The 5,500-mile journey from the UK to South Korea is taking its toll. Our deeply jet-lagged minds are trying to work out how to transfer from Incheon International airport in Seoul to the brilliantly named Gimpo airport to the west of the city.
It’s ridiculously humid, there are people running in every direction and all of the signs are written in Korean, which is akin to posting information in Martian to these bamboozled brains.
We do what any right-minded Brit would do and hail the nearest cab, point at the tickets for our second flight of the day and hope that the taxi driver can get us there before we have a nervous breakdown.
Our final destination is Jeju Island – a tropical paradise that’s popular with millions of tourists who flock from South Korea’s largest cities and China to enjoy the tropical climes, sandy beaches and numerous historical attractions each year.
Admittedly, it’s not the most obvious place for a road trip (it’s possible to drive from one side of the island to the other in around an hour) but this place is worth a visit for two reasons: it offers some seriously dreamy, untapped surf and the Jeju government is spearheading a campaign to rid the place of all fossil fuel-burning vehicles by 2030.
The seed for this idyllic and distinctly electric future was sewn in 2014, when the Korean island – which itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – hosted the International Electric Vehicle Expo, where officials of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province mapped out plans for a completely carbon-free future.
WHERE TO STAY
Jeju Regency Hyatt
Hotel class: Five stars
Located right at the very heart of Jeju’s burgeoning surf scene, the Jeju Regency Hyatt offers bags of nostalgic luxury with all the mod cons you could possibly want.
The grand entrance hall and art deco lifts make for a nice spot to sip on a few locally-sourced beers, while the rear of the hotel offers an expanse of swimming pools, lawn areas and boardwalks down to Jungmun beach.
Jeju isn’t cheap and while the food is tasty (we’d recommend some of the spicy fried chicken from the bar menu), it’s also hugely overpriced, especially when paid for with a weak pound.
The island is small, so we’d highly recommend renting a car, which can be done from the hotel or at one of the many rental places around Jeju City. It’s worth asking hotel staff for help with this, because English isn’t understood by many.
Price: From £120-£230 per night
In short, Jeju is at the forefront of the alternative fuel movement, with the likes of Copenhagen and the state of Hawaii looking to replicate the programme in the near future.
As a result, it seemed as good a place as any to sample the future of road tripping.
So we loaded up an EV with boards and embarked on the greatest test of any vehicle’s grit and character: the quest for waves.
We meet our fixer friend, Mr Pete Park (essential if we are to understand anything) at the invitingly peaceful Jeju International airport and he explains that he chaperones plenty of film crews and cruise ship parties but rarely sees westerners travel this far for such trivial reasons (to test a car and potentially surf).
But why not? Jeju itself sits in the warm Korean Strait and is known for its beach resorts, volcanic landscape, great weather and relaxed atmosphere. The similarities with Hawaii’s O’ahu – certainly in terms of scenery – are striking and the East China Sea is often battered by typhoons and ocean storms that create regular, surf-friendly swell throughout the summer months.
That’s before we mention the brilliantly empty roads that snake across the island with breath-taking and often mountainous vistas awaiting those travellers willing to put in the miles.
A Tesla Model S or a BMW i8 would be perfectly suited to such a place – and we saw plenty of these in the profligate parts of Jeju City – but we’ve plumped for a much more sensible mode of transport: enter the mighty Kia Soul EV.
“The Kia/Hyundai dynasty has a big part to play in the electrification of the island’s transport”
Have we lost you? Is this the point where you close your browser and vow to never visit Flat-Out again? Well, don’t be too hasty because the Soul EV was an early entrant into the electric vehicle market, bettering the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe in terms of range, comfort and practicality, yet remaining relatively affordable.
Also, the Kia/Hyundai dynasty has a big part to play in the electrification of the island’s transport, supplying a large majority of the EVs and battery-powered public transport that will soon be the only thing allowed to grace the roads.
“Through incentives and tax benefits, we want to reach ten per cent total EVs by 2017, which is around 290,000 units on the road,” explains Mr. Dong-Hee Kim, head of the Strategic Industry Promotion Division for Jeju. (We interviewed him afterwards; he wasn’t just along for our road trip.)
“That number will reach 40 per cent by 2020, which is an additional 135,000 units, and the third stage is to reach 100 per cent by 2030.
“EV purchase support will be maintained but gradually reduced until 2020, and the support will be removed at the beginning of 2021.
“But we have various plans to expand EV usage in Jeju, including optimising charging stations, establishing dedicated EV parking locations and reducing EV parking fees,” he adds.
WHERE TO DRINK
The Goofy Foot Surf Bar
A trip to the bright lights of Jeju City is a must and while you’re there, check out The Goofy Foot Surf Bar located on University Street. It’s only really noticeable thanks to a half-broken surfboard hanging outside, but climb down the tight stairwell and it’s a different story.
The bar is packed with craft ales, while pub games litter the bar and 90s surf films play on a large projector. Owner and proprietor Heo-Yong-Kwon is a surf nut and will happily share his stories with anyone who will listen.
Arguably busiest at the weekends, the dimly lit underground joint acts as a cool hangout for those into surfing, skating and the surrounding scene but it also attracts an array of young folk looking to shoot some pool or have a drink.
Tol Harubang. It means stone grandfather in Korean and the rocky carvings are absolutely everywhere on Jeju. These humble looking chaps can be found on roundabouts, in front gardens and outside shops and they’re supposed to bring good luck to the islanders.
Rub his nose and women will become mothers to a baby boy, pull his ear and you get a girl.
We pass several as we walk from our hotel room, through a maze of cobwebs and dangerous looking tropical spiders, towards Jungmun Beach, which we’re told is the surfing epicentre of the island.
It’s beautiful. An expansive half-crescent cove with a couple of large hotel complexes overlooking the ocean, which we failed to notice during our late-night drive the evening prior.
The Soul EV proves to be a good companion for such a journey, with plenty of room inside for three adults, camera equipment, luggage and boards on the roof, while the near-silent powertrain is popular with those trying to catch up on sleep.
Admittedly, the large battery packs do eat into the boot space, meaning we’re forced to carry luggage on the spare seats and this rental Soul was plagued with a decidedly firm ride.
Perhaps a result of beefed up suspension, which is required to deal with the added weight of the batteries, or simply an issue with this car (we certainly didn’t notice the ride being this bad when we tested the car in the UK), every speed bump or pothole sends those in back crashing towards the car’s roof.
But relaxed and refreshed after a good night’s sleep, we decide to point the fully-charged Soul EV towards the centre of the island and check out some of the vistas it has to offer.
The volcanic landmass is littered with craters, lava caves and impressive mountain summits, most of which boast some staggeringly beautiful roads that snake their way up into the clouds.
Our first journey takes us to the centre of the Hallasan National Park, via the pleasingly empty route 1139. The Soul EV might not be the sprightliest machine on the planet but it’s difficult not to giggle at the riotous understeer experienced through every corner.
It’s possible to tip the car into a corner and physically feel it roll and scrub its tyres before using the electric motor’s bags of torque to drag you out of the other side. The trick is to nail this manoeuvre before the nannying traction control systems kick in.
All buffoonery aside, Jeju is rapidly becoming a dream driving destination, with barely anything on the roads outside of Jeju City. Granted, the logistics of getting an entertaining vehicle out here would be the stuff of nightmares but it would be well worth it.
Storms and surf
The rest of the day sees us trundle along route 1132, exploring the craggy southern coastline, with a stop off at surfing hang out The Stone Cafe in the Seo-Soo-Kkak region to charge the car and speak to some locals about their chosen sport.
The art of wave sliding has only been prevalent on the island since the mid-90s and, as a result, there’s a refreshing lack of shops, pushy rental places and bossy locals intent on ruining the vibe.
It’s an unusually laid back atmosphere and two local surfers we recently bonded with over some rocket-fuel black coffee offer to show us a few local breaks.
“Our guide explains that Korean culture is all about sharing, so we should always take food when offered”
The weather is beginning to turn and a typhoon that is tracking across the East China Sea is doing its best to create some blustery waves. It’s not the perfect surf we envisaged but it’s a fun, silly session that feels like being back home with friends… but many degrees warmer.
Our fixer Mr Park reminds us that we have plenty to cram in before our flight home, so we thank our local guides and jump back into the recharged Kia Soul EV.
It’s not long before we are hooked up to an electricity source again, as our vehicle only manages about 80-miles with the air-con on full blast.
Stopping to constantly charge batteries could prove painful if you actually had an agenda, but these regular interludes not only get us out of the car to take in the sights and smells, they are also a great excuse to stuff our faces with the local cuisine.
Korean barbecue is the favoured delicacy and it typically sees a generous amount of spicy meat slapped on a smoking grill that’s situated in the centre of the dining table.
The food is accompanied by lots of little plates and bowls that contain pickled vegetables – or Kimchi – which has the ability to blow your head off thanks to the liberal smearing of chilli. There are nettle leaves, big chunks of lettuce and bowls of unpronounceable stuff covered in fiery substances.
Our guide explains that Korean culture is all about sharing, so we should always take food when offered. He also insists on filling our beer glasses up as soon as they are empty, something we later realise is also customary.
Trying to out-drink a South Korean is a bad idea, especially when the soju comes out. It’s a potent rice wine that is typically guzzled down neat. Or, you can throw it in a beer to turbocharge your drink. We respect that.
A final stop in Jeju City before our return flight home doesn’t fail to disappoint. Huge neon signs hang from buildings, tiny alleyways secrete all sorts of hidden bars and cafes, while the smell of mouth-watering barbecue emanates from the myriad of sweltering establishments.
There’s also a surfeit of electric car charging points in the metropolitan capital of the island but that also means a higher concentration of cars. We’re forced to top up the batteries once again, in order to make the final journey to the airport, but seem to have hit the EV rush hour.
“Due to the large amount of apartments in Jeju Island, EV owners have problems installing home chargers thanks to the scarcity of parking spaces, and this is also considered as a problem for EV usage expansion,” Mr. Dong-Hee Kim later explains.
He goes on to point out that the government has plans to create a futuristic parking tower, solely for the use of EVs, as well as expanding the charging infrastructure so these logjams become less common, but it doesn’t seem to be helping the situation right now.
WHAT TO DO
As well as the numerous empty roads, breath-taking mountain views and other natural wonders, Jeju is also home to some 70 museums – a ridiculous number considering its size.
There’s a museum dedicated to tangerines (the island exports 600,000-tonnes of the orange fruit every year), another dedicated to teddy bears and even a place called Love Land, which features a plethora of gigantic penis statues and other reproductive organ-inspired artworks.
Much of the population doesn’t practice a religion but there is a large Buddhist community, meaning there are plenty of temples and places of worship to visit and admire.
The area around Jungmun Beach has the highest density of recognisable shops and cafes (the Starbucks next to Ripley’s is well worth a look), but development has been kept to a minimum. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so expect plenty of nature walks and scary-looking wildlife.
It takes us a good hour to locate a free charger, understand how to operate it and then charge the car.
Irritating as it is, it gives us a good chance to have a look around the city, which is as modernised as Seoul but with plenty of traditional elements that give it bags of character.
Small bars are hidden down alleyways or unassumingly placed above shops, but once discovered, offer a vast array of craft ales and interesting spirits. The food is good, the coffee is strong and a bustling university ensures the crowds are stylish and friendly.
The final jaunt back to the airport starts off trouble-free and relaxed but the weather outside the window is looking anything but inviting. The storm that was tracking across the East China Sea is making a beeline for Jeju and it’s so severe that it has been officially named.
Typhoon Chaba, responsible for a few fun waves earlier in the day, is rapidly turning into a grotesque monster. A voice on the radio warns that flights will be cancelled but an ill-advised detour to visit some big rocks on the south east of the island means we soon have to switch it off… along with the air conditioning.
The Soul EV is running low on juice once again and if we’re not careful, we won’t make it to the airport, let alone out of Jeju.
Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn’t currently support route planning in South Korea, which is why our maps aren’t functioning correctly. Feel free to explore the map on the left at your own pace.