Secret Little Paradise – Volcano, Hawaii

Secret Little Paradise

Volcano, Hawaii

For many of us on the mainland, Christmas means snow, Christmas trees, and lots of presents. As a child, these ingredients are magical. But for adults, the icy roads to the frigid Christmas tree lot, followed by bickering about which tree is best means the start of a stressful holiday season. On top of that, we have the inevitable backache from wandering through the shopping mall, wondering what in the world to buy for Uncle George…and the tornado remnants of Christmas morning as the new toys are broken and the cat tries to swallow the strands of ribbon lying everywhere. We decided that there must be a better way to celebrate what is supposed to be a joyous time of year.

The answer: The Hawaiian tropics. But not the crowded Waikiki or overpriced resorts on Maui. No, there are some fabulous Hawaiian destinations off the beaten path that offer the warm weather, tropical landscape, and awesome outdoors experiences…without all the cost, crowds and hassle. One of these best-kept secrets was our destination, the town of Volcano, Hawaii.

Volcano is situated at 3800 feet in elevation, inland from the humidity of the beaches. It lies in the southeastern part of the island, about 97 miles from Kona. Hilo is the closest city, just 28 short miles away. Its residents, all 1500 of them, are scattered around several square miles, but the central focus is Volcano Village and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with the most active volcano on the planet, Kilauea.

With the altitude, the climate was cooler than we expected, with sweatshirts required in the evening…but it also offered a nice respite from the heat of the beaches on days we ventured out of the area. And the 100 inches of rainfall each year contributed to the abundant and picturesque fern, ohi’a, and koa forests. When we arrived in the pitch dark, surrounded by lush tropical towering plants, we felt like we were on another planet.

What to do in Volcano
The question was not ‘What shall we do?’ The question was ‘What will we have to leave out in our limited time?’ I kid you not, we so enjoyed this area that we seriously considered investing in a vacation home here. We contacted a realtor and toured the area, looking at a few vacant lots and homes for sale. As of this writing, we haven’t made the plunge, but someday you may find my name on a mailbox!

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the obvious first choice of what to do. After all, it’s in Volcano’s backyard. (Or is it the other way around?) The first required activity was a drive within the main part of the Park: the Crater Rim Drive, the Visitors Center, the steam vents, Kilauea Crater, Halema’uma’u Crater, Devastation Trail, and Thurston Lava Tubes. We rushed through it all before lunch – our typical Type-A approach to vacationing. But at least we took the time to stretch our legs at the Halema’uma’u site where we discovered the sacrificial fresh fruit offerings left by the native people for Pele, the fiery Hawaiian goddess.

Although the interior of the park was fabulous, we had a higher goal: to see the flowing hot lava. And it’s true: nothing beats the spectacle of Kilauea’s glowing lava, which can be found via the Chain of Craters Road. No travel article can tell exactly how to get there or where it is because the lava flow moves. Sometimes it can be seen vividly, sometimes not. Kilauea has been erupting on its own schedule for twenty years. Its mysterious now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t style makes it all the more special when a visitor does have the good fortune for a great view…which, thankfully, we did.

We were fortunate to have local relatives to guide us to the exact trailhead after serving us gigantic platters of fresh papaya. Late afternoon is the best time to head for the flows, to witness the growing glow as the sun falls below the horizon. The trail, which begins at the end of the road past the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs, is a hot, uneven hike over rugged ground; at times the cooled lava actually covers parts of road that had previously been there. A melted sign protruded from the silvery pahoehoe, as if warning visitors of the power of the flow. Steam vents dotted the landscape, sulphur wafting through the air. At last, we looked up the hillside and saw the unmistakable orange molten lava.

We continued up ahead until we were able to stand just next to the lava. Our relative and guide, a lava veteran, had warned us to step back if we felt heat beneath our shoes! The heat did emanate from the ground, surrounding us on all sides, and the lava’s path shifted before our very eyes. As the light of the day waned and dusk enveloped us, the glow appeared magical, or perhaps demonic, as it continually changed its course to tease, challenge, and confound the visitors. At that time of evening, it was hard to discern between the hot and cooled lava, except for the areas where the fiery orange could be seen. But we could not rely solely on the color; the orange dissipates quickly but the lava is still hot enough to melt a shoe and burn a leg. One wrong step could have been tragic, and we all kept a close eye on each other. Thanks to our relatives, we had plenty of flashlights to help us make the right choices.

Standing on a bed of evolving lava is an experience that cannot be matched. The eerie glow and awesome beauty intermingled. The lava seemed to move so slowly, but when it broke through the ground beneath our feet, it was instantaneous. It was like a trickster, a shapeshifter, like it had its own plan and played with the human spectators like dolls. We listened to the snap, crackle and popping sounds, like roasting Rice Krispies. And it was amazing to literally see new land being created. The intense heat, brilliant orange color, and ever-changing landscape demonstrated an awesome scope of earth’s strength, force and beauty. It was hard to tear ourselves away, mesmerized as we were. But the hike back to the car in pitch black conditions, with hidden molten lava along our way, would require an hour or two, and it was important to be sure to make the return hike a safe success.

The next morning was fast in coming and we were slow in moving. But…who cared? Isn’t that what vacations are all about? Webster’s New World Dictionary (2nd college edition) defines vacation: “2. a period of rest and freedom from work, study, etc…” So that morning fit the definition perfectly.

We toured around Volcano Village and the town of Volcano, thinking that it could be a fine place for a vacation or retirement home, someday. Above the heat and (some of) the humidity, it offers crisp mountain air and is just a short ride from Hilo or the beaches. We missed out on the farmers market, held every Sunday morning for the best fresh papaya ever, but we learned that the market offers fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, as well as fantastic bakery products like sweet cheese croissants and pesto rolls.

We saw several art shops and learned about the Volcano Art Center “where artists, writers, naturalists, and creative spirits of all ages gather to draw inspiration from a pristine rainforest on the most beautiful volcanic island in the world.” Certain members of our family were interested in the links at Volcano Golf and Country Club, with sweeping views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, but the non-golfers in our party put an end to that idea.

One of the nice things about Volcano is the slower pace of life. We had a relaxing spaghetti lunch on the lanai of our relatives’ bungalow. They spend a few months each winter there in Volcano; the rest of the year they live in Alaska. As young retirees, they have the luxury to spend their time doing whatever it is they want to do. Living a laid-back lifestyle, however, doesn’t result in laziness for them. Quite the contrary: they are very active outdoors people who are tremendously healthy in diet and physical fitness. (A lifestyle that perhaps more of us mainlanders should aspire to?)

We drove to Mauna Kea in the early afternoon. Mauna Kea means White Mountain, aptly named because of its snow-covered peak in the winter months. It is accessible via Saddle Road, which is curving and narrow and not in the best of condition, but it did the trick. The mountain stands 13,796 feet above sea level and is central to Hawaiian beliefs and customs. It is also known as Wakea, who was the sky-father of Hawaiians, with Hawaii being the island-child.

We wanted to take the drive or hike to its summit, but the road requires a four-wheel drive (which is difficult to rent), and persons under 16 are strongly advised not to proceed beyond the Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200 feet, due to low atmospheric pressure. Instead, we hiked up an access road just below the VIS in late afternoon. The trail meandered among grassy hillsides and ended in an ideal spot to watch an incredible sunset above the cloud level and over the valley. As dusk settled, we hiked back to the VIS for stargazing. The station has a number of astronomical displays available, including a replica of a mirror from the giant telescopes atop the mountain, and there are several telescopes set up for viewing with the assistance of guides who use laser pointers to help identify features of the night sky. The weather in Hawaii cooperated for us, and we saw a double star (white and blue), the Andromeda galaxy, the Northern Cross, Pleiades, the Summer Triangle, Orion, Taurus, Pisces, and the moon up very close. The gift shop was a great place to pick up souvenirs. As for me, I found the sky powerful that day, from the palette of colors transcending above the clouds at sunset to the vivid sparkling patterns of stars in the deep blue sky of night.

Where to stay:
We stayed in one of the many vacation rental homes in the area. They range from the small and cozy house to the elegant executive abode. Our choice was Hale Mauna Loa, also known as Gil’s Place, which we found on the internet. An expansive wraparound sheltered lanai, perched high off the ground in the midst of a dense tropical fern forest, offered the perfect way to unwind after a grueling day of travel.

Other choices of accommodations included the Holo Holo In, which offers hostel facilities ; Volcano House, a historic building dating back to 1846 within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; and Kilauea Volcano Cottage, a 1930’s cottage secluded amidst two acres of tropical forest.

Where to eat:
One will never go hungry in Volcano, and the best part was that there wasn’t a McDonald’s in sight. Our first meal in town was at the Lava Rock Café, a funky little local restaurant with pretty good food, friendly locals, and a general store and gift shop. We had lunch one day at the Volcano Golf and Country Club. It’s a good choice for typical club grill food (burgers and sandwiches), and it’s not what you think: no collared shirts required here, and jeans are just fine. Finally, we also enjoyed the Kiawe Kitchen back at Volcano Village for late night pizza.

“Aloha” means the recognition of life in another. In Volcano, it is easy to recognize life, for it is everywhere. In the ferns, in the flowers, even in the volcanoes – and especially in the people. The people of Volcano are warm and welcoming and encouraged us to stay and enjoy their secret little paradise.

Which we did. What better place to spend a joyous holiday but in a place that makes you feel good? But there was a catch. There is a saying on the islands – that if Hawai’i wants you to stay, it will hold on to you. Though you scatter to the four winds, it will always call you back.

It’s true. Volcano epitomizes that legend. Volcano is calling us…and we will return!

Elizabeth Addison is a freelance writer living in Bend, Oregon.