The following article recounts a late-summer cycling trip by the author. However, any season is generally good for biking on Jeju. You can find more photos on her blog, processedfishcake.wordpress.com — Ed.
Two hundred kilometers in five scorching hot days, featuring one lost wallet, and five flat tires: but even with our questionable luck, cycling around Jeju was amazing. Our five days also included almost constant beach views, deserted roads even in peak tourist season, a school of dolphins, snorkelling in turquoise waters, and the kindness of many, many strangers.
Highway 1132 goes all the way around the island and has a bike lane for almost its entire length, but the smaller coastal roads are infinitely superior. You do have to use the 1132 for some sections, but keep an eye out for likely-looking roads going off towards the coast. Some are marked as official scenic “coastal drives” but there are also plenty of unofficial detours you can take to stay off the highway and closer to the water.
Before we start, some general tips:
● You don’t have to be a fitness guru to do this. The ride is 90 percent flat and if you give yourself a reasonable number of days it’s really not too difficult. I’m young and in good health, but I don’t do any kind of intense exercise and I had certainly never biked 200 km before. Of course if you have any concerns, you should see a doctor prior to setting out.
● Unless you know what you’re doing, it is probably better to get a mountain bike. There’s sometimes glass and bumps on the road and flat tires are really annoying.
● Besides friendly strangers and bike shops, auto repair or tire shops can sometimes be helpful. However unlike in North America, gas stations don’t normally seem to have air pump machines.
● Jeju’s road signs are quite clear, and you can probably get by with just the free tourist maps. If you want you can get a detailed road map (in Korean) from any big bookstore in Korea.
● Make sure you carry some food because it can be a while between stores on the smaller roads, and if you’re biking in the summer, take plenty of sunscreen.
▲ Writer Marisa Burton’s five-day bike trip around Jeju Island, traveling counterclockwise from Jeju City. From left, biking through Hyeopjae village, Jeju City, at the start of Day 2. Bikes leaning against a mound of grass in Hyeopjae village on Day 2. Patching a flat tire at Moon Guesthouse located a few kilometers from Seongsan Sunrise Peak in Seogwipo City, early on Day 4. Photos by Marisa Burton
Day 1: From Jeju City (near the airport) to Hyeopjae beach – about 30 km
July 30th marked the beginning of our (and the rest of Korea’s) week-long summer break, and by noon we were standing outside a bike rental shop near Jeju International Airport. It was already uncomfortably hot, so by the time we wrestled our small tent and two backpacks onto the bike racks we had worked up quite a sweat. The bike shop owner chuckled to himself over our obvious ineptitude, and gave us two spare inner tubes and a pump, warning us that “It’s important that you can change the tire, because once you leave Jeju City there are no more bike shops.” This turned out to be false, which was lucky for us because we didn’t actually know how to change a bike tire and the pump was broken anyway.
Eventually we set off with one road bike and one mountain bike. The first few kilometers are a fairly uninspiring slog through the outskirts of Jeju City, but once you make it out there’s a nice long section of coast road (the Hagwi-ri~Aewol-ri Coastal Drive). Apparently this part of the coast is quite pretty but unfortunately I don’t know for sure because the cursed road bike got its first of many flat tires just as we finally made it out of the city. Thankfully we were rescued by a saintly stranger who gave us a lift to Hallim and dropped us off at tiny side-of-the-highway bike shop. Flat tires and saintly strangers would turn out to be major themes throughout the trip.
Slightly demoralized, especially when we realized we’d lost a wallet at some point, we stopped for the day at Hyeopjae beach, which is only a few minutes’ ride down the coast from Hallim. Hyeopjae has a handful of restaurants and quite a few hotels, but we decided to pitch our tent on the beach. Lots of people were set up right on the main swimming beach, but we opted for a quieter and less floodlit spot.
Day 2: From Hyeopjae to Seogwipo World Cup Stadium – 60 km
The next morning we said goodbye to our delightful campsite and set off on our longest day. Due to our general lack of discipline it was 11:00 by the time we finally got onto the road and already about 25 degrees. This probably should have made us feel rushed, but we stopped for the many sightseeing spots on offer anyway.
Leaving Hyeopjae we passed through our first bit of small-town Jeju, which consists of low whitewashed houses arranged within a kind of maze of volcanic-stone walls. It was charming as well as a bit confusing, but eventually we made it out. During the next couple of hours we also stopped for a mysterious roadside monument, several huge fields of cacti fruit, some Jeju horses, a memorial hall for early Catholic martyrs, and a walk along some particularly dramatic black volcanic beach cliffs.
By lunchtime we made it to Sindo-ri, which is famous for the lines and lines of pink-and-white squid being dried in the sun. We bought some snacks including an impossibly chewy dried squid and watched Jeju’s famous diving women (called haenyeo) at work for awhile.
Sindo-ri is a good spot for a break because it also happens to be at the bottom of Suwolbong, the first steep climb of the ride. To continue around the island you only have to go partway up before descending around the back, but we made the 10-minute detour up to the peak anyway. There’s a nice view down from the cliff and another little snack stall.
The Suwolbong climb is really very short though, so before long we were coasting back down into the flatland and towards the water. The next 9 km were an easy ride along flat, quiet coast roads. The beach along this section is all lava rocks, and we saw a few people lounging around in the big tidal pools. We also saw an entire school of dolphins quite close to shore – a couple of them even jumped right out of the water! The locals seemed completely unimpressed by the dolphins and more amused by our excited picture-snapping.
When you get to Daejeong-eup you can use one of several roads to cut across more directly into Seogwipo City, but we stuck to the coast road which brought us down through a couple of tiny towns and out to that very southeastern nub of Jeju. We saw some more older diving women and got a nice view of some of the tuff cones [a small, steep volcanic cone]. There’s another short climb as you come out of the nub past Sangbangsan but you can take a rest at the temple that’s at the top of the oreum.
Once we got past Sangbangsan we were stuck on the 1132 for the next couple of hours. There are a couple of smaller roads you could try with a bit of a detour (not really coast roads though) but it was starting to get late in the day so we decided to just press on to Seogwipo City. There are a handful of long (but not very steep) hills in the first half of this section, and combined with the traffic and stop lights it wasn’t a particularly fun few kilometers. The road bike also got its second flat tire about five minutes short of the stadium. Having watched the process back in Hallim, we succeeded this time in switching out the tubes only to find that our pump didn’t work. At this point it started pouring rain so we just locked the bikes, flat tire and all, and retreated for the night into the World Cup Stadium’s huge jimjilbang [traditional Korean sauna].
▲ Photos by Marisa Burton
Day 3: From Seogwipo to Seongsan Ilchulbong – 55 km
We emerged in the morning feeling clean and rejuvenated but still no closer to fixing the flat. Luckily, a local taxi driver took pity on our fight with the broken pump and informed us that there was pressurized air outside the front gates of the World Cup Stadium (the opposite side from the jimjilbang entrance). We thought we must have misunderstood him at first but sure enough, for some reason there’s a free air machine just sitting at the entrance to the stadium. Problem solved.
Our first stop was only a few kilometers later in Seogwipo proper – Jeongbang Waterfall, which falls directly into the ocean. It was very impressive but also quite crowded. We waded into the water a few steps to cool down with the spray, but sadly there’s no swimming allowed.
There are several unavoidable sections of the 1132 to do between Seogwipo and Seongsan Ilchulbong, but there are also a couple of nice stretches of coastal road. We stopped for a cliff walk near the Sinyeong Movie Museum and later for a swim at Pyoseon beach, which has a big flat sandy beach as well as free showers which are cold but rinse the salt off nicely.
A few hours later, and again only a short distance from our destination, the road bike got its third flat tire. This time, with no more spare tubes, we were really stuck. It was still too far to reasonably walk into Seongsan Ilchulbong so we were basically stranded at the side of the 1132. We turned the bike upside down as a sort of distress signal and, remembering our friendly stranger from day one, started trying to flag down passing pickup trucks.
This probably would have eventually worked but two minutes later we were rescued by two much more professional cyclists from Daejeon. Within five minutes they had taken the tube out, tested for leaks in a nearby puddle, patched the hole, reassembled the wheel, and pumped it back up. By this point we weren’t even surprised when they told us they were biking around the island in two solid days.
We ended up all setting off together, which was lucky because an hour later we had yet another flat. Our new friends dutifully patched the new hole as well but at this point, realizing we were probably too inept or unlucky to survive the next two days, they generously offered to leave us their patch kit since they were finishing their tour that night. In the end we all ended up just down the coast from Seongsan Ilchulbong at the extremely friendly Moon Guesthouse, where the communal dinner, including soju, ensured that we would not be climbing Sunrise Peak anytime near sunrise.
Day 4: From Seongsan Ilchubong to Gimnyeong beach – 22km
The road bike somehow managed to get another flat tire during the night, so our Daejeon friends gave us a lesson in patching it and helped us move the bike rack so that all the weight was on the mountain bike. Then they gave us the kit and glue, counting that there were seven patches left, and waved goodbye looking somewhat sceptical.
Sure enough, by the time we had biked the 15 minutes to the base of Seongsan Ilchulbong the tire was flat again. Thankfully though we spotted a bike shop a block away from the park entrance. Thus our now patch-covered tube was replaced with a brand new one, and in the end either the new tube or the shifted weight solved our problems because that was our last flat tire.
Thanks to yet another late start it was past noon at this point, and Seongsan Ilchulbong was very hot and crowded. We dragged ourselves up the hill to the rim anyway, where there was a nice cool breeze and a clear view down into the grassy crater. We also walked down to the ferry dock hoping to ride scooters around Udo island, but unsurprisingly at midday in high tourist season the scooters were already all booked up. Instead we shared a big bowl of patbingsu [red beans over shaved ice] in a café back near the Seongsan Ilchulbong entrance.
By mid-afternoon we were back on the road. Day four’s ride was only 22 completely-flat kilometers to Gimnyeong beach and all along one unbroken coastal road, which means no need to check a map and no need to see the 1132.
We saw big tidal flats where people were digging for clams, a huge collection of volcanic-rock cairns, a wind farm, and a little fishing park that we didn’t really understand. We also stopped for a quick swim at a couple of the nice sandy beaches, and still managed to arrive in Gimnyeong with time to pitch our tent and shop for groceries before cooking dinner on the beach.
Camping at Gimnyeong beach is organized into two big lots, and you have to pay 10,000 won or so for a spot. You can also rent a tent, but according to the sign it costs something like 50,000 won. Camping at Gimnyeong wasn’t as peaceful as our private corner at Hallim, but it was quite funny since we had never seen a Korean campsite before. I suppose considering the amount of gear the average Korean carries to go hiking we shouldn’t have been surprised, but these tents were like small houses. Most of them had at least two big rooms, with another covered outdoor cooking area, and all equipped with a camp-everything: camp-table, camp-four burner stove, camp-cupboards, etc. How all of this stuff fits into one car I have no idea.
▲ Photos by Marisa Burton
Day 5: From Gimnyeong to Jeju City – 30 km
Despite a rain shower during the night our last day dawned clear and warm as usual, and we were actually up to see the dawn because the plan was to both go snorkelling and cover the 30 km back to Jeju city before the bike shop closed.
So we set off, most of our gear now damp thanks to the rain, but feeling good about our four still-inflated tires. It was only a short ride to the famous Hamdeok, where at the smaller of the two beaches we were able to lock our valuables in shower lockers. It also turned out that the camping lots at Hamdeok are free and arguably nicer than the ones at Gimnyeong.
The larger beach at Hamdeok is really developed, with a park, running track, beach umbrellas, and water toys for rent, and tons of restaurants and convenience stores across the road. We rented snorkels and flippers (you can also get kayaks or SCUBA gear) and floated around lazily for an hour. There isn’t any coral but we saw plenty of fish and after an hour started to feel cold for the first time in five days.
After Hamdeok we savoured our last few kilometers of coastal road before rejoining the 1132 towards Jeju city. We actually did take one more detour off the highway to find the black sand beach at Samyang, and though we never did find the beach the detour provided one last pass by the coast and a nice couple of kilometers through back alleys and small farms. Eventually though we were forced to commit to the 1132, and trying to bike all the way through Jeju City in the middle of the day is not fun. The traffic is unfriendly, there are no bike lanes, the sidewalks are busy, and having to constantly stop for traffic lights makes it slow going and frustrating, especially as it was about 35 degrees.
Finally we made it back to the bike shop, where the owner just laughed when we told him we’d had five flat tires. We were too tired and happy to really care though. We just left him the extra pump we’d bought, got a room in the nearest hotel, and went out to eat obscene amounts of Indian food.
Though it sounds strange, this was a really relaxing vacation. We had already seen most of Jeju’s sightseeing spots on a previous trip, so we didn’t feel like we had to spend every day completing some list of “must-sees.” Not that you can’t combine some sightseeing with a bike tour (a lot of the attractions are near the coast anyway), but Jeju’s coastline is probably the single best sight anyway, and appreciating it from up-close was for us more rewarding than trying to see the maximum number of miniature worlds and teddy bear museums. We felt calmer just pedalling to see what was around the next bend. As the cliché goes, it’s better to focus on the journey than the destination, and nothing proves that quite like biking in a 200 km circle.
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