Travel

The Island Getaway an Hour from Seoul (Plus, What to Do Back in the City)

Written by: Amanda Chung

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Published on: February 22, 2024

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Photo courtesy of Marriott International

The first thing to know about Jeju Island: It’s one of South Korea’s most beautiful holiday destinations, with white-sand beaches, lush forests, waterfalls, and no fewer than three UNESCO World Heritage sites. The second: It’s a swift one-hour flight from Seoul, making it something of a no-brainer once you’re already over there.

I spent three days at the JW Marriott Resort & Spa, the new kid on the luxury-hotel block on Jeju Island. It’s also arguably the most relaxing thanks to its unique location: Perched on a cliff on the southern tip of the island, away from the hustle and bustle of Jeju’s capital, the quiet property gives you a feeling of farawayness that’s good for the soul.

Day 1

ARRIVAL

Check-in was seamless and took place in the most beautiful lobby I’d ever been in. The airy space opens—literally—to breathtaking views of the East China Sea via giant folding floor-to ceiling glass doors. Underfoot: porous tiles. On the ceiling: an intricate wooden lattice, each box secretly a skylight. The front desk is framed by traditional Korean woodwork, and in the center of the room stands a single tangerine tree (Jeju is famous for them).

I asked about the impressive wall-size painting of water droplets hanging in the lobby (which I recognized as the work of Korean artist Kim Tschang-Yeul). The resort’s owner, I was told, is an avid collector of modern art, and over 50 pieces from his personal collection are on display here. There’s a red balloon dog by Jeff Koons. An eroded Brillo box by Daniel Arsham, which sits on a pedestal across from the elevators. Paintings by Pierre Soulages and Yoshitomo Nara casually grace the walls. The most prominent piece is a trio of neon-colored rock formations by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, which was commissioned for the hotel—pretty cool.

But back to the view: It’s prominent in almost every public space in the hotel and in a good number of guest rooms, too. Spring for the Panorama Suite, if you can. It’s spacious, even for a suite, with a fluffy—but not too fluffy—bed, a big-enough-for-two yellow-marble tub, and a wraparound balcony on which to sip your morning coffee, read, or watch the sunset.

Dinner is at the Flying Hog, the on-site BBQ and rotisserie restaurant where executive chef Joon Ko wood-fires and slow-roasts everything to perfection. The meat-forward menu is supplemented by seasonal ingredients from the hotel’s garden, so nothing ever feels too heavy. I was also pleased to learn that the restaurant has a zero-waste philosophy, meaning the culinary team takes great care to maximize every ingredient that comes through the kitchen. The first course, for instance, was plated with dollops of sweet apple purée, while dessert came topped with apple chips made from the peel—proof that culinary excellence and thoughtfulness can (deliciously) coexist.

Day 2

SEOGWIPO AND A MOMENT OF SERENITY

After a late breakfast at Island Kitchen—the hotel’s all-day restaurant where every meal starts with complimentary caviar service and champagne, if you want it—I hopped into a cab headed for Seogwipo Forest of Healing: a woodsy haven of cypresses and cedars with 11 kilometers of meticulously constructed wooden footpaths winding through it. They were installed by the local tourism organization. One thing about Koreans is they love to walk: One minute you’ll see a haraboji strolling along slowly, hands clasped behind his back; the next, a gurgling toddler will teeter past you, his parents trailing a few feet behind. Halfway through the hike, I discovered a clearing dotted with wooden chaises for napping, meditating, or watching the sunlight trickle through the thick canopy overhead.

About an hour later, I decided I’d earned a treat and drove to a nearby tearoom, Seogwi Dawon. There are fancier places—like Osulloc, on the western side of the island—but this one is charming, family-run, and devoid of tourists. The owner brought me a pitcher of green tea and a small plate of candied tangerine peel. I sat for a while, sipping in silence, and noticed that my mind, usually buzzing, had been uncharacteristically quiet that day.

Day 3

OLLE AND OMAKASE

The most special part about the resort is that it backs into the famous and historic Jeju Olle Trail, a 440-kilometer footpath that follows the coastline around the entire island. Guests can enjoy direct access to Trail 7 (there are 21 total), which is known for having some of the best views on the island. It’s a popular one, especially among tourist groups and high schoolers on field trips, so it’s best to get an early start.

My last dinner was at Yeoumul, the hotel’s omakase-style speakeasy, which has fewer seats than LA’s ultraexclusive Sushi Park (if you know, you know). Chef Eric Hwang serves up an eight-course meal featuring the freshest-ever seafood—think marinated octopus, sashimi wrapped in shiso leaves, grilled freshwater eel, and deep-fried abalone harvested by local female divers called haenyeo. It’s exquisite. Go hungry so you can really savor every bite.

My Favorite Things to Do in Seoul

If you’re going to Jeju, it makes sense to spend some time in Seoul on the front or back end of your trip. I was lucky enough to spend an entire month of 2023 in this city—here’s what I loved.

CULTURE

My favorite museum is the Leeum because it has a solid mix of traditional and contemporary art while still feeling manageable. Go when it opens, get the free audio guide (I know not all museums do these well, but this one is great), and then, when you’re ready for lunch, walk one block over to Itaewon Ooyukmien for the Szechuan noodle soup I dream about regularly. If you’re in search of hanoks—traditional Korean houses with clay-tile roofs—go to Ikseondong: It’s less touristy than the better-known Bukchon Village and feels a little younger, with plenty of hip cafés, restaurants, and breweries to explore.

SIPS

There’s a big coffee culture in Seoul. Huge. It’s not uncommon to see multiple cafés on the same block, sometimes even side by side, which seems like it wouldn’t work but somehow does. Two of my favorites are in the same neighborhood: Anthracite and Day Row, both in Hannam. The best wine bar I went to—and I went to a lot—was Barboo in Itaewon. It’s more of a restaurant vibe than a going-out vibe, which I liked. Get the beef tartare or the anchovy pasta—or both.

SHOPPING

For curated luxury goods, I liked Boon the Shop in Cheongdam, for both the architecture and what’s inside. I also liked visiting the flagship stores of my favorite Korean brands, like Gentle Monster, Tamburins, and Andersson Bell—the build-outs are always fabulous and do, honestly, enhance the shopping experience a hundredfold. Olive Young, Korea’s version of Sephora, is stocked with every K-beauty product you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t). Plan to spend at least an hour here—time flies when you’re swatching lip tints . On your last day, go to Golden Piece for beautifully packaged yakgwa, a traditional deep-fried cookie made with honey and sesame oil, to bring home to friends and family.

THE PACKING LIST

I brought sneakers, multiple sets of workout clothes, and a historical novel about the haenyeo that my editor recommended to me—and that I now recommend to everyone else. (Fair warning: You will cry.)

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