When we started planning a family trip to the Big Island of Hawai'i, a visit to an active volcano was on our "must-see" list. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is located on the "wet" side of the island, which means that it was on the opposite side of the island from our resort. If you're staying on the Waikoloa/Kailua/Kona side of the island, be prepared that it'll take a couple of hours, minimum, to get from your resort to see the volcanoes. It's a very full day trip, without much time to do anything else, but if you've got the ability to build in an extra day or two at the front end of your trip, staying overnight in or near the National Park is very worthwhile. Know why? So that you see the lava at night. That's why!
There's a reason I suggest doing it at the front end of your trip. I'll get to that in a minute, but here's how we did it, recently.
We were flying from the east coast, so by the time we landed in Kona, we were kind of exhausted. It was a six-hour flight from New York to LA, and then another 5 hours from LA to Kona. (You can also fly into Hilo, but Kona seems to have more flight options). Add in the time spent during the layover (and not even counting the time spent getting to the airport and going through security), we'd been traveling for about 12 hours, and it wasn't even lunch time.
Coming out of the airport we googled lunch places near the airport and found a well-recommended burger place that operated out of a kiosk in an arts and crafts market. Then we headed around to the other side of the island and the National Park. There are three ways to get there. The internet said that the fastest way was to go around the southern tip of the island. Along the way, we passed some cute towns, an amazing fruit stand, the Donkey Balls Store, a couple of amazing snorkel spots, the turn-off for the southernmost point in the US as well as a green sand beach, a phenomenal black sand beach, and several other noteworthy points of interest. We didn't stop at any of those places, but we noted that we'd have to do a bit of driving in order to get back to them all. If you're following in our footsteps (or, erm, jeep tracks), stop at some of those, if you like. You don't have to be in a hurry to see the volcano. After all, it's been there for seventy million years (though admittedly, most of those were on the sea floor). It's not going away anytime soon.
Staying in the park, itself, has real advantages. Volcano House is the lodge that's right in the park, built on the rim of the crater. From the restaurant and bar (or from the lanai), you can see the steam and smoke from Kilauea's Halemaʻumaʻu Crater. As night falls, the smoke starts to take on an orange glow. It's really, really cool.
We checked into Volcano House, walked across the road to the visitor center, and then settled in at the hotel bar with two tumblers of Business Juice, or what you might call "bourbon." We watched the sun set, and then moved over to the restaurant for a nice, leisurely dinner. At this point, we were really tired, having flown for half a day and driven for a couple more hours, but we decided that since the whole point of building an extra day into our trip was to see the volcano at night, we should actually... wait for it... wait for it...
...see the volcano at night.
We drove up the hill to the Jaggar Center, which has a lookout that's a bit higher than at Volcano House, but it was kind of a miserable experience. It was freezing cold, for one thing. It was very windy, as well. And we weren't the only ones who had the idea to see the volcano at night. Lots of other people were crowded onto the viewing platform, and they were all cold and shivering, too. It's hard to appreciate the magnificence of an active caldera when everyone around you is shouting to their other family members about how cold it is.
So, we went back to our room at Volcano House and crashed. It was only about 9 p.m., but back home in New York, it was 3 a.m., so we figured that we'd done pretty well by staying up that late.
But as is the wont with jetlag, it doesn't go away overnight. We were up super early the next morning, well before the sun came up. So, we decided to bundle up (unlike the night before) and head back up to the Jaggar Center to look at the volcano early in the morning.
There was no one else there. We had the place all to ourselves. So, we stood there for a long time, and as the sun came up, one other couple joined us. But compared to the throngs of people the night before, it was perfect. Peaceful. Quiet. And beautiful.
Even if you don't stay at Volcano House, you can still have this kind of magical experience. The park is open 24 hours a day, though the visitor centers aren't. But Volcano House is great because they'll loan you bicycles so that you can cycle on some of the bike trails. They also have guided tours and nature walks. The accommodations aren't "luxury" by any stretch, but they're very clean and comfortable, and many of the rooms overlook the volcano. The rooms don't have televisions, but the front desk will loan you an iPad, if you really need to watch a video, and they've got board and card games and a lending library for you, as well.
Planning a trip to the Big Island, and looking for unique, special experiences? Huckleberry Travel can help! Send us a note, to get us started on putting your dream vacation together!