'Food without spice is like life without love,' remarks our guide as yet another lazy Susan spins in front of us. We've been in Yunnan province for just four days but it's already starting to blur with each rotation of the twice-daily banquets. Forget the gourmet specialities of provincial France, each prefecture, town and county in Yunnan is hot to trot out their local delicacies, along with the region's natural heritage and cultural highlights - and it's quite a menu. Over a bowl of egg custard, slender circles of fried goat's cheese, crispy-skinned duck and a noodle-thin melon and capsicum salad, conversation turns to what the Chinese modestly call the 'No 1 grand spectacle on Earth', the Yunnan Stone Forest. And, as stone forests go, it probably is. A geological marvel created when the Himalayas shrugged 60 million years ago, the lofty grey karst columns first stumbled upon by travellers in 1383 surround our airy restaurant at the entrance to the Stone Forest tourist park. The 78-kilometre drive from Kunming, the provincial capital, was a smooth ride with light traffic. Most locals stay off the new highway, travelling along the old roads to avoid paying tolls. Kunming's densely packed urban landscape soon ceded to Yunnan's rich agricultural lands and blue skies before the scenery became speckled with pale grey karst stones. Open to the public since 1978 and attracting five million visitors a year, the 'forest' resembles a vast ghostly city looming out of a lush landscape, a jaw-dropping spectacle in which jagged peaks have morphed into giant swords, pagodas, chess pieces and mushrooms. Navigating through this outdoor museum means sticking to the tour path. We wind past majestic stone walls before searching out a steep, narrow pathway up Bushao Hill. As the clamour of the tour groups recedes, the sounds of soft birdsong and cascading water take its place. Squeezing through tight crevices, we locate stone stairs thoughtfully cut into the rock and ascend for a postcard vista: rugged, pleated and phallic, vast blocks and folds of stone sprout among lush green trees across an area covering 1,000 square kilometres. It's a view that inspires reverence and awe, as though you're standing amid the ruins of an ancient abandoned civilisation. This is the Yunnan Plateau, the secluded land of the Yi people, one of 26 culturally rich minority groups inhabiting the province. The Yi hold fast to their language and belief systems, which they eloquently express through their spirited folk songs and smiling eyes - at the ancient Alu Cave in Luxi, colourfully costumed drummers beat out a joyous welcome. Discovered by chance in 1638, when a shepherd boy scrambled into a chasm to retrieve his lamp, today this ancient cave is a neon-lit fantasyland. Two hundred and seventy million years in the making, what was previously an ocean is now a subterranean world of stone curtains, flowers, grottos and pillars of stalactites and stalagmites. The moist air creates a misty sense of enchantment. Ignoring the sign advising visitors to 'fall down carefully', we climb and wander along three kilometres of walkways to the roof of the cave. The view is theatrically spectacular and with a river flowing below, we pass chambers of exotic hanging gardens, where the stone forest becomes underground woodland reflected in vividly illuminated pools. The sun is squinting above the horizon as we leave the caves, travelling past neat squares of arable land and gently terraced fields. The balconies and flat rooftops of the Yi's mud-brick houses are festooned with corn cobs drying in the sun. It's late and we've covered a lot of ground through Yunnan's vast forested hills and empty spaces but tiredness evaporates in the warmth of the welcome at Keyi village, in Xisan township, Mile county. Seven hundred people live in this 400-year-old traditional Axi village, farming tobacco, corn, maize, rice and walnuts. This is an ancient animist culture governed by agrarian pursuits and tourism is a new concept that comes with strict criteria. 'Villages must be near the mountains with beautiful views and clean, good-looking young people living a traditional life,' says our guide. The Axi in Keyi tick all the boxes and we're about to discover their 'unbridled love of dance, song and hospitality'. Seated on low stools on the edge of a rectangle courtyard framed by a two-storey meeting house, the obligatory eight-course banquet of locally grown organic food is brought from the communal kitchen by beaming villagers. Before we can raise chopsticks to sample dishes of boiled pork, dried fried walnuts and bitter cabbage with bacon and beans, strikingly good-looking couples come around with pottery flasks of lethal corn wine (38 per cent proof) for a welcoming toast. It could strip paint but it's obviously a great lubricant for the vocal chords as the toast is accompanied by a spirited folk song and much laughter. In larger towns, cultural performances at dinner- and-show venues are sometimes less than charming but this one appears to be fairly authentic. Brandishing long shakers, there are flashes of turquoise and red legs as women twirl, shake and prance to the infectious rhythms the men generate on the yueqin, a moon-shaped lute. With hair ribbons flying and hands clapping, there's no doubting the Axi's love of singing and dancing, particularly the exuberant, high-stepping finale. Elderly villagers gather around the perimeter shyly looking at the visitors while enjoying the free show. The moon fills a licorice sky and, holding burning torches they call 'fire gods', we follow the villagers outside. Hand in hand, we join in a primal, mysterious dance normally reserved to celebrate harvests or weddings around the bonfire, our faces glowing in the firelight. Back in Kunming, it is again time to eat. We await the arrival of cross bridge rice noodles, a speciality. A bowl of soup is accompanied by a dish of ingredients and a strict cooking order. Reviving memories of tragic fondue parties, raw meat and a quail's egg are stirred into the soup ahead of vegetables and rice noodles. Chilli sauce is passed around for those wanting to tickle their taste buds, a spicy metaphor, perhaps, for Yunnan's unique ethnic diversity. Getting there: Dragonair ( www.dragonair.com ) flies daily from Hong Kong to Kunming. A number of agencies conduct guided tours of Yunnan from the provincial capital.