A September 2001 trip
to Hawaii (Big Island) by Truly Malin
Quote: Short on time? Make Hilo your home base, not Kona, and focus on the incredible lava adventure that awaits you on the southeast coast. This journal tells you what is not in any guidebook today: how to safely get much closer to active lava flows than ever before!
What a great choice it was! Advances in seismic technology have made disasters like the destruction of the Royal Gardens Subdivision largely a thing of the past, so active lava viewing today is a much safer adventure. I never dreamed that I would witness a red hot stream of lava flowing down a hillside, or drive down a road and come to a government-issue highway sign reading "End of Road - 1 Mile" where a lava flow several days earlier had covered it.
Big Island is the only Hawaiian island that is still growing larger from constant (since 1983) eruptions. Whether you go by helicopter, car, or on foot, you will be amazed by the devastation the lava flows cause, as well as how beautiful they can be.
As recently as August 2001, new viewing areas were opened to the public where you can watch an active lava tube shoot steaming hot rocks into the ocean. Don't miss your chance to watch it happen.
Spend the night in the mountain town of Volcano Village, at cozy Kilauea Lodge. Locals go there for the novelty of a weather report that brings to mind sweaters and fireplaces. Kilauea Lodge's room rates are too good to be true, their dining room is excellent, and you'll be minutes from Volcanoes National Park. Needless to say, you'll need that sweater or sweatshirt, as well as an umbrella or rain gear just in case.
Snorkeling on the Big Island is rumored to be exceptionally good. If you're planning to snorkel, you won't be able to use my favorite rental place unless you bring your gear from another island or are passing through Kona or Waikoloa. That's a real shame, because Snorkel Bob offers unprecedented great deals! (see my entry for Snorkel Bob on Kauai for details). You can reach Snorkel Bob's on the Big Island at 329-0770.
If you're planning to visit Volcanoes National Park, you'll need a car. Rent it at Hilo airport when you arrive - Big Island is hard to get around without a car. Fortunately, rental cars are unusually inexpensive in Hawaii, and tour operators such as American Express offer flight/car packages that lower the cost of the rental car to as little as per day. Renting a car also gets you a copy of the invaluable "Drive Guide" (there is one for each island) which provides maps, coupons, and a mini-guidebook to whatever island you're on. The detail maps in particular are extremely useful, and I don't think you can get them anywhere except from the rental car companies.
Rarely have I had such a pleasant hotel experience for under $150 a night. Even the honeymoon suite at Kilauea Lodge is only $145 a night. The lodge is small - only 11 rooms and two cottages - and each building is different, so call ahead and make sure you are getting exactly what you want. That might be a remodeled 1929 two bedroom cottage with fireplace, kitchen, living room, garden, and porch ($155), a koa wood-filled nook in the 1930''s era main building ($125), or what I reserved: a cozy corner (Room #2) of the Hale Maluna building with your own fireplace ($135). All prices include a mouth-wateringly good breakfast (described in the Kilauea Lodge dining entry) which is only available to hotel guests. Despite the challenges of running a hotel in such a remote area, Kilauea Lodge even manages to provide an outdoor hot tub. The only drawback (which some will find an advantage!) is the lack of telephones in the room. The shared phone is in the main building''s common room. And best of all, you are only a mile from Volcanoes National Park, making it easy to slip in and out of the park for some post-dinner stargazing or an early morning trek to watch the sunrise over Halemaumau crater.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 17, 2001
Old Volcano Highway
Hawaii, Big Island, Hawaii
Restaurant | "Kilauea Lodge"
The dining room serves breakfast only to guests, and dinner to the public. I couldn't have imagined a finer Hawaiian breakfast, and it alone was reason enough for me to stay at Kilauea Lodge. The first course was a locally grown papaya served with lime. It was absolutely melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and I swear I don't even like papaya! We savored our Kona coffee, from a nearby farm, while perusing a complimentary newspaper. Entrees change seasonally - in September we were offered a trio of french toast slices made with three different kinds of Punalu'u sweetbread. Also locally grown and quite famous (you can even buy it in the airport!), the sweetbread comes in plain, taro, and a bright pink guava flavor. A second choice was buttermilk pancakes with unimagineably delicious coconut syrup. The third option was scrambled or fried eggs with bacon and toast. All three got rave reviews from the happy diners.
Even though you are effectively in the middle of nowhere, you may want to make a reservation in advance for dinner at Kilauea Lodge. Like the breakfast, it makes generous use of local ingredients and growers, including nearby Volcano Vineyard, which grows its grapes right on the slopes of the volcano itself. The Symphony Dry Wine would be hard-pressed to defend itself in bottle-to-bottle combat against a good Napa Valley chardonnay, but it was as dry as advertised, full and robust in flavor, and really quite tasty. You can sample and purchase their wines at the Vineyard, but shipping rules vary considerably from state to state, so you may not be able to send a case of your favorite vintage home. An appetizer of fried zucchini sticks was lightly fried and piping hot, although the sticks were a mite thick and undercooked for my picky tastes. Our bread basket contained homemade treats, and our fresh, generous, salads were topped with a fantastic homemade house dressing: boysenberry balsamic vinaigrette with crushed papaya seeds. Believe me, it tasted much, much better than it sounds! Entrees are of the Continental variety, with a few local fish specials. We put the kitchen to the test by turning down the one vegetarian option on the menu and asking them to surprise us. We were not disappointed by the result, an interesting melange of fresh vegetables in an excellent tomato sauce over perfectly prepared pasta.
Kilauea Lodge & Restaurant
Old Volcano Highway
Hawaii, Big Island, Hawaii 96785
You could argue that visiting a macadamia nut factory in Hawaii is the most touristy thing imaginable to do. I would counter that the Dole Pineapple Factory is MORE touristy. But you're right, it seems like a cheesy thing to do ... until you turn off of Highway 11 onto a sedate tree-lined alley of a road, which you realize is the entrance road to the factory, and all you can see on either side are macadamia nut trees, and for the next mile the ground is lined with round green and brown nuts, and I bet you had no idea they grew on trees, did you! Well neither did I. And by the way, it was surprisingly empty for a tourist attraction. The staff positively doted on us, and gave us all sorts of free samples of everything you can possibly do to a macadamia nut. Did you know that Mauna Loa makes macadamia nuts in Kauai Cajun, Smoked, Cinnamon Sugar, Maui Onion, and Kona Coffee flavors? The Kona Coffee is particularly good, glazed with a smoky-sweet flavor that cuts the richness of the nuts nicely.
You can also buy nuts in bulk at a substantial discount. Instead of canning them, the factory vac-packs them in sturdy plastic bags with a freshness expiration date 5-weeks from packing. You can extend that date indefinitely by refrigerating them when you get home. The 16-oz packages are only $9.99 - compare that to grocery store prices!
On weekdays, you can watch the factory operate through a self-guided tour that leads you past glass windows. Our favorite part of the visit, though, was the snack bar on a shady lanai behind the gift shop. A television ran a loop of an informative, interesting "history of macadamia nuts" video to watch while you snack away. We had to laugh at a faked shot of '30s era macnut farmers trying to break the tough shells by driving a truck over them. Not very efficient!
The food was just heavenly. I could eat a slice of "macnut pie", a sort of pecan-pie-meets-Don-Ho treat with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, every day for the rest of my life. Then again, each macadamia has about one gram of fat, so I think it's fair to say that the road to hell is paved with macnuts!
Serving up nutty goodness from 8:30am-5pm daily.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 18, 2001
Yummy Mauna Loa Macadamia Factory
Hawaii, Big Island, Hawaii
Once, the village of Kalapana boasted sweeping ocean views and a beautiful black sand beach. Now the town and the beach are gone, over 100 buildings destroyed and covered in 1990 by acres of black lava. White smoke billows in angry plumes over ocean waves heated near to boiling by a subterranean volcanic eruption. At night, the drama intensifies as the sun sets and the vivid colors of the sputtering, spewing lava come to life.
Until recently, you had to hike many strenuous and even dangerous miles over rough volcanic terrain from the end of Crain of Craters Road or Highway 130 to get to the pyrotechnics at Kalapana, where Kilauea dumps molten lava into the sea from an underground lava tube. Given the danger and the hot, long, hike, this is not a popular tourist attraction. There are no trails, no rules, and no one to rescue you if you happen to step through a weak spot or be standing in the wrong place when an unstable "lava bench" decides to break off and tumble into the sea, causing massive eruptions. The road from Keeau (love those vowel-intensive Hawaiian words!) used to end in a flurry of "Danger" and "No Trespassing" signs. Just ask guide jim, who went to Kalapana "the hard way" last year – you can read all about it in his Big Island journal. But times change even as the landscapes changes, and not long ago, bulldozers and road crews were sent out to create an access road that delves gingerly into the East Rift zone. From there, they blazed a crude trail to guide visitors safely across the wide sea of hardened lava to a lookout point which is shockingly close to the violent horizontal eruption of lava into the Pacific.
This entry is continued in Part Two!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 29, 2001
Hawaii, Big Island, Hawaii
Blue Hawaiian offers three different helicopter tours, in luxurious air-conditioned comfort, complete with $1,500 BOSE noise-canceling headsets. We took the "Crater of Fire", a 45-50 minute tour of "the most geologically active environment on earth". The exact route of the tour changes daily to get in as much lava action as possible. The only downside to this tour is that you have to go over some rather uninteresting areas of the island to get to the good stuff. Fortunately, our guide Kimo (Hawaiian for James) did a great job of pointing out interesting details to pass the time, like explaining that the round tubs we saw in nearly every back yard were not undersized above-ground pools, but catchment basins used to gather rainwater.
Before long, though, you notice that the clouds on the horizon ahead are not actually clouds, as you initially thought, but a continuous plume of smoke issuing from the Pu'u O'o vent, which erupted frequently from 1986-1992 and added 300 acres to the island before wearing itself out. For the time being, it just spews steamy volcanic gases, which become ever more dramatic as your helicopter darts by them, making quick circular passes over the vent itself while you gape wide-eyed into the smoking abyss. The rest of Kilauea's molten flow passes through underground tubes, across the East Rift Zone to the sea. Most of the activity on Hawaii since 1983 has taken place in this zone.
Want to hear more? Go to " part two" of this entry!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 25, 2001
"Crater of Fire" Helicopter Tour
Hilo Airport/Waikoloa Heliport
Hawaii, Big Island, Hawaii
Attraction | "Whirlwind Tour of Volcanoes National Park"
Stop on the way in at the Visitor’s Center, where you can pick up a free map and guide to the park or better yet, for $6, the Road Guide to the park, which is worth the price for the photos of eruptions alone. If you’re planning to arrive before the park opens, pick up a free guide to the park in any tourist center or in one of the stores in Volcano Village. It’s worth mentioning that although the park road is open 24 hours, the Visitor’s center opens at 7:45am and closes at 5. Even when it is closed, however, you can still pick up a one-page map and guide from a bin on the wall. Early risers on a budget could conceivably sneak in before the rangers arrive and stay for free all day, but I’d feel like a creep cheating a National Park, especially one that only charges $10 per car for a week of visits.
The closest Really Impressive sight you can get to fast (6 miles from the entrance) is immense Halema’uma’au crater. The short walk from the parking area will take you past rocks yellowed by sulphur deposits and cracks in the ground that leak wisps of steam. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sun set, but you won’t really appreciate the explosion of color that sulphuric emissions have painted across the crater unless the sun is out. It’s also not a great place to be if you’re asthmatic or pregnant, due to the vile-smelling sulphur steam that drifts to and fro. Follow the walkway down the side of the crater – it turns into a trail that leads all the way to the Visitors’ Center on the other side of the crater, but you don’t need to go that far to discover some great views of the inside. Try to imagine it back in 1924, when it contained a bubbling seething lake of molten lava. If you’re not going on the Lava Adventure (see Lava Adventure entry) you might want to spend 10-15 minutes hiking out into the barren lava wasteland until you find some tall, interesting formations – but follow the trail blazes carefully, and pay attention to those "Danger – Thin Crust!" signs.
Go to Part 2 to hear more about fun things to do in Volcanoes Park!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 1, 2001
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hilo, Hawaii 96718
Go back to Whirlwind Tour of Volcanoes National Park – Part One
Other worthwhile stops include the Steam Vents, a short detour where you can see much more smoke coming out of much bigger cracks, the Rift Zone (not really a stop - you can see the big crack on the side of the road as you drive by) and the Kilauea Iki Overlook/Trailhead. Here you will get a good view of an enormous mile-wide crater – or hike down into it, if time permits. It is also right near spooky Thurston Lava Tube, which we didn’t have time to visit, but is supposedly big enough to drive a train through.
The Devastation Trail through the wreckage of the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption also comes highly recommended, but it is about as far from the entrance as you can get on the 11 mile Crater Rim loop, so we didn’t have time to check it out.
If you are interested in some really excellent handmade souvenirs, though, make some time for the Volcano Art Center Gallery, adjacent to the Visitors Center, on your way out. I was very impressed at the variety and craftsmanship of the work there. Some of the furniture especially was museum quality - and priced accordingly! (Open 9-5 daily - 808-967-7565)
One more really worthwhile thing to do, if you are staying nearby, is to drive into the park after dinner and revel in the unobstructed stargazing. We pulled our car over at the Steam Vents, and had a great time spotting shooting stars and admiring the clear view of the Milky Way. We also saw a park ranger – or he saw us – but he left us alone as soon as he was clear that we weren’t a bunch of local kids up to no good.
The eruption alert hotline is 808-985-6000 – the recording will let you know where the latest lava action is.
Go back to Crater of Fire – Part One
The trip took us past other vents, over wide fields of old lava flows where color delineations made it obvious that more than one river of fire had left its mark. Then we approached a hilltop that seemed nondescript until Kimo pointed out the remains of the Royal Gardens subdivision, a planned community of homes whose orderly grid of streets is permanently disrupted by black, ominous piles of lava. Many homes and lives were destroyed atop that hill - and as the helicopter swung in an arc down the hillside, we discovered why. Even today, molten lava still makes its deadly way down to the ocean, and we watched in rapt fascination as Kimo took us ever closer to the gleaming red and yellow flow.
More excitement was in store for us, though, as the helicopter approached the coastline. Here, in the middle of the East Rift, there are no hiking trails or bus tours. To go there by foot requires hours of walking over rough, often dangerous terrain. As Kilauea's molten river exits the underground lava tube, it spills into the ocean, where the shock of hot lava meeting water results in dramatic spray and violent splashes. To the east, the lava returns to the land in the form of tiny black granules, which are slowly forming a beautiful but deadly black sand beach. Kimo explained that most black sand beaches on Hawaii are short-lived, and in fact, the East Rift eruptions completely covered a beach which was only five years old.
We returned to the heliport hushed and awed by the monstrous force of the volcano. As with any Hawaii helicopter tour, we were offered the opportunity to spend yet more money on a souvenir video. But this one is a cut above the rest, because it was actually filmed by Kimo during our tour using special equipment built into the cockpit. It even contained the occasional reaction shot of our excited faces in the back of the copter. Don't get me started on the potential dangers of simultaneously performing the jobs of videographer and pilot. But still, the video was a big hit with family back home, although the sound was slightly warped. Still, what a great, personalized souvenir!
Recommended by Frommers and American Express (and now by Truly Malin), Blue Hawaiian runs tours daily from both Hilo and Waikoloa.
Note: if this tour is going to break your budget, don't despair! There are cheaper ways to get close to the lava flow. Check out the Lava Adventure entry in this journal for details.
Go back to Lava Adventure – Part One
In August 2001, the road was opened to the public, who fork over a $5 fee per car (good for one day) for the pleasure of a safe 30-45mn hike to the scenic view. In return, you get a xeroxed one-page sheet explaining how to view lava safely - but naturally, at your own risk.
The first part of your visit is spent in your car. It’s a little like an amusement park ride, as you bump and jostle over the hastily built road with its bumps and hillocks. To either side, the black moonscape stretches out in finger paint squiggles and tortured, cracked furrows. Three days before we arrived, the fire goddess Pele expressed her dislike of the new road by covering a wide swath of it with fresh lava. The undaunted road crews simply waited for it to harden, then paved right over it, creating an abrupt hill that smelled of sulfur and was several degrees hotter than the rest of the road. I suppose you’d normally be able to drive further, but we had to park on the side of the road and walk over this stifled volcanic protest until we reached the trailhead. As we glanced to the left and right, it was glaringly obvious which was the old lava and which was the new. The hike over the lava itself was brief but unforgettable, thanks to the bizarre formations (see photos below). If you insist on touching the lava rock, just be careful. You can get a surprisingly deep cut from its sharp edges. Not that I did or anything. Ahem.
There are two approaches to visiting Kalapana. The first is a short visit during daylight hours. You can hike in and out in an hour, allowing some time to rest, catch your breath, and enjoy your unbelievable proximity to one of nature’s most impressive displays. The second is to hike in shortly before sunset, and plan to spend a fair amount of time admiring the black sand beach-in-progress while waiting for dark so you can watch the fireworks. Either way you’ll want to wear sturdy shoes and bring some water, but if you plan to linger until dark, be sure to bring a flashlight or several – you’ll need the light on the hike back. You can enter the viewing area any time before 8:15pm, but the "rangers" (they’re highway maintenance workers at the moment) will kick you out at 9:30pm.
Note: for an aerial view of the Kalapana flow from the ocean, see the photo in my entry on the Crater of Fire Helicopter tour.
How to Get There
East and South of Volcanoes National Park, two roads converge upon the entrance to the East Rift. If you’re coming from Hilo, you’ll be heading south on 130 when your lava adventure begins at the "End of Road – 1" sign. Just follow the signs from there. If you happen to be coming from the coastal highway 137, your instructions are much the same – the road ends 2 miles west of Kehena, and from there, just follow the signs.
Where to Stay
If Kalapana really captures your imagination, there are a few places to stay in nearby Pahoa or even closer in Opihikao (just up 137). If you’re a lava generalist, you should be staying in Volcano Village (my pick is Kilauea Lodge). It’s not too, too far from Kalapana, and it’s wonderfully close to Volcanoes National Park. But if you’re not particularly fond of lava, you should probably be in Kona soaking up the rays.
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