Airbnb sponsored stays for writers taking the tour, setting me up at Sometimes Jeju, a guesthouse on the coast with a huge picture window above the bed framing a view of the ocean. That night, I fell asleep to the twinkling lights of squid boats out on the horizon and the sound of the crashing waves. The next morning, I was fed a hearty breakfast by the owner, a lovely woman whose family has been in Jeju for generations. Then it was off to the tour, a one-day excursion through Jeju’s nature, history and culture.
You should know up front: This is the kind of tour that gets you outside, walking instead of driving, seeing things at a slower pace and getting plenty of fresh air. There are currently three “A Day Away” Olle tours, one in the east, one in the south, and one in west. While not as strenuous as a hike up Hallasan, our route along the east coast had us walking for a few hours on a mixture of terrain, from forested paths to sandy beaches. The walk culminated in a trip up Yongnuni Oreum, a gently curving hill covered in tall, golden grass lit up by the setting sun(the organizers timed the tour perfectly).
I’m also a fan of travel that highlights the everyday lives of locals and teaches you something about where you are. Our walk was narrated by a guide with extensive knowledge about the history and culture of Jeju, managing to surprise even several native Koreans on the trip with his facts and insights. We stopped in at a female diver’s house and a photography gallery, and made wishes at a forest shrine. When it was time for lunch, we came to a beautiful, old hanok, where a grandmother pulled back the sliding door with a smile. She served us a full lunch made with local ingredients, seasoned with jang (fermented sauces) she made herself. “You could never get this kind of lunch in a restaurant,” a fellow traveler marveled next to me.
Ultimately, the essence of the Olle trails themselves is to bring people into local areas you might not otherwise visit. You might not see stunning waterfalls or magnificent mountaintops—they’re tangerine orchards and small dusty shrines and villages with grandmothers shelling beans in front of their homes. But you get something here that you’ll never get driving around the island just to see the “sights.” And most importantly, these tours are helping change the dynamics of the tourism economy in their own small way: Travelers on Jeju Olle tours support businesses run by locals in small villages and remote areas. One tour organizer even called it a kind of “Olle-nomics.” This is the kind of travel we need more of in Jeju and around Korea.
“A Day Away Awesome Jeju” tours are 80,000 won/person (there is a special discounted rate of 64,000 won/person through December 31, 2015). More information and registration instructions can be found at www.jejuolle.org à Community à A Day Away Awesome Jeju.