Heat Seeking Mission

Hike Molten Lava in Hawaii
Chat with park ranger Dave Oien at the Kilauea Visitor's Center of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located on the Big Island of the Hawaiian archipelago, and he'll tell you it is possible to hike to see the lava flowing from Puu Oo. Puu Oo is a volcano that has been erupting continually since 1983. Ranger Dave will advise you to go in the dark early morning-apparently the very best time to see the spectacular eruption pattern of the glowing red lava.
What you do, he'll say, is head down the park's Chain of Craters Road about two in the morning, aiming to arrive at 3 a.m., where the road meets the lava field at the ranger's hut. Underneath the hut, you'll find some long wooden poles-walking sticks to normal folk, but something quite different to the ranger fraternity. You see, this is a hike where the odd crack might suddenly open up to swallow a man whole into the molten flows underneath. Such a hike requires a probe-a stick to tap the rock and ensure it is as solid as it appears.

As for a marked path, well, apparently this exists, but at night your best bet is to just keep the dark mass of the sea on your right, the red streaks of lava flow from the summit on your left, and stay somewhere in the middle, keeping a good distance from the sea as you walk east across the hardened flow. If you can hear the sea, you are in the danger zone where lava and water collide, throwing up vapour which, at temperatures of upward of 1,050°C, could steam you alive-or destroy your lungs with a toxic soup of acid and glass particles.

Take lots of water, and very good hiking boots. (Ranger Dave has seen people's soles melt on too-warm lava.) The whole idea might sound crazy, but it's worth it, he'll say-for where else in the world can you actually witness lava making land?
Well, if you are a mix of the romantic-adventurer type and the charmingly insane, you aren't about to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with the earth's most profound movements. As for the prospect of being steamed alive, asphyxiated or immersed in molten rock-that just adds to the hike's appeal.

So, fast forward a few hours from chatting with Ranger Dave: it's pitch black on Jan. 1, 2005, and the expedition to the Puu Oo flow is underway. Arriving at the gates of Volcanoes National Park in a rental car, we take a sharp left onto Chain of Craters Road, then make our way down the switchback, mist seeping out in long tendrils. Visibility is nil.

Just as we park, a cyclist whizzes by and stops a few hundred metres up. Turns out he has been coming to the lava flow every New Year's Day for years, and would never dream of seeing the New Year dawn from any other vantage point. Off he marches, picking a route alongside the flow in the scrub oaks of the littoral plain. (The presence of other people, clearly crazier than we are, ensures we do not chicken out.) We go in search of those all-important walking sticks, finding them right where Ranger Dave said they would be. Emboldened, we head onto the lava.

We still can't see much. (Some of us are quietly wondering what the hell we are doing.) There is a faint bioluminescence coming off the sea. The road is only sporadically covered in hardened lava at this point, so there is an initial “path.” And, of course, we can see the vivid red splashes of molten lava flowing down the side of the eruption on our left. So far, so good.

The going is rough, and slow. It takes about two hours to pick our way a mile eastward across the maze of jumbled crust. The closer we get to the actual flow, the hotter it gets. It's hard to tell whether it is “very hot” underfoot, or simply “hot”-one of the ways we are supposed to tell the difference between solid rock, and hollow crust that could collapse, dumping us into the molten brew. The “thunking” of our wooden staves does not sound that hollow, but suddenly there's a squeak: “Look down!” Sure enough, a vein of red lava is opening up in the black crust, like latticework on the gates of hell.

Gingerly, we back out the way we came, and turn south, hoping to find a non-molten vantage point to watch lava hit the sea. Making our way around a hummock, a chasm opens up and a flow appears. It can't be more than 10 meters away, glistening and sparkling in serpentine slithering pillows of reds, oranges and yellows. It projects a burning 1,000°C heat as it emerges from the ground and then plunges back in, a few metres later. Yikes! We back up rapidly, then walk down the flow, watching it hit the sea, sending up an incredible hissing sound amid giant plumes of vapour. Pretty spectacular stuff-mission accomplished.

We head back carefully in the slowly greying dawn light. Once it is light, evidence of the last major eruption, in November 1986, starts to appear: speed limit signs, bits of tarred road, and a bus, all partially submerged in now-rock-solid lava. We walk faster-as the sun rises, the heat is becoming unbearable. Arriving at the car park, we see no sign of the cyclist, but other cars arriving, filled with hikers, eager to pit their wits against that treacherous jumble of solid and molten rock, to see fire make land.

We're done for the day. We jump in the car and scoot off to base camp, making it back by 9 a.m.-just in time for a well-earned breakfast, and, oh, about a year's worth of bragging rights. – JP &RP

Explore An Ecuadorian Caldera
Studying business at a private university in Quito, Ecuador, takes on a whole new cachet when you luck in to living with the former president's in-laws. The most luxe benefit? Visiting one of their family-run businesses, Hacienda Manteles. Just a three-hour drive from Quito, Manteles is perched high in the Andes, sits amid 100 hectares of virgin cloud forest, and faces Tungurahua, a spectacular volcano known as “the Black Giant” that explodes ashes, gases and rock, and gushes lava on regular occasions.

The land has been in the family for about 75 years, since my host father's Colombian grandfather, Marco Antonio Restrepo, bought the area. Until opening to tourists in 1992, the hacienda had been a private family getaway for years. Now, they accommodate about 24 to 30 people in nine rooms and two attics-all with private chimneys-priding themselves on running a first-class inn. With a private cook, sumptuous food and a kind host who treated us like royalty, Manteles was a soothing retreat. But it wasn't without adventure-besides exploring the misty cloud forest, we visited Rio Verde, a nearby town. From there, we hiked down to a beautiful waterfall called El Pailõn del Diablo (the Devil's Cauldron), so named because if you look closely, you may see the devil's face appear in a big rock at the bottom of the fall. Before hiking back, we relaxed in a small hut with a local man and his playful pet monkey.

The view from the hacienda is surreal. The mountainside is a rolling quilt with its rectangular plots of green and brown land, and across the valley, Tungurahua rises 5,023 metres above sea level. It towers over Baños, a small town known as the gateway to the Amazon rain forest. In Baños, which is about a 30-minute drive from Manteles, you can experience two things: its warm, natural spring water baths, and grilled guinea pig, known as cuy (KWEE). I tried the latter. Looking back on my experience with cuy-its head, claws, and meat-thin body sitting upon my plate as though it were ready to pounce-I believe next time I'll try the former.

The hacienda's finest moment is when the sun goes down, the outlines of the forest and the mountains soften, and it feels like the world has stopped. I can still see the view from my window at Manteles: across the valley, the lava is glowing through the dark. The red and amber stream oozes down Tungurahua's sides, reaching for the valley's base, reminding me that in actual fact, the world is very much alive. -MM

Sweat Like A Finn
Picture the scene: a soft path through woods and across a wheat field to a beach on the north shore of Lake Vuosjärvi in Finland. Huddled amid a cluster of pine and birch is a plain log cabin adorned with fishing nets and rods. This is my family sauna, site of many a childhood steam bath. Opening the door emits a blast of heat-90ºC, to be precise. Talk about a warm embrace.

Dating back at least 2,000 years, sauna bathing is one of Finland's great rituals. The Finns don't pretend to have invented the steam bath-many cultures have some form of it, from First Nations sweatlodges to Mexican sweat baths. But they have perfected their version. The modern-day wood-panelled sauna has come a long way from the earliest Finnish experiments: a pit dug into a slope, covered, and heated with steam from water thrown on hot stones.

Taking the heat isn't just about cleansing-it's also a way to relax and free your mind of worries. And for Finns, it's a way of life. When Finns build a new cottage, the sauna goes up first; Finnish peacekeeping troops put one up wherever they are sent; and Olympic athletes won't compete without having access to one. Babies (including Urho Kekkonen, Finland's longest-serving prime minister) have been born in the sauna, and dead bodies have been laid out there for last rites. Business people use it as a boardroom, and politicians as a foreign policy tool, discussing and resolving thorny political issues and international agreements. The country counts nearly two million saunas-rural wood-heated affairs like ours, traditional smoke saunas (there's no chimney, so the hot room fills with smoke while heating; once hot, the fire is put out to eliminate the smoke), electric ones in houses and apartment buildings. For a population of just 5.2 million, that translates to one

As a child, I spent many summer vacations at the family cottage in Vuorilahti in central Finland, and, of course, took many saunas. The basic steam bath ritual goes something like this. We light our sauna-which has a change room and a hot room-at least twice a week. In the hot room, there are two sitting platforms (hot air rises, making the higher platform distinctly warmer), a south-facing window for admiring the lake and its islands, and in a corner the kiuas, or sauna stove. After the sauna reaches the desired temperature (usually between 80ºC to 100ºC), the family perches on the top platform, throwing water on the hot stones in the stove. The rising löyly (steam) pushes the temperature even higher, and we compete to see how long we can take the intense, searing heat, before hopping down to the lower platform's slightly cooler air. We beat ourselves gently using birch whisks to increase perspiration, then run out and plunge into the cool waters of the lake. Afterward, wrapped in dry towels, we sit on the sauna's porch to munch grilled lenkkimakkara (a thick, coiled sausage similar in shape to the Polish kielbasa) and watch the sun slowly set, casting a golden necklace around the shoreline. -SN

Bathe Like Meiji Aristocracy In Kyoto, Japan
Here's how to take a proper bath.

First, hop on a jet to Tokyo or Osaka, then take the train to Kyoto. (Railway connoisseurs might prefer the two-hour trip from Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train, because it's, well, really fast, and you can see Mount Fuji.)

Once in Kyoto, check into Hiiragiya-Ryokan, a low-slung traditional-looking establishment that has provided shelter and comfort to the rich, the dignified, the powerful and the pleasure-seeking since the early 19th century. Take off your shoes, bow to your hosts, go to your room and observe the lack of mattress and simple décor-the flower arrangements, the water garden outside, the tranquility.

You will find the bathroom by following your nose-it is redolent of cedar, the material of the planks your bath is covered with. Peel them back and inhale. Do not get in.

It is important that in Japan you wash outside the bath, not in it. You'll find a showerhead and bucket handy. Wet yourself down, soap yourself off and rinse well. Don't worry-you'll be warm soon. And don't forget to scrub behind your ears. Japanese baths are for soaking, not washing. Using soap in the tub will brand you a barbarian. Avoid this at all costs.

Now, for the moment: ease yourself into the tub. You will find it very deep, by North American standards. Recline until you are up to your mandibles in water.
Oh, yes, the water. It will be hot. You might find it uncomfortably so. You should put up with it. You will get used it. Trust us.
Relax. Cedar-infused steam will waft into your nasal cavities, clearing them of any grit from the road. Your eyes will close, unbidden. You will hear the drip, drip of the water-feature outside in the garden.

You will feel that 600 bucks a night is not unreasonable for such an experience.

When you've had enough, emerge from the tub a renewed and reddened version of your former self. Don the provided yukata (bathrobe). Be sure to replace the cedar planks over the bath-they will hold the heat and fragrance in. You'll be back.

You are now ready for a walk about Kyoto-the temples, the street life, the stores. This is followed by a serious kaiseki feast in your room back at Hiiragiya-a form of Japanese cuisine you simply cannot get anywhere else. That will be followed by another walk, to Gion, the district of Kyoto famous for its geisha. And then to bed-a futon laid out with care by your hostess while you were out perambulating around town. Superb quiet sleep ensues, followed by an, umm, interesting Japanese breakfast of tofu, little fish and a peculiar licorice-flavoured, french-fry-like item embedded in rice.

You will find yourself, unbidden perhaps, punctuating each of these exotic experiences with a bath, still piping hot 12 hours after your first dip, steaming and fuming in its cedar crucible.

When you return to the West, you will miss the bath.–JC

Try Cleopatra's Mud Masque
The Middle East isn't what anyone would consider a relaxing place. And while one of the world's spa capitals is located there-the west shore region of Israel's Dead Sea-folks don't jet in from all over the world to mellow out. They come to get well.

That's good, because there's little about a Dead Sea mud bath that's calming. The earth here has been celebrated since Cleopatran times for its mineral richness, reported to alleviate rheumatism, skin irritations and bowel problems. But even at the most posh health resort in the area (Le Meridien's Mineralia Spa, which features six pools) mud is a messy business. Forget the plush carpets, soothing tapestries and fluffy towels that come with the standard spa experience. They'll only stain. Order a mud masque and you get a tile room, a physician's table draped with a fresh sheet of butcher's paper-and a microwave.

While the mud heats to a perfect 40°C, I receive a vigorous loofah scrubbing from a sturdy Russian émigré named Nelli. Then the mud-with a dash of aroma oil-gets slathered on everywhere but my face: hot, gritty and slimy. While it stiffens, like a plaster cast, Nelli hurriedly wraps me in plastic sheets, then an aluminum sheet, resembling an astronaut's duvet. Finally, I'm mummified in three more layers of wool blankets and left to cook.

The sludge retains heat amazingly, taking 14 minutes to cool a single degree. Animals may mud-bathe to cool down, but here, it's all about the bake. “Now it is like you have a tiny sauna in every pore,” Nelli smiles, before helping me hop to the shower for a too-forceful hosing down. But after spending 20 minutes coated and baked in mud, who wouldn't feel refreshingly cleansed once it is all over?

If you're ill, this may be the cure for what ails you. (Dead Sea getaways are even covered by some European health plans.) If you're looking to relax, however, you're better off staying clean and sipping cocktails by the pool. –KL

Where To Go
So it's freezing cold outside and the prospect of communing with the earth's thermal and mineral delights?whether Hawaii's volcanic lava flows, Israel's mineral-rich mud, or baths of the Finnish or Japanese variety?has you scouring the web for travel options. Here's a quick primer on where to stay, should you choose to take a trip to one of these hot spots

1. Volcano House
Hawaii Volcano National Park
(808) 967-7321
The only hotel in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,
Volcano House is also the oldest in the archipelago.
In operation since 1846, the hotel has hosted Mark Twain and FDR, among many others. The restaurant offers panoramic views across a surreal crater landscape of desert and lush rain forest.
42 rooms and 10 cabins
Rates US$50-US$225/night

2. Hilton Helsinki Strand
Helsinki, Finland
The Helsinki Hilton offers accommodation by the Baltic Sea yet within walking distance of the city
centre. Check out the rooftop sauna and spa area
for a luxury sauna experience plus fantastic views across downtown Helsinki.
192 rooms
Rates €180-€210 (single to double room, regular season); €240-€270 (single to double room, high season); €125 (weekend rate for double room per night)

3. Hacienda Manteles
Located in 100 hectares of virgin cloud forest in the shadow of volcanic Mount Tungurahua, Hacienda Manteles offers a unique mountain getaway
Nine rooms and two attics
Rates US$50-US$84/night

4. Hiiragiya-Ryokan
Kyoto, Japan
One of Kyoto's finest traditional inns, Hiiragiya-Ryokan offers tastefully appointed private rooms, a stunning inner garden sanctum, unique traditional flower arrangements, fresh local cuisine and a menu that changes daily. Service-wise, the emphasis is on
catering to individual preferences.
33 rooms
Rates $300-$600/night

5. Le Meridien Dead Sea
Ein Boqeq, Israel
Located close to the mineral-rich shores of Israel's Dead Sea, Le Meridien Dead Sea is close to many
historical sites, such as the ancient city of Jericho. Mud baths are just one of 21 spa treatment courses
on offer at Mineralia Spa-which, at 400 metres below sea level, is the lowest point on earth.
600 rooms
Rates US$215-US$255 (for a double room,
regular season); US$300 (double room,
high season)