The Washington Times - February 19, 2009, 12:26AM

by JoAnna Haugen, Special to Donne Tempo Magazine

We had been plodding steadily up through the lush deciduous vegetation for nearly a half-hour when we finally emerged from the trees into the sun. Peeling off my damp sweatshirt, I leaned against a huge boulder to catch my breath, only to catch it again in amazement.


Jongmun from Hallasan - The spectacular view of Jeju in the morning light. (Photo/Cory Haugen)

A quarter of Jeju (Jejudo) spread out below me—most of the southern side of the island lay open like a detailed map. The sapphire-blue ocean lined the sandy beaches and spread into the horizon.

I hadn’t had the chance to visit this portion of Korea’s largest island which I was now looking at from above, but Hans, an American expatriate who had lived on Jeju for nearly eight months, pointed out places where he’d been scuba diving and snorkeling, and even the soccer stadium that was used when Korea hosted the World Cup.

I stretched my calves, wiped my face of my sweatshirt and felt strangely inadequate as I rested on my hike up Mt. Halla, the volcanic peak that sits in the center of the island. I had been training for a marathon, but even in my fit condition, Koreans passed me as if they were walking downhill instead of up a mountain.

To add to my embarrassment, many carried picnic baskets and backpacks filled with goodies to enjoy for breakfast at their final destination. In Korean tradition, most wore long sleeves and head coverings to keep the sun’s rays at bay. A group of teenage girls even hiked by in high heels.

Known locally as the Island of Fantasy and the Land of Legends, Jeju’s subtropical oceanic climate hung over us like an extra layer of clothes even in the early morning hours. At Halla Arboretum earlier in my stay, I had rested frequently in the shade, wrote in my journal, and watched couples and families walk along the winding paths beneath the trees.

They took artistic photos of each other and rested on blankets on the grass. No one rushed on to pressing appointments or occupied themselves with cell phones or Blackberries. Instead, they laughed with each other, enjoying this moment in their slow pace of life. I meditated, wrote and dreamt of a more perfect location to call paradise but found it impossible to define how it would be any different than Jeju.

Now I pushed on up Mt. Halla. The sign at the beginning of the trail had instructed that it should take one-and-a-half hours to traverse the 3.7-kilometer Yeongsil path. Originally appalled at the seemingly large time period given for such a short walk, I now convinced my fellow hikers to pick up the pace in order to reach the top before the sun reached its full, heat-soaking potential.

500 Generals - The 500 Generals watch over Jeju Island from Mt. Halla. (photo /Cory Haugen)

We passed the famed 500 Generals clinging to a cliff side, giant monoliths of stone rising out of green vegetation. Stopping again to stretch our legs, we saw more of the island.

The view became more spectacular until we could see nearly half of Jeju below us.

The moment reminded me of my conversation with a 40-something Korean woman I met at Tamna Library in Jeju-si, the island’s capital city. She told me her English name was Ashley. “How do you like Jejudo?” she asked, triumphantly displaying her language skills.

I told her I loved everything about it—the food, the weather, the people, the slow pace of life. She didn’t believe that I was simply on the island for a vacation.

Although a popular destination for Asians, most Westerners on Jejudo are expatriates teaching English, so life isn’t catered to the English-speaking tourist. We talked through our language barrier about Ashley’s family and my vacation, and I helped her pick out some English books to study for an upcoming test.

She gave me her phone number and told me I was welcome in her house anytime.

“You will like Jejudo very much,” Ashley promised me as we parted ways.

Just as we seemed to near the top, the trail stopped following the edge of the mountain and led us into shoulder-high shrubs. Clouds began rolling in, and the damp air left my skin clammy and cold. We moved into flatter, rolling hills reminiscent of Scotland and onto a boardwalk-like path that led us toward our destination.

A freshwater spring meandered its way beneath a small footbridge, and we refilled our water bottles with ladles left laying on a rock nearby. Shortly beyond the spring, we reached Witseoreum Shelter. At 250 meters below the actual peak of Mt. Halla, the shelter is the highest point on the Yeongsil trail.

One other path leads to Witseoreum, while the longer two hiking trails traverse to the highest point on Jeju. Families sat scattered on the ground and on benches, eating breakfast and taking pleasure in each other’s company.

Sunset from Iho Beach - Nothing says paradise like a sunset from Iho Beach.(Photo/Cory Haugen)

We bought a couple bowls of spicy Ramen noodles and pondered the classification of a 420-meter climb in slightly over an hour-and-a-half as “easy.” Above me the peak of Mt. Halla still beckoned to me, but I had come as far as possible.

The melodic hum of Korean swam through the conversations around me, and my body felt instantly relaxed to be surrounded by happy people who had spent the morning in the fresh island air.

It was the physical manifestation of serenity, and I closed my eyes, savoring every instant.

Ashley had been right. I did like Jeju very much.

JoAnna Haugen is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer with vagabond tendencies. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she can often be found planning her next great adventure. Click here to read more of her work.