By Michael Gold
TAIPEI, Dec 20 (Reuters) - As winter descends on northern Asia, Taiwan's hundreds of mineral-rich hot springs welcome long-distance travellers and day trippers alike into cosy and relaxing retreats from the cold.
Aside from great food, shopping and nightlife, Taiwan offers a hot spring culture that is one of the best developed in Asia, with escapes for every price range and timeframe.
The island, at the confluence of two major tectonic zones, is a geological marvel where frequent earthquakes rearrange the stunning mountain scenery and unearth new hot spring sources with every rumble.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a hot spring adventure in Taiwan from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
HOT SPRING CAPITAL
For the budget traveller on the go, a visit to public outdoor hot springs in the capital Taipei is the best way to squeeze in a few hours of soaking without breaking the bank.
With towel and bathing suit in hand, hop on the clean and efficient metro at Taipei Main Station and ride the train north for about 25 minutes to Beitou. From there, a short branch line goes to the Xin Beitou area, the undisputed hot spring capital of Taiwan. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/VafEJ)
One step off the train is all it takes to sense the difference. Instead of the ubiquitous car exhaust and motorbike fumes of the city centre, the rich scent of sulphur from the area's hundreds of hot pools fills the air.
From the metro exit, walk east on Zhongshan Road for about 10 minutes, past the tranquil Beitou Park, to the entrance of the Beitou Park Open-Air Hot Springs.
This no-frills public place, founded in 1999, is a bargain at only T$40 ($1.35) for unlimited soaking and sloshing in warm pools on four levels and two cold pools.
Half the fun of this relatively downmarket spot is the community feel. Retirees and blue-collar types, likely to be chit-chatting in the local Taiwanese dialect rather than in Mandarin Chinese, make up the majority of attendees.
Overweening lifeguards exhort against standing in the water or dipping only the feet - which in Taiwan hot springs lore is bad for the circulation - but the overall atmosphere is relaxed and foreign visitors are welcome.
Be aware of the temperatures in each pool. The hottest one can reach a scalding 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), enough to make the thin-skinned feel like they're being boiled alive.
The majority of bathing places in Xin Beitou are resort-style hotels with in-house restaurants and hot spring tubs in every guest room. Many also offer private bathing facilities by the hour, of varying levels of quality.
At the fancier end of the spectrum, Villa 32, about a 10-minute walk uphill from the public hot springs, is a fairy-land experience at great value - T$2,000 ($67.50) for a 90-minute two-person private bath.
The entrance, almost indiscernible behind the facade of a separate and much gaudier establishment, leads into a lush courtyard and a hall that feels like a ski lodge, replete with fireplace and well-stocked wine cellar.
The spacious private rooms are impeccable and the baths can be filled with hot or cold spring water.
UP THE MOUNTAIN AND DOWN THE VALLEY
For an excursion that feels more remote but is still within the capital district, Yangmingshan is a green mountain dotted with hot springs, many with stunning views of Taipei 101, the world's fifth-tallest building.
Despite the wilderness setting, the main hot springs area on Yangmingshan is only about 40 minutes northeast of central Taipei and is easily accessible via metro and bus.
The best-known spots are clustered off Xingyi Road, a winding path that can feel a bit labyrinthine to newcomers, especially after dark. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/MJvsR)
But well-lit signs guide the way, first past Tang Lai, a quaint, Japanese-style place featuring private rooms and larger public bathing areas separated by gender.
Bring your own towel but don't worry about a swimsuit, as all gender-segregated hot springs in Yangmingshan, and Taiwan overall, are "au naturel".
A more elaborate set-up can be found at Huang Chi, just a few minutes past Tang Lai and down a snaking outdoor staircase that can be very slippery in the Taipei winter drizzle.
Huang Chi's public outdoor pools simmer with a variety of mineral compositions, including "white" sulphur and "green" sulphur, which are thought to have different health effects.
A unique "head-soaking pool" lets visitors lie in a brook-like area with warm water just deep enough so that only the back of the head is submerged.
About an hour south of central Taipei, the Wulai Valley cuts a striking scene. As at Xin Beitou and Yangmingshan, the hot springs here span the gamut, accompanied by spectacular hillside treks and colourful aboriginal culture. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/5NrV8)
A free outdoor hot springs complex on the west bank of the Nanshi River in the middle of the valley stays hot round the clock with water pumped in through a network of pipes.
The amenities are basic - the pools are concrete, there is no outdoor lighting and the "changing room" is a shack strung with a curtain - but the backdrop is charming, the atmosphere is jovial and the chilly river is often shallow and calm enough to enjoy as a respite from the heat of the springs.
For a kitschy dining experience, check out Feicui Valley Restaurant on Wulai Street, the town's main boulevard. Although the food is nothing special, customers can soak their feet in a shared trough of flowing hot spring water as they eat.
If you have at least a day or two to spare, Taiwan's more far-flung hot spring areas offer an adventure without compare.
The Guanziling hot spot differs from its peers due to the muddy composition of the water, which is considered to have therapeutic effects on the skin.
The hilly area in southern Taiwan, about two to three hours from Taipei, needs at least an overnight stay to enjoy fully, although the high-speed rail and frequent bus connections leave little to be desired as far as convenience goes. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/YS0j0)
In Guanziling, the options can be dazzling and daunting to the uninitiated, especially as English is virtually non-existent and the steep mountain roads are quite maze-like.
Reputed to be the most mineral-pure bathing spot in the area, the Jingguang Shanzhuang resort is a government-run institution managed by the local police department, which also makes it one of the best values at only T$100 ($3.38) for an ultra-muddy experience in the gender-divided public pools.
Take as much time as you need to indulge in the silky brown slop, which gathers as sediment at the bottom of the pool and can be spread over the skin.
The more adventurous should consider the ultimate hot springs experience at Lisong, an untamed wonder in the remote reaches of Taiwan's southeastern mountains.
While it is accessible via public transportation and a long, uphill trek, having your own car or motorbike is highly recommended.
From Chishang, a small town about halfway between the main east coast cities of Hualien and Taitung, head west up the Nanbu Cross-Island Highway to the tiny aboriginal village of Litao, which is a good place to refuel or have a night's rest at a local inn. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/qJxRr)
From Litao, venture further up the mountain, where a "blink and you'll miss it" sign shows the way towards Lisong. At the end of this rough road, a small field feeds into the walking path, which is clearly marked with the flags of explorers past. (Map: http://goo.gl/maps/bDC86)
After about an hour of steep downhill hiking, you'll come to an imposing river whose rocky banks have been stained otherworldly hues of white, red and green by water from the Lisong spring spilling down from above.
A bit of creative clambering over the rocks is required to reach the "pool", which is actually a pile of stones set up to collect the hot spring water and separate it from the river.
If you've made it this far, reward yourself with a relaxing dip in the middle of utter tranquillity, as you could well be the only visitor on any given day. (Editing by John O'Callaghan)