By Bob Starink
The Big Island of Hawaii doesn’t have the glitz of Oahu but it does have the volcano. Kilauea, with its ongoing lava flows, is a major enticement away from the beaches of Honolulu.
We stayed in Hilo, the capital and closest city from which to visit Volcanoes National Park. We opted for a morning helicopter flight to study the big picture before heading out by car at ground level. We also went with the Doors-off Experience, the idea here being that you can actually feel the heat coming from below as you fly.
Let me say it’s a very small helicopter (the pilot, two more in the front and two in the back). I had the prime position up front but I’ll admit it was unnerving having a whole bum cheek hanging out the side flying over 3,000 feet above the ground. Also, while the copter is definitely worth the $225 per person, you are at the mercy of the volcano’s whims. While naturally not wishing anyone harm, you do hope for lava spurting into the sky and rivers of red flows gushing down the slopes. You might fluke this happening, but more likely you will have a slow day like we did. You will see lots of steam but very little red. The magnitude of the volcanic country is impressive, though, and you will definitely appreciate the activity you do see from such a fine vantage point.
Back at the airport, it’s into the rental car (very necessary here) and off to explore. Volcanoes National Park is 40 minutes from Hilo and offers many walks around and into craters. A short walk through the Thurston Lava Tube demonstrates what is happening elsewhere on an active scale. The drive down Chain of Craters Road to the coast covers vast lava fields and continues till the road stops where it has been cut by previous lava flows. A lookout over the water here shows the craggy coastline and a lava arch. There is a long walk into the distance along the coastline which we knew from the helicopter would not be worth the hours it would take.
We ventured down the less touristy Route 130 through Pahoa to check out the other end of the road that stops. This ended up being a good move. From a parking area, local volunteers tell you what’s happening further down the road. That day there was a fresh lava breakout. The 20-minute walk had more to see than the lava at the end of it. There are occupied houses built on the lava fields, strange structures often surrounded by only black rock. The insurance premiums here must be extreme. (One was for sale. No thanks.) We reached the breakout, and from a safe distance we witnessed fresh lava seething to the surface, causing bushes to catch alight and flowing (very slowly) in our direction, the molten bright silver rock as it cooled a living contrast to the rough dead crusts evident on the walk there.
Take the scenic route along the coast going back to Hilo and see a greener part of the island with pretty houses you may really be tempted to buy.
While on the Big Island, we also participated in a quad bike tour with ATV Outfitters on the North Kohala coast. If you have time, this is an exciting excursion riding over farmland, through gulches and up and down hills to see a more inviting shoreline. They also offer tours into the hills for a swim beneath a waterfall in a mountain pool.
If you go:
Jetstar offers cheap flights to Hawaii from $500 one way. Honolulu to Hilo with Hawaiian Airlines is around $80 including taxes. Volcanoes National Park costs $10 per car entry. A seaside ATV tour is priced at $129 per person and takes just under two hours. Hilo is on the wet side of the island with the ritzy resorts all on the dryer, far side near Kona, so accommodation in Hilo is basic. We stayed at the Dolphin Bay Hotel, not flash but clean and comfortable for $125 per night.