Red Hot Hawaii
I’ll never forget the way the helicopter bounced around over the red-hot caldera on one of my early visits to the Island of Hawaii. I’m sure it must have been dangerous, but when I looked down into the roiling bowl of molten lava, I was too transfixed to be scared. Then, the pilot headed to the coast, where we flew just offshore and watched fingers of lava creep over cliff tops and slide into the ocean, sending up beautiful explosions of steam.
“Wow,” I said to my then fiancé (now husband of two decades), “Do you have any idea how lucky we are? That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Of course, I was wrong. Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island has been erupting almost continuously since 1983. In fact, it’s the most active volcano on the planet. However, sometimes the fiery show is less than spectacular. When we were there last year, the red lava was only visible at night, when the clouds acted like an overhead mirror.
However, for the past few months, Kilauea has been working overtime, producing huge rivers of lava. At press time, the sea entry of the “61G” flow is very active, spilling over the cliff in a swath more than 60 feet wide. If you’ve never seen an active volcano, now is the time to go to the Big Island.
Where to stay in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you have a passion for national park lodges, Volcano House, in the heart of the park, dates from 1847 and is the oldest hotel in the State of Hawaii. The original structure was a grass shack and guests arrived by donkey. Today, it’s a 33-room, two-story building that still remains true to its historic origins, giving guests an experience that’s somewhat frozen in time, without an elevator, A/C, or TVs. “Crater view” rooms really do have a crater view for those who can’t get enough, or guests can get a drink from the bar and enjoy the view from there.
For us, we loved our time nearby at Volcano Village Lodge. Here, five free-standing bed and breakfast hales feel part treehouse and part Japanese inn. Each comes with a kitchenette, TV, fluffy robes (handy for the hot tub), and breakfast delivered daily. Our quarters, Kilauea, had glass walls, which provided a floor-to-ceiling view onto the surrounding rainforest, complete with huge tree ferns, lots of bird life, and enormous tropical plants. The two-room Mauna Loa unit comes with a king bed, a double bed, and a meditation loft. Hale Manaluna has a Jacuzzi bath. The handcrafted Haleakala and Mauna Kea hales are the newest. volcanovillagelodge.com
Exploring the Park
Every visit should start at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitor center, where you can get the lay of the land and where rangers are on hand to answer questions. The top sights are the Thurston Lava Tube, Chain of Craters Road, and Crater Rim Drive. In addition to helicopter overflights, you can also view the lava flow from sightseeing boats.
Myriad trails crisscross the park, but please be very careful. Walking on lava isn’t easy and it’s critical that you carry lots of water, use sunscreen, and wear a hat. Hiking poles will make it easier, but not easy. If you’re not sure-footed, stick to one of the trails that traverse magical patches of rainforest.
You might also want to consider a personal tour with a local guide. Warren Costa, founder of Native Guide Hawaii, is well versed in the island’s natural life and its history. Not only is Costa a native Hawaiian, but he’s also worked as a ranger on Mauna Kea and has a degree in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii. nativeguidehawaii.com
While we walked along Crater Rim Trail, Costa shared Hawaiian legends about Pele, the goddess of fire. He also talked about the natives’ strong commitment to protecting the natural environment and provided the facts behind erupting volcanoes.
I loved this authentic cultural connection, and it was a good scientific explanation — but not nearly as memorable as flying over a roiling bowl of molten lava on a bouncing helicopter. ELIZABETH HANSEN
Lava spilling into sea: Photo courtesy of HCVB, Kirk Lee Aeder Volcano Village Lodge, Warren Costa & Helicopter: Photography courtesy of ADAMS HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS All other photography courtesy of Tor Johnson, Hawaii Tourism Authority