[Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In honour 4th of July weekend, Jody Robbins spotlights on one of America’s most unique attractions.]
Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Columnist
HILO, HAWAII — We don’t spot any fiery red lava, but the smoke billowing out of the crater of this volcano reminds us it’s there, gurgling just below the surface. Seeing the glow of the lava lake reflected from within the Kilauea caldera, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is one of those surreal experiences one doesn’t expect when visiting a tropical island, unless of course, you’re on Hawaii, the Big Island.
I’ve come here with my family to explore Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second most visited site in the Hawaiian island chain after Pearl Harbor. Home to five volcanoes, two of which are considered to be the world’s most active, we wannabe explorers are keen to see what it’s like peering into the rim of an active volcano.
While this is an active eruption site, it’s not like you’re going to be swept away in a tide of bubbling lava. “These are user-friendly volcanoes,” says Jessica Ferracane, public affairs officer for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Because the volcanoes here are shield volcanoes, the lava flows more slowly, so there is no cause for alarm.
Being active means the volcanoes change daily. For now, the lava isn’t flowing into the ocean and hasn’t been since summer 2013, but that doesn’t mean the only thing to see here is smoke.
Trek Through Hawaii’s Rainforests and Lava Tubes
With over 250 kilometres (155 miles) of trails in the park, the area is a haven for hikers and even those less keen on the whole walk-in-the-woods thing. Ducking under pale green fronds of fern understory and plants studded with brilliantly coloured flowers, we’re decidedly not hiking, merely examining the rainforest flourishing with more than 50 plants and animals on endangered lists. It’s certainly not the desolate terrain we expected.
“People come expecting this barren, harsh volcanic landscape — that everything is kind of scorched. They don’t realize that over two-thirds of the park is rainforest,” says Ferracane.
Families can’t miss trekking through Thurston Lava Tube, a dark and mysterious lava cave. Formed after a river of lava gradually built up solid walls and a ceiling, the downhill lava flow stopped some 500 years ago, creating a cave.
“Isn’t this cool?” asks my usually unimpressed nine-year-old daughter, Eve. “It’s so crazy lava flowed through here and created this tube!” she says gleefully while running up and down the tube, stopping only to investigate the solidity of its walls.
Sussing out the steam vents is another troop-pleasing (if smelly) activity. Between the caldera’s edge and the outer cliffs of Kīlauea Caldera is a treeless plain. Waves of warm, humid air float out of these volcanic vents that have pried open the earth, and is so hot, tree roots cannot survive.
Guided park ranger hikes are posted daily at 9 am, offering a different perspective on this land and what’s happening within it. While it’s fascinating to see what it’s like now, it’s even more interesting to learn how it got this way and what might happen to it next.
A Hot Time at Volcano House
Recently reopened after three-year, $4-million renovation, Volcano House is the only hotel in the United States that sits on the rim of an active volcano. Meaning: guests get to eat, sleep and chill overlooking Halema’uma’u Crater at the summit of Kïlauea.
One advantage those dealing with jet lag will enjoy is seeing the glow of the lava lake early in the morning or very late at night from one of the US National Parks’ great lodges. “At night the reflection that it creates on the clouds, with the plume of gas and ash is really a magical thing,” Ferracane says.
With only 33 rooms, no TVs and no air conditioning (not that you need it at 4,000 feet), the hotel has a historic feel few properties can replicate. Despite the lack of TVs there’s much to entertain families. Cozy up by the wood-burning fire — once the world’s longest burning — and browse the hotel’s lending library filled with books about the park and Hawaiian culture. There are complimentary bikes and evening nature tours for in-house guests, plus live music four nights a week. And if you really need some screen time, guests are welcome to take one of the hotel’s iPad’s back to their room.
“Guests come here to get out and appreciate the natural beauty the park has to offer. They appreciate being unplugged and being able to spend time as a family playing games or even just having a great conversation about all they did that day,” says David MacIlwraith, the hotel’s general manager.
After spending the past few hours managing moods and expectations, walking around a huge depression encircling a steaming centre, I have to agree with him. Travelling with kids means you get used to active, often unpredictable eruptions. A quiet night by the fire peering at another inferno in the distance seems the perfect ending to a day of intense volcano exploration.
MORE ABOUT VOLCANO HOUSE
Location: 1 Crater Rim Dr, Volcano, Hawaii (see map below)
Contact: 1-866-536-7972; www.hawaiivolcanohouse.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Offers: Receive a $50 dining credit with every two night stay for travel booked through December 19, 2014.
More Info: For more details on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park click here: www.nps.gov/havo