Waiting at the gate to board our flight, my boyfriend and I are surrounded by a small group of women in colourful visors and floral vests, a few families and a collection of couples in matching T-shirts. A popular trend in mainland Korea, co-ordinating clothing is de rigueur on Jeju Island: At every sight worth seeing, couples in matching outfits pose - with fingers held in the peace sign - for their tripod-mounted digital SLRs.
Their backdrops are breathtaking. Jeju, known as South Korea's Hawaii, is naturally romantic and positively buzzing with organic energy. The island's annual precipitation of more than 2,000 millimetres (50 per cent more than rainy Vancouver) ensures absurdly lush gardens overflowing with magenta azalea bushes, king cherry and plum blossoms and magnolia trees with thousands of pink and white flowers. Trees and greenery even line rocky cliff faces and sprout up next to Jeju's grand, roaring waterfalls.
Fresh fish, tasty tangerines, white sand beaches and magnificent waterfalls mark this lush, subtropical paradise just an hour by air from South Korea's capital. An almost mystical place, it's filled with natural wonders such as millions-of-years-old lava tubes, a crater lake atop the country's highest mountain - and snap-happy honeymooners who flock to the island with cameras and tripods in tow and return home with thousands of photos and a thorough sex education.
While the island's natural beauty should be aphrodisiac enough, Jeju provides some serious sexual attractions. Surprisingly candid for a country that's fairly conservative when it comes to sex (despite the number of newlyweds, we were never privy to even a peck on the lips), these destinations are meant to make that first night together a little less awkward. Where the Museum of Sex and Health explores sex from scientific, medical and philosophical angles, Loveland is a little freer. Created by 20 art graduates from Hongik Unversity in Seoul, the theme park features a sex-toy store and larger-than-life penis statues and sculptures of couples (and sometimes threesomes) in some pretty explicit postures.
But there is also a selection of quaint, traditionally romantic sights. One of our three nights on Jeju was spent at the luxurious Shilla hotel, where a quiet garden path called "Honeymoon Road" leads to a little bench placed there for "sharing a lover's whisper." And to ensure that honeymoon activities are constructive, legend has it that couples who touch the nose of the bronze pregnancy statue at the gates of the path will have intelligent offspring.
But it's not just honeymooners who vacation here. The 1,845-square-kilometre island attracts millions of visitors each year from across East Asia - its annual number of tourists is almost 10 times its permanent population. While touring the Jeju Folk Village Museum near the ultramodern Haevichi hotel, I was accosted by a group of Japanese visitors who took turns taking photos with me.
One of our favourite characters to photograph was the Dol hareubang , Jeju's symbolic ambassador. Also called the Stone Grandfather, this friendly-looking smiling statue with a mushroom cap hat greets you at every tourist spot. (Loveland, as you can imagine, has its own interpretation of the Dol hareubang .) Carved from porous volcanic rock, these statues were originally placed at village gates to ward off evil, and reproductions of every size can be found everywhere from the airport and your hotel's gift shop to roadside fruit stands.
Jeju's other popular export is tangerines. Often, at breakfast, a glass of tangerine juice is accompanied by abalone porridge made with the exotic shellfish that's abundant in the East China and Yellow Seas surrounding the island.
Luckily, breakfast isn't the only time you'll encounter abalone. The island's cuisine is heavily influenced by its access to fresh fish, and sashimi is as popular here as it is in Japan. If you prefer your fish cooked, the seafood hot pot is a spicy, flavourful stew and is a great accompaniment to Jeju's famous black pork, which we had the chance to sample, seated on floor cushions in front of an in-table barbecue. The proprietor of a tiny restaurant told us what to order and even assembled a black pork lettuce wrap with her bare hands and passed it to my dinner date.
Jeju, like other tropical vacation destinations, is a juxtaposition of these small, family-run businesses in humble neighbourhoods and sprawling, luxury hotels and resorts. And there's a range of manufactured, slightly bizarre attractions - such as the Teddy Bear Museum (which we chose to pass up) and natural, world-renowned sights and activities. For instance, the 7.4-kilometre Manjang-gul ("gul" meaning cave) is the longest lava tube on Earth and one of many UNESCO World Heritage sites on the island.
According to locals and mainlanders alike, Jeju's real treasure is 1,950-metre Mount Halla, known as "a mountain high enough to pull the galaxy." Climbing Halla is a day-long expedition - and should be started early. To ensure tourists make it back to sea level before sunset, hikers are expected to begin their descent by 2 p.m. But energetic, early risers are rewarded with panoramic views of the island and the chance to see the blue sky reflected in the turquoise waters of the unique crater-lake at the summit. After the hike, park yourself in the sand - the island is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Asia. With these natural wonders, and modern luxuries too, it's easy to keep the romance alive.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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GETTING THERE Korean Air flies directly from Toronto or Vancouver to Seoul five times a week. The flight to Jeju from Seoul takes an hour and five minutes; return trip about $135. WHERE TO STAY Shilla 3093-3 Saekdal-dong, Seogwipo-si; 82-64-735-5114; www.shilla.net. From $330. This hotel has a spa-like ambience and features a luxurious Guerlain spa. Haevichi Hotel 40-69 Pyoseon-ri, Seogwipo-si; 82-64-780-8000; www.haevichi.com. From $296. Modern, spacious rooms with bay windows overlooking the ocean and luxurious marble bathrooms. Lotte 2812-4 Saekdal-dong; 82-64-731-1000; www.lottehotel.com. From $300. A family-friendly resort with nightly fire-breathing dragon show and traditional North American decor.
WHAT TO DO Museum of Sex and Health 1736 Gamsan-ri, Ahndeok-myeon, Seoguipo-si; 82-64-792-5700; www.sexmuseum.or.kr. Loveland Road 1139, Jeju City; 82-64-712-6988. Volcanic Tubes (Manjang-gul) Donggimnyeong-ri, Gujwa-eup; 82-64-783-4818. Jeju Folk Village Museum 82-64-787-4501; www.jejufolk.com .
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