It feels like sneaking up on a sleeping dragon. But the beast beneath your boots is no fairy tale: volcanoes are firmly rooted in the real world. Ever since Eyjafjallajökull threw its toys out the pram in 2010 (much to the chagrin of news presenters struggling to pronounce it), the interest in volcano holidays has sky-rocketed. Volatile, bizarrely beautiful and ultimately thrilling, volcanoes are nothing if not exciting. These are the geological artists of the world, with a temperament to match, and each one has its own personality.
Towering 5,895m above the African plains and measuring up to 40km across, Mount Kilimanjaro is a giant of the trekking world both literally and figuratively. Its lure is impossible to resist for any peak bagger: the lurid green summit sign beckons, and sunrise on the slopes is a momentous reward for your efforts, watching the thin tendrils of sunshine snake across the ice fields as the curvature of the Earth comes clearly into view.
Head for the sulphur-stained craters and calderas of Sicily, where the highest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna, holds court over the Mediterranean island. Dramatic vertiginous slopes of loose rock and ash are crowed with 300 cones and five craters, all steaming beneath the sunshine. But it is the next door neighbour Stromboli, a short hydrofoil hop away, which erupts regularly. Mother Nature does not deign to give an exact timetable, but when dusk falls the wait begins for the sporadic bursts of molten lava and igneous rocks.
If the thought of zip-lining through the jungle as the sun sets gives you goose bumps, Arenal is the answer. The volcano may be dormant, but there is nothing sleepy about it. The hard work has been done – the mineral rich soils expunged from the belly of the beast have created the perfect environment for the lush, tropical jungle at its base to thrive. The soundtrack is constant: chattering cicadas, chirruping toucans and barking Howler monkeys accompany any hike through Arenal National Park, spotting Whiptail lizards and for the very lucky, the Jaguarundi wild cat – well, the area is called La Fortuna.
It’s not all mayhem. Japan’s perfectly symmetrical stratovolcano is the island nation’s highest peak at 3,776 metres, and has created more than it has destroyed. The textbook-perfect cone silhouetted against the sky has inspired poets and painters the world over, and the ancient pilgrimage route to the summit is studded with shrines and temples, making this one of the most culturally significant volcanoes on Earth. The nearby Japanese Alps are punctured with onsens, naturally occurring hot springs that spew pale steam into the air. Spring and autumn both see the slopes explode with colour, whether it’s the delicate blush of cherry blossom season or the fiery hues of the falling leaves.
Eerie, almost apocalyptic landscapes painted in rainbow hues: Iceland is still a tempestuous adolescent in geological terms, whilst the North American and Eurasian plates grind beneath it. Volcanoes are the primal force that sculpted this landscape, from yawning chasms to rocky outcrops, hissing fumaroles to placid pools. After the petroleum swirls of cooled lava, rusted red dirt, emerald green hills and ebony sand beaches, the bright cyan blue waters of the blue lagoon look as invigorating as they feel, packed with minerals that smooth and soften the skin of anyone who luxuriates here.
The cradle of evolutionary theory, the Galapagos enchanted Darwin. This archipelago is characterised by stark lava fields, brown-toothed craters and strangely photogenic cactus forests growing from the rich volcanic soil. This is as intimate a wildlife encounter as anyone could hope for, snorkelling with nonchalant turtles, sharks and rays, or sharing beach time with blue-footed boobies or snoozing sea lions.
The thin country packs a serious punch in the geological stakes. The Chilean Lake District is Osorno’s handiwork – the cooling lava from ancient eruptions created the scaffold for the rapids and waterfalls that feed the jewel-coloured lakes. For thousands of years erosion from the pummelling water has done the rest, chiselling the rocks into a natural work of art best viewed from a scenic boat ride across the emerald Laguna Verde.