South Korea's provocative island emerges as a perfect paradise.
The sun is setting on the East China Sea, and the haenyeo are hauling in the day's catch: conchs and cucumbers, abalone and sea urchins and several pink, palm-sized octopuses, their suction cups clinging to everything in reach. Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered round, mostly restaurant owners replenishing their stock and tourists who, like me, have come to glimpse this treasure of Jeju's past.
A volcanic island 60 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju - formerly Cheju - was for much of recent history a place one did not willingly go. Rough seas and rocky coasts made it ideal for exile, a remote little rock perfect for silencing political foes. Yet that solitude shaped Jeju society in ways the Korean government couldn't control. Even as the mainland embraced a culture of Confucianism, in which women were considered inferior to men, Jeju emerged as a citadel of matriarchy.
Indeed, women ruled. Not only did they vastly outnumber men - three to one as recently as the late-1950s - they did the jobs that men elsewhere would have considered theirs alone. Women plowed the fields, tended the cattle, broke the horses and hauled the heavy loads. Even the houses, made of the volcanic rock littered throughout the land, were built by lady masons. On Jeju, the only place for a man - a real man - was in the home. But the toughest job of all, and long the lifeblood of the Jeju people, was that of the haenyeo, sea woman. Yearround, she spent her days scouring the ocean floor for the conch and abalone so prized by the Japanese. An exceptional swimmer, she could dive to 60 feet and hold her breath for more than two minutes. She braved the cold and the crashing waves, the sharks and the jellyfish. And she was as fearless through it all as her Mongolian forebears, who invaded in the 13th century and stayed for a hundred years.
Today's sea women are no less impressive - only fewer in number and aging fast. Of the 5,650 sea women registered in 2003, down from roughly 30,000 in the 1950s, 85 percentwere over 50 years old. Only two were under 30. That's because modern-day Jeju is a changed place, reliant now on tourism and tangerines rather than products of the sea.
Some 5.5 million visitors arrive here every year, the vast majority of them from Seoul, a mere 45-minute flight away. They come for the mild climate and the unpolluted air and some of the best golfing in all of Asia. They ride the short shaggy ponies, a legacy of the Mongols, and kick back on black-sand beaches at the foot of the snowcapped volcano, Halla-san.
Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes its eponymous national park, Mount Halla is the country's highest peak, its 6,397-foot summit often obscured by clouds. Although now extinct, it was Halla's prodigious eruptions that created the 45-mile island itself. And Halla was also the source of the first Korean people - Ko, Pu and Yang - who, according to legend, were propelled from its lake-filled crater some 5,000 years ago.
Mount Halla may be fine hiking - plenty of people make the trek - but with only a day to spare, I opted for the more gentle-sounding Seongsan Ilchulbong, Sunrise Peak. Located on the far eastern end of the island, the peak, a tuff cone, rises up out of the ocean in stunning sheer cliffs and features a colossal crater on top, ringed with massive, jagged stones. The site offers panoramic views and a welcome breeze, but I would be less than truthful if I didn't acknowledge the role of the ice cream stand in luring me all the way up.
From there, I took a moment to people-watch and ponder the lava-carved landscape below: the rolling green fields, the long winding roads and the vast, windswept stretches so unlike anything in dense, concrete Seoul. Like an army on the march, a group of ajummas - the respectful Korean term for older, married women - had begun charging up thetrail, parasols in hand, their perms still perfect, their husbands struggling to keep up. And honeymooners, conspicuous for their matching shirts, made sure to touch the dolhareubang, grandfather stone, for good luck.
The latter, short basalt statues of smiling, pot-bellied men, are unique to Jeju. Scattered throughout the island, they're either symbols of fertility or gatekeepers warding off disease, and most date back to the 1700s, when Jeju was a kingdom unto itself.
Those days are long gone, but as the country's only special self-governing province, Jeju's autonomy is to some degree still intact. That status, bestowed on the island in 2006, was intended to facilitate foreign investment and commercial activity for the development of a so-called Free International City. The $3.6 billion project, currently underway, seeks to transform Jeju into a kind of Korean Hong Kong, featuring high-tech industry, finance, medical services, higher education and additional resorts.
In the not-too-distant future, tourists wanting a tummy tuck with their sun 'n' surf will be able to get the procedure done in Health Care Town - a 370-acre complex of medical clinics and upscale apartments surrounded by beaches and an 18-hole golf course. And a short drive away, English-only Town, a collection of language schools for up to 9,000 Korean students, will ensure that Jeju's future plastic surgeons are as fluent as their patients.
After descending Sunrise Peak, I made my way back to the Shilla Jeju, one of the Leading Hotels of the World and one of four luxury properties in the Jungmun Resort Complex, Jeju's largest. Before turning in, though, I stepped out on the patio for a snack under the stars - some soju, Korea's ubiquitous rice alcohol, and a plate of fresh abalone. The most succulent of summer shellfish, it was once served as a gift to Jeju's kings. And centuries later, when the Korean government forbade women from diving, gifts of abalone helped officials forget there was a problem.
A harpist played to a crowd indoors, but I could still hear the waves, and I pictured the sea women I'd seen the day before, splitting spiny urchins for a taste of the sea. There's nothing like an island.
Info To Go
Jeju is a two-hour (or less) flight from 18 major cities, including Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai, with 40 daily flights between Jeju International Airport (CJU) and Seoul's Incheon International Airport (ICN) and Gimpo International Airport (GMP). Renting a car is the easiest and, at about $40 per day, most cost-efficient way to get around the island. The Jeju Airport Limousine bus No. 600 departs every 15 minutes, stopping at popular destinations. The 40-minute taxi ride from Jungmun to the airport costs about $30. Visit english.visitkorea.or.kr.