Jeju-do 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. 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 they give the island a unique natural beauty, but they provide insight into 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. The island's beauties attract the largest group of tourists -- 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 Jeju-do's women are famous for more than their beauty. The most interesting women on the island are the haenyeo, the women divers who dive for seafood and seaweed. Although they're a dying breed, their incredible skills (being able to dive to great depths without any scuba gear) are legendary throughout the country.
Although the island is now a vacation spot, it has a long and bleak history. In 1273, invading Mongols 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 subsequently 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 main road 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. 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.