Hawaii's Big Island exploding with activity for travelers
There is a typical Waikiki version of Hawaii involving leis, luaus and tourists swarming the same few blocks of beachfront property.
There is also another version of a Hawaiian vacation, where you walk a few feet out of your private cabin with little company other than the native Nene geese and gaze over the crater of a volcano.
While no sane traveler would tell you to go to Hawaii and skip some of the most beautiful beaches on earth, limiting yourself to them is just as poor a choice, assuming you have more than a few days of downtime.
A 45-minute flight from Honolulu will get you to Hawaii's Big Island, home of America's best warm-weather, drive-in volcano. The Big Island is composed of five volcanic areas, the most famous of which, Kilauea, is still bubbling and belching lava.
When I first arrived on a Sunday afternoon, I was ready for the sort of majestic, molten sights you see on documentaries. I saw something a bit different. It was my hand, as long as it remained reasonably close to my face.
Beyond that, the area was blanketed by what locals call vog, a thick fog created by volcanic gases.
There is an eerie beauty to it when you're hiking through some of the dense forests growing in parts of the park. But after a few hours, you'll likely pack it in.
At night, the temperature drops into the 50s, so pack a jacket -- it's Hawaii, but at
an elevation of 4,000 feet, it may as well be New England. Fortunately, most of the vog cleared away that night, leaving the park lit by a sky full of stars.
The stars serve as a backdrop to the glowing red steam of the Halema'uma'u crater, which can be easily viewed from a museum about two miles from the park entrance. Bring a long lens or binoculars for the full, breathtaking experience. There are some other great viewing locations which, depending on current activity, are announced at the park visitor center.
The next morning was vog-free, and the park took on a whole new look. Driving along the main roads, the black, viscous lava flows from past years stop abruptly in places. They leave a desert on one side and abundant life fed by the rich volcanic soils on the other. Giant ferns pack themselves into a small crater that surrounds the Thurston Lava Tube, a cave hollowed out by ancient volcanic flows. At 8:30 a.m., you might be the only one there. Later in the day, tour buses filled the nearby parking lot.
The roads continue on to the coast, where the volcanic scenery collides with the ocean. The continuing lava flows mean that the Big Island's coastline is continuing to expand. Fortunately for travelers, the eruptions don't appear to ending anytime soon.
There are a few direct flights from Japan and the mainland U.S., but most visitors connect with Hawaiian Airlines or smaller carriers from Honolulu. Kona International Airport at Keahole will put you about 2 ½ hours from the volcano, but it's an option if you're staying near the sunnier Kona-side beaches. Hilo International Airport is about an hour's drive from the volcano.
It might look a little shady, but discounthawaiicarrental.com saved my trip. When all the major rental companies were saying they were sold out, this website got me a week's rental with Alamo on short notice, at a good price. Although they said they couldn't secure a 4X4, Alamo had one at the rental counter. A 4X4 is a necessity if you want to drive up Mauna Kea, and it will help you explore otherwise inaccessible beaches.
Where to stay
Located within the park borders, Kilauea Military Camp (kmc-volcano.com) has been around since 1916 and is reserved for servicemembers and Defense Department civilians. Prices for cabins and lodge rooms escalate with rank, but they regularly run discount offers. There is one other lodge within the park and other options in the nearby village.
Where to eat
Kilauea Lodge in the village of Volcano is the best restaurant in the area. I'd recommend the homemade corned beef hash for breakfast, and the antelope burger is good for lunch. Near Kona International Airport, Kilauea Military Camp makes a great fresh fish sandwich and has a decent dinner buffet.