The Big Island of Hawaii
Now is the perfect time to experience the Big Island’s impressive volcanoes, adorable sea turtles, black-sand beaches, and amazing helicopter rides.
Further around the loop, I run up to the edge of the Halemaumau Overlook for another view of the caldera. Yellow-green gases billow from wrinkles way down in the crater, emitting a powerful rotten-egg smell. (By now, we've seen signs saying that pregnant women and small children should avoid exposure to the fumes, so Jessica and Will hang out in the car.)
Still further on, we navigate steep stairs across a fern jungle to walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, a natural tunnel formed by lava hundreds of years ago. Sparsely lit, with rounded rock walls and water dripping from above, the tube looks like a place theScooby-Doocrew would wander into.
The weather is clearing, so we double back and turn onto Chain of Craters Road, which drops from 4,000 feet to sea level in about an hour, zigzagging through three distinct landscapes: vibrant green rain forest, low shrubbery and grasses sprouting from old lava, and bleak sections where everything's covered in newer, molasses-like layers of jet-black lava.
Will is asleep again by the time the road runs into a makeshift ranger station; a few hundred yards later, the road really ends, because in 2003 lava flows covered it. Jessica insists that I go solo for a closer look. I follow a marked path and scramble over hardened, uneven lava, snapping pictures of a NO PARKING sign jutting from below. I'm sure the ground feels hot simply because it's black and the sun is beating down, but I can't get the thought out of my head that red lava is working its way to the surface below me, and I hightail it back to the car.
We try to eat at restaurants when they're least crowded--with a toddler, that works out best for everyone--and we're the first group for dinner at Kiawe Kitchen. William wants a closer peek at the restaurant's brick oven, and it's slow enough that the two cooks smile and chat as they slide our pizza inside. Turns out they're from New Jersey and Long Island, home turf for much of my family, and we play the "Do you know . . . ?" game. The ingredients are fresh, everything is delicious, and we get the check paid right as the place is filling up.
I'm a little concerned about theVolcano Inn, where I booked a room earlier in the day, because the rate is a below-market $69 and the man I spoke to requested cash. I'm even more worried when we struggle to find the place, which is across the highway from the other shops and hotels outside the national park. But upon inspecting our room, the Hapuu Cottage, I realize the inn is just a simple, small operation, and a bargain at that. Huge windows look into dense rain forest, and there's a fridge and plenty of space on the floor for William's inflatable mattress. Rain on the tin roof seems deafening at first, but soon lulls us all to sleep.
- Volcano InnSecond St., Volcano, 800/628-3876, volcanoinnhawaii.com, $69
- Kiawe Kitchen19-4005 Haunani Rd., Volcano, 808/967-7711, pizza $14.50
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park808/985-6000, nps.gov/havo, $10 per carload
Day 3: Volcano to Hawi
First thing in the morning we go to Hilo, a port town with ramshackle old factories on one block, upscale stores and restaurants on the next. While scrutinizing the many bear paintings at friendly, laid-backBear's Coffee, we dig into waffles and "bear-sized" cinnamon rolls.
There are last-minute openings forBlue Hawaiianhelicopter rides over Volcanoes, but they're pricey and it doesn't make sense for all of us to go. Jessica wins out, seeing as the fumes kept her from seeing much inside the park. We drop her off at the airport and head back to wander under the tarps set up for theHilo Farmers Market. I want to buy some fresh produce, but then wonder what I'd do with a pineapple. Will and I instead split amalasada, a traditional, sugar-covered, hole-less doughnut first brought to the islands decades ago by Portuguese immigrants.
Back at the airport, Jessica is jazzed about the helicopter ride, speaking a mile a minute about oozing streams of lava and waterfalls as she scrolls through pictures on our digital camera. North of Hilo, Highway 19 squiggles along with ocean on one side, mountains and unruly forests on the other. I thought we'd spend the night in Honokaa, but the options are limited. A nice woman at theHotel Honokaa Clubdoesn't think it's a great idea for us to stay with a toddler--the walls are super thin, she admits--and recommends a hotel a couple of hours away, in Hawi (pronounced "ahvee"). I'm again concerned that the hotel, theKohala Village Inn, costs too little ($65) to be up to snuff, but I make a reservation nonetheless.