersed with villages and gorgeous citrus orchards.
We sailed back to mainland South Korea the next morning on a ferry crowded with Chinese tourists. Our minds were still buzzing with all of the rich experiences of the past two weeks – the friends we’d made, the amazing things we’d seen and the stories people had shared with us. Our SanDisk memory cards were crammed full with many gigabytes of beautiful footage and fascinating interviews just waiting to be turn into a film. We were sad to leave Jeju but were exhausted and pretty pleased about what we had accomplished as a family.