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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

South Korea's Enchanted Isle

CHEJU ISLAND, South Korea -- At a mountain cave shrine, where Buddhist pilgrims and tourists sip sweet water that drips from the grotto ceiling, a robed monk sits in contemplation of his holy texts.

But he's comfortable shedding his spiritual aura when a visitor proffers a camera and asks him to snap a photo. "Move left," he suggests like a tour guide, his eye pasted to the viewfinder.

Welcome to South Korea's Cheju, a wind-swept southern island pocked with volcanic cones and tangerine groves that has been yielding swiftly to development and commercialism.

The isle, which lies where the Yellow and East China seas meet, has always stood out from the rest of the country. Independent-minded, it is South Korea's only island province.

It's also the nation's most popular tourist destination, a warmer home to beaches, forests and the volcanic Mount Halla, at 1,950 meters the country's highest peak.

History dwells here, too. Mongol invaders bred horses on the island seven centuries ago. Shipwrecked Dutch sailors landed in 1653 and, after enduring more than a decade of captivity, escaped to bring the West its first accounts of the mysterious Korean peninsula.

Today, tourists from nearby China and Japan file into gleaming casinos and five-star hotels. Camera-laden South Korean honeymooners pose - atop rocks before a waterfall, atop sturdy horses in front of a mountain.

In the past few decades, development has carved up swaths of Cheju amid South Korea's swift industrial expansion. Family-owned business groups, known as chaebol, bought cheap land from farmers.

Most are better off, and local officials want to turn the island into a free trade zone such as Hong Kong. A government showcase, it hosts summits and conferences. Visitors have included Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

About 3.6 million people, or six times the local population, visited the island in 1999. Cheju is 70 kilometers long and 40 kilometers at its widest.

A power plant squats across the bay from a promontory popular among hikers. A huge resort complex has overrun the southern town of Chungmun, and there is a proposal to build a cable car stretching up Mt. Halla.

"They should promote the old bed-and-breakfast system for the tourists, so that the tourists can come here without going broke," says the Reverend Patrick McGlinchey, an Irish Roman Catholic priest who has lived on Cheju since the 1950s.

McGlinchey runs a sheep farm and has helped launch a number of community projects over the years: job creation programs, credit unions, a pig cooperative and a home for the elderly.

Traditionally, in contrast to the Korean peninsula, women have had an equal role as breadwinners. Cheju's most famous workers are several thousand women who dive in wet suits for sea urchins and abalone. But the tradition is fading.

The island's savvy moneymaking today disguises an often unhappy past. It was once a penal colony and home of exiles, including the 17th-century King Kwanghaegun, who was ousted and forced to drink a bowl of poison by his usurpers.

Tens of thousands of people died in a 1948 communist uprising against Syngman Rhee, who soon took power as president from an American military government.

Two years later, Soviet- and Chinese-backed communist North Korea invaded South Korea, which was supported by U.S.-dominated forces of the United Nations. That war dragged on for three years.

Last year, the Cheju government sent hundreds of tons of its tangerine crop to North Korea, where bad weather and economic mismanagement have led to years of food shortages.

Lore thrives on Cheju. Rock formations in million-year-old lava caves are named after the dragon, a symbol of good luck. Legends tell of nymphs and snakes, archers and ghosts.

Modern art is on display at the Cheju Art Park, where visitors walk amid tendrils of stone, bronze elongated limbs, bulbous shapes on concrete stands in the bushes. The stroll is peaceful, save for tinny classical music piped over outdoor loudspeakers.

Not far from the park's hilltop snack shop, a bulldozer grinds up the red earth.

How to Get There

Aeroflot flies direct to Seoul from Moscow twice a week for $660 plus tax for a round-trip ticket. Lufthansa has flights daily except Saturday for $950 plus tax. Air France has flights through Paris for $825 plus tax.

From Seoul, Korean Air has about 30 flights a day to Cheju City, the island's main city. Asiana Airlines offers about 15 flights a day. Round-trip fare for the flight of 70 minutes is 138,000 won ($122).

Web sites: Korean Air: Asiana Airlines: Korea National Tourism Organization:

Where to Stay

In Cheju City, the Grand Hotel (82-64-747-5000) has standard rooms with breakfast for 203,000 won ($170) and up, not including a 15 percent tax.

Chungmun resort in southern Cheju: Hyatt Hotel (82-64-733-1234) has rooms with breakfast for 270,000 won ($238) and up. Hana Hotel (82-64-738-7001) offers rooms with breakfast for 135,000 won ($120). The island has an abundance of smaller hotels that charge as little as 25,000 won ($22) a room.

The Cheju Tourist Information (82-64-744-6051) can help with tours, accommodations and car rentals.

What to Take

Summertime mosquitoes don't carry diseases but can be a nuisance, so coils or spray and long-sleeves are advised. Bring light cotton clothing because the island is warmer than the peninsula. In winter, a windbreaker keeps out the chill.