THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

Jeju Island, South Korea

If a tiny, talkative South Korean man befriends you on the overnight ferry from Seoul to Jejudo, by all means speak with him. Had I not been chatty with the kindly Mr. Noh, we would've sat out the coming two-day storm in a hotel. Instead, we were guests at this 70-year-old retiree's tangerine plantation in Seogwipo.
Jeju Island, just off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, is famous for two things: its tangerines, and a picturesque landscape that merits comparison to a certain group of American islands. This vacation spot is, in fact, known as "the Hawaii of South Korea," and is prized by wealthy sunbathers and honeymooning newlyweds alike. (Spot the latter wearing matching outfits!)
It's not the beaches that should put Jeju on your list. They're notable when compared to the mainland's lush, mountainous terrain. Ask a Greek to sunbathe on this sparse, rocky coastline and you'll get the moussaka kicked out of you. One visits Jeju for the hundreds of secondary volcanic cones (oreum) that poke up from the ground like nuts in a scoop of pistachio ice cream. You might never know that these modest mountainettes hide prizes in their summits. From ground level, they're charming little hills. Climb one, though, and you're likely to find luxurious green overgrowth hidden within their cratered peaks.
Resort-oriented travelers gather in Jungmun in the Seogwipo region, where they sit on the crowded beach or maybe jet-ski and windsurf, maybe even scuba. They stay at the usual hotels at the usual resort-center prices.
Wise travelers strike out for the smaller towns and negotiate with minbak owners. At these small family-run hotels, double rooms start at $25 per night. Some even include kitchen and living room facilities.
That's what we did. We took a bus from Mr. Noh's tangerine plantation to Seongsan on the east coast. There, we woke for the ritual pre-dawn climb up Ilchulbong, the spectacular oreum that typifies Jeju's beauty. We joined dozens of honeymooners for the vigorous 20-minute hike to this extinct volcano's rim. The sunrise was so beautiful, so inspiring, that the newlyweds were soon dashing back down to their minbaks.
That same day, we took the ferry to U-do, an even tinier island off this tiny island's coast, where we rented bikes and cruised the 10-mile coastline, stopping for a swim at each of the three lovely beaches.
Seongsan is also a smart departure point for two of Jeju's more worthwhile tourist attractions: the Manjanggul caves and the Jeju Island shrubbery maze. The former is the largest lava tube in the world, and will appeal to even the most casual spelunker. Bring a jacket and hiking shoes for the frigid, slippery depths of this subterranean passage carved out by molten lava. Just a few minutes down the road is the European-style hedge maze, shaped to resemble the island itself. Don't attempt to navigate its twists and turns without the provided map.
Inspired by Ilchulbong's beauty, we decided to climb up Jeju's centerpiece, Mt. Halla. Depending on the time of year, up to four trails are available. At the summit of this long-dead volcano is the stunning Lake Baengnokdam, whose crystal-clear water is collected in the hollowed cone.
Unless you're spending two weeks here, the time will come to make choices. Consider a day in Jejusi, a city of 300,000 that's large enough to offer a taste of South Korea's urban culture yet small enough to navigate on foot or in an inexpensive taxi. Here, you'll find the Samseonghyeol shrine, where the island's founding demigods are said to have emerged. Despite being little more than a hole in the ground, it's still a worthwhile stop -- if only for the chance to pose with one of four original hareubang, the local equivalent of Easter Island's giant stone heads.
Carved from volcanic rock 400 years ago and placed around the island, some hareubang are imposing while others are whimsical. The remaining 45 have been relocated to government facilities, museums and spots of cultural importance. Thousands more -- carved from the same volcanic rock, just not four centuries ago -- are waiting to hitch a ride home in your luggage.
Jejusi is the point of departure for all flights and most ferries back to the mainland, so this may be your last chance to pick up a carton of tangerines at the terminal, a standard purchase for 80% of all visitors. And why not? It's the least you can do for my kindly friend Mr. Noh, whose continued comfortable retirement depends on it.