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Cheju: Korea's Honeymoon Island : Newlyweds arrive by the hundreds of thousands to 'the place way over there.'

March 22, 1992|ROBERT E. WAITE | Waite lives in Toronto and has been writing on travel for 14 years.

CHEJU ISLAND, Korea — About 60 miles south of Pusan, in the channel separating the Korean peninsula from Japan, there lies a place where honeymoons literally never end.

It is the island of Cheju, a 30-mile-long, 16-mile-wide semi-tropical paradise with a rich history, unique customs and more than enough honeymooning Korean couples in residence on any given day to fill the Los Angeles Forum.

Ask any Korean adults to name an island, and Cheju will likely be the one. Chances are that not only did they honeymoon there, but so, too, did their parents. And for their parents' generation, raised in more traditional times, that one visit to Cheju probably was the only occasion in their lives that they held hands in public, and it was the last time they ate their meals together as husband and wife.

Today, Korean women no longer have to exit the room after serving meals to their husbands. And hand-holding, while not common, raises few eyebrows. Indeed, almost all of the old Korean marital customs have been modified over the past two decades as that nation has rushed relentlessly toward Western-style development.

One tradition that has not changed appreciably, however, is the ritual trek to Cheju, the smallest of South Korea's nine provinces. Each year, newly married couples come by the hundreds of thousands, some traveling by ferry from Pusan, most taking the hourlong flight from Seoul to Cheju City, the island's largest city and the provincial capital. Brides and bridegrooms are in evidence everywhere on the island, the women resplendent in their colorful, traditional wedding costumes, the men attired in conservative business suits.

Korean honeymoon vacations are seldom more than a week in duration and are often limited to a weekend, so much of the couple's short stay is spent traveling around to the island's many scenic spots to be photographed. In fact, on arrival the first thing most couples do is hire a personal photographer who doubles as a driver.

Because the island was created through volcanic activity, it has no shortage of appropriate picture-taking venues, including jagged outcroppings, beautiful beaches, snowcapped mountains, tumbling clear waterfalls, black-lava shelves and volcanic cones.

A cynic might argue that all of this beauty is wasted on couples who only have eyes for each other. Certainly, as travelers from outside Korea are just now beginning to discover, you don't have to be a honeymooner to enjoy Cheju's charm and physical beauty. In many ways the presence of newlyweds simply adds an extra dimension of interest to the exotic flavor of a locale whose name literally means "the place way over there."

My own journey to Cheju Island had nothing to do with marriage vows and everything to do with escaping the cold and heavy rains that I had encountered while on a November visit to Seoul. A Korean friend, Y. S. Lee, sensed after a third day of early winter downpours that I desperately needed a change of scenery.

"Go to Cheju-do," he advised. "It is warm and sunny. It will remind you of Hawaii." Being reminded of Hawaii seemed like a very good idea, so I took Lee's advice.

As is true of most places that are described as being "like" somewhere else, egg-shaped Cheju, or Cheju-do ( do means island), bears some superficial resemblance to Hawaii. Approached from the air, there is no mistaking the island's volcanic origins. As the craggy coastline comes into view you can see the outlines of ancient lava flows and your eye is inevitably drawn inland, and upward, to the 5,850-foot-high cone of Mt. Halla-san, Korea's tallest peak. The fields below are lush and green, with neat patches of cultivation visible.

But Cheju's climate is more extreme than that of a true South Seas isle. In winter, temperatures along the populated coast can occasionally fall into single digits and, due to its altitude, Mt. Halla-san is typically covered with snow during December, January and February.

During all months of the year, the volcanic cone, which last erupted in 1007, is obscured from island-level view about 90% of the time by clouds. So keep your eyes peeled as the flight to Cheju International Airport, on the island's north shore, may well offer your only clear glimpse of its most salient feature.

Once you've arrived at Cheju International, any doubt that you're in a place very much its own disappears immediately. The first thing you're likely to encounter is a primitive, dwarf-like lava carving, with bulging eyes, a huge nose and elongated ears, called a tolharubang , or "stone grandfather." Reproductions of these ancient artifacts, unique to Cheju, are seen everywhere on the island and have become its abiding symbol.

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