Jeju Island is the honeymoon capital of Korea and therefore "kid-friendly" doesn't immediately come to mind, but my family and I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days there while my dad (who was turning 60) and his extended family golfed the days away. So the four of us (including our 5-year-old and 2-year-old), along with my sister and cousin, were given a guide and a tourbus, free to roam the island as we wished. We knew taking the kids to the typical folk villages and temples would result in mutiny, so we asked our guide to take us to kid-friendly destinations. We ended up having a fantastic time, and there is definitely more than enough to experience for me to wholeheartedly recommend Jeju Island as a family vacation spot. Here is a summary of where we went:
Our first stop in Jeju was a butterfly and insect museum, and it turned out to be a real treat for the kids. The first wing we visited, Parody World, consisted of dozens of whimsical dioramas created from preserved insects, including scenes from famous movies and a self-explanatory rock band set-up simply titled, "The Beatles." The best part, however, was Live World, where visitors can hold and take pictures with a variety of cute, fuzzy, and not-so-fuzzy animals. The kids cuddled up with bunnies, hamsters, parakeets, cats, hedgehogs, and even a stag beetle. As you can imagine, there were plenty of Kodak moments, and even the adults couldn't resist oohing and ahhing over all the cuteness thrust into their hands. Apparently there's an actual butterfly house as well, but we missed it. I'm sure that's even more magical.
Sebin White Sand Beach
This beach rivals any you can find in Hawaii. The sand is so white and fluffy, the sea a milky jade green, and during low tide the water forms a natural kiddie pool, never exceeding 2 feet in depth, perfect for our little ones. Our two-year-old, Emily, especially loved wading through the water and squealed with glee when tiny fish kissed her toes. There was also horseback riding available, and the horse lady brought with her a young foal who ran around the beach like an excited puppy.
Goldenhill Herb Farm
This little farm and restaurant really reminded me of Berkeley with its laid-back naturalism. Their specialty is a huge hamburger about a foot in diameter. The bun is made in-house, an herb-laced sponge dough that reminded me of slightly-sweet focaccia, and stuffed with a Korean-style patty and lettuce, tomato, sweet pickle, onion, and even thinly-sliced apples, all doused in this herby goo that was absolutely delicious. While they cook this masterpiece for you, you are treated to some fresh herb tea while the kids can wander the garden, fully visible from the windows.
I have always wanted to ride an elephant, I never thought my wish would come true in Jeju of all places! Since they're not indigenous to Korea, these Asian elephants and their mahouts were brought over from Laos. My husband, who rode elephants in Thailand, warned me that I might not enjoy seeing these wonderful creatures being whipped into compliance, but I was happy to report back that these men at least did not use whips, but rather nudged behind the ear of the direction they wanted the elephant to go with their knees. They also hold a few shows a day with the elephants and a variety of other animals. During the ride, I also got to see "backstage" a bit and the elephants seemed relaxed and well cared-for, fooling around with water and snacking on dandelions.
There are Go-Kart tracks sprouting up all over the island, and the one we went to had no problem with our small kids going along for the ride, although they did request that the 2-year-old not drive her own car. What a bunch of fuddy-duddies, right? Gotta love Korean safety standards. They did, however, provide helmets and a brief safety demonstration. We decided to have the kids ride with a parent, and although both had a great time, something about the racing brought out the Steve McQueen in Emily. She set her jaw tight the whole time, squinting at the track, speaking only to bark at me to go faster. Who knew this little girl had such a need for speed?
Jeju is famous for their breed of wild horses, some of which still roam free to this day. However, there are many opportunities to go horseback riding on some very well-trained domesticated horses all around the island. A word of warning, though: there is definitely a wide range of animal husbandry standards, and if you're at all concerned at how the horses are disciplined, make sure to ask around. At the first place we went to, the horses cowered whenever they saw their trainer, and with good reason: once he got the pack into the woods, my husband reported that he whipped the horses quite heavily. The second place we went to did no such thing, so hopefully this guy was an exception.
Jeju is famous for its unique varieties of fish and shellfish as well as its tropical produce, but if you eat pork at all, the pork belly (sam gyup sal) is second-to-none! Our guide took us to this unmarked building that looked like a house, and inside there was a Korean grandma and 3 tables with grills installed. Right as we sat down, she presented us with the most gorgeous strips of pork belly I had ever seen, apparently from Berkshire (sometimes known as kurobuta or simply "black") pigs from the next town over. She also had homemade kimchis, ssam jang, and home-grown lettuce to accompany the sizzling meat, and I seriously thought I was going to die from the yumminess of it all. She even made some noodle soup for the kids, and showered them with kisses.