Jeju (old spelling: "Cheju") is a volcanic island located 85km (53 miles) off the tip of the Korean peninsula. The name "Jeju" refers to the island (Jeju-do), the province (which includes nearby islands), and Jeju city (Jeju-si), which can make things a bit confusing for the casual visitor. South Korea's largest island, Jeju-do was formed by an outpouring of lava about 2 million years ago, and 90% of its surface is covered by basalt. In the center of the island is Hallasan (Mt. Halla), the highest mountain in South Korea. Hallasan's peak is a massive crater lake, evidence of the eruption that formed the island. The island and its lava tubes (cavelike formations formed when erupting lava cools) were designated a natural World Heritage site by UNESCO in June 2007. Indeed, Geomunoreum is regarded by some as the best lava tube system in the world. And not only do the lava formations give the island a unique natural beauty, but they provide insight to the history of our planet and its geological processes.
Jeju-do has been called many names in its long history, including the "Hawaii of Korea," a name that I must admit is not completely deserved. Still, its tropical beauty attracts thousands of Korean newlyweds to honeymoon on the island, and in summer months you'll find droves of them, usually tailed by hired photographers, filling hotel rooms and making the beaches something less than a peaceful getaway.
Jeju-do is a different kind of volcanic island. In fact, locals say that its three resources are wind, rocks, and women, and hence Jeju-do's other name, "Samdado" (which translates to the "Island of the Three Abundances"). The island's beauties attract the largest group of tourists there -- Japanese businessmen who are looking to get away from their salary-man lives and enjoy some eye candy while they're at it. And yet, the island's women are famous for more than their beauty. The most interesting women on the island are the haenyo, the women divers who dive for seafood and seaweed. Although a dying breed, their incredible skills (being able to dive great depths without any scuba gear) are legendary throughout the country.
All over the island, you'll notice stone statues known as the dolharubang ("stone grandfather"), which have come to symbolize Jeju-do. The first of these statues, carved from lava rock, was made in 1750 and placed outside of the island's fortresses. Today, 45 of them still exist. The statues, which vary but are generally life-sized, helmet-wearing men, reminded locals of their own fathers and grandfathers (hence the name) who withstood the hardship of the island's natural environment for decades. In 1971, in an effort to make the symbol more uniform and to get it designated as an official folklore item, the statue found at Jeju-mok became the island's mascot. Today, there are hundreds of modern-day replicas and thousands of souvenir versions for sale.
Although the island is now a vacation spot for tourists and honeymooners, it has a long and sordid history. Because of its rough, largely unfarmable ground and its harsh weather, the island was fraught with natural disasters, famine, and epidemics. According to local legend, three demi-gods emerged from three holes in the ground and founded the island's three clans -- Goh, Bu, and Yang. They created the kingdom of "Tamna," which is what Jeju-do was called before it became a part of the rest of Korea, in the early 14th century. The island's isolation led to the development of a different language (still audible in the strong dialect spoken here), architecture (traditional homes here are made of stone and feature thatched roofs that are held in place with rope), and traditions separate from those on the main peninsula.
In 1273, invading Mongols arrived and used the island as a training ground for their horses. It later became the site of a prison for those banished from the royal court, and a fort to protect the rest of the peninsula from Japanese pirates. What little the natives could produce in horses, tangerines, and abalone were taken as tribute taxes for the king.
The Korean War brought more trouble to the island as hundreds of refugees flocked here, taxing its already scarce natural resources. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, the island began its transformation into a tourist destination. The road between Jeju-si and Seogwipo was widened, and transportation improved with increased arrival of boats and planes. This relatively recent modernization and influx of people has brought the island more into the mainstream of South Korean society. Yet, signs of the island's traditions remain, not only in the stone walls surrounding humble houses, but in the open and trusting personalities of the people who populate the island.
Today, Jeju-do is regarded as a tropical island paradise and ideal vacation destination. With its expansive beaches, rocky cliffs, and dramatic waterfalls, Jeju-do is a destination not to be missed.