Come fall, Jeju Island is a wonder to behold.
Songaksan trail (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
Skies clear up to reveal a horizon that stretches as far as the eye can see, as the cool breeze of September chases away the heat of summer. This is indeed a good time to visit the island historically known for its abundance of wind, rocks and women widowed by the sea.
The first two are remnants of the volcanic island’s environment, which has made it such a unique travel destination.
Hundreds of thousands years ago, Hallasan, the highest peak in South Korea, showered the island with lava during its mighty ruptures. That lava formed volcanic rocks that covered the surface of the island and created scenic areas, such as the Jusangjeolli cliffs in Daepo-dong.
Another such area is Jeju gotjawal, a combination of “got,” Jeju dialect for “forest,” and “jawal,” meaning thorny bush.
Hwasun Gotjawal (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
It is a type of old-growth forest where various forms of plant life have rooted onto volcanic rock to form a unique spectacle. Such forests were uncultivable and deemed useless by locals in the past, allowing them to be left untouched to foster unique ecological features over hundreds, even thousands, of years.
I visited the Hwasun Gotjawal trail, located in Hwasun-ri, Seogwipo. The 1.5-kilometer trail took me deep into the gotjawal forest. The volcanic rocks here are believed to have come from a volcano that erupted from the nearby ocean, forming the forest around 5,000 years ago.
One of the peculiar things about the trees here is that their roots stretch sideways instead of deep into the earth. “Trees of gotjawal grasp onto the rocks as they grow,” explained our guide, as we witnessed the trees’ unrelenting will to live despite the thick layers of volcanic rock below.
While Hwasun Gotjawal itself has never been the site of cultivation for any crops, its existence is crucial to farmers here. Its formation of rocks allows water to permeate into the ground without ever flooding, contributing to a large groundwater supply that feeds the area.
The groundwater of Jeju is one of its more profitable resources, as it is sold across the country via mineral water brands like Jeju Samdasoo.
On the trail, tree colonies of East Asian mallotus and Sapindus mukorossi could be seen in abundance. The latter used to be commonly found around traditional Korean homes because it is believed to rid the household of troubles.
Superstitions aside, the mixture of oddly formed trees, layers of volcanic rock and abundant life made me feel like I had stumbled into a forest not of this world.
Unfortunately, around 22,216 square kilometers of gotjawal forests have been destroyed since 2000 to build golf resorts and English villages on Jeju Island, accounting for over 20 percent of all gotjawal forests.
It is only in recent years that locals have sought to protect these forests.
Watch out for what seems like piles of dried mud along the trail -- they are cow dung. Although they barely smell, stepping in one is not an experience I’d invite anyone to share with me. Having said that, encountering the gentle beasts at the end of the trail was a pleasant surprise.
While “san” in Songaksan refers to a mountain, Songaksan is actually one of Jeju’s approximately 380 oreum, a geographical feature between a hill and a mountain in size, formed as a result of volcanic activity.
Songaksan does not offer much of a hike, but a stroll along its perimeter provides truly beautiful views of the beach, the horizon, the sky and nearby islands. Visiting on a clear day, I could see as far as Marado, an island some 11 kilometers from the nearest Jeju port.
Songaksan trail (Yoon Min-sik/The Korea Herald)
To my left was the ocean, and to my right was an open field where horses cantered about. Straight in front of me was a cliff formed by volcanic rocks. I stood on top of the oreum for nearly half an hour, listening to the sound of the waves tirelessly battering the cliff.
It is not often one gets lost inside a resort, but that’s what happened when I stepped outside to find a 7-Eleven during my stay at Jeju Shinhwa World. Before you mock me, note that the resort stretches across an impressive 250,000 square meters.
The resort’s 2,062 rooms were more than enough to accommodate the influx of guests during the holiday season. The integrated facility comprises four hotel brands -- Marriot, Landing, Somerset and Shinhwa World Resort. Four Seasons is slated to join next year.
Shinhwa Water Park (Jeju Shinhwa World)
Shinhwa World gives the vibe of a huge underground city, packed with 70 restaurants, coffeehouses and other eateries. The PlayStation Zone, Transformers Autobos Alliance and other attractions are available for kids.
What stands out, however, is the behemoth 17,792-square-meter Shinhwa Water Park, the only large-scale water park on the island.
Able to accommodate 3,400 guests, it has 13 pools and six water slides.
Among its main attractions are the Super Creeper Coil, a 250-meter-long high-speed slide, and Giant Double Leaf.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)