Ignoring the relentless commands of our GPS (which had calculated a shorter route), my husband and I instead drove south from our resort in the Waikoloa Beach area, following Hwy. 11 along the west coast of the Big Island. With narrow, winding roads and slow traffic, we found ourselves hurtling along at a blazing 35 miles per hour. But it was all about the journey, as well as the destination. The scenery was constantly changing: Chunky black volcanic rubble from earlier lava flows would give way to lush tropical greenery, followed by expansive ocean views.
A must-do is a stop at Captain Cook’s Trading Co. for possibly the island’s best prices on genuine Kona coffee and macadamia nuts. A bonus is a chat with the owner, Emmerich, a charming German expat who loves to help visitors understand the complexities of coffee roasting.
At the southern tip of the island, ready for a break, we stopped at the popular Punalu’u Bake Shop and enjoyed our first malasadas — fluffy, pillowy, doughnut-like pastries without the hole in the middle.
Upon arriving at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the recommended first stop is the Visitor Center, with exhibits, park rangers and friendly volunteers who will cheerfully answer questions and give suggestions to make the most of your visit. Because Kilauea is an active volcano, road closings, safety information and viewing opportunities are constantly changing. There were warnings about the possibility of dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide gas in the park, which can be a concern for those with breathing difficulties. (For updated park conditions, call the Eruption Update Hotline at 1-808-985-6000 or check the nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit website).
The short trip along Crater Rim Drive passes the steam vents (reminiscent of Yellowstone) and leads to the Jaggar Museum, with its large stone terrace overlooking Kilauea Caldera. If you are expecting a cone-shaped volcano (of the middle school science fair variety) Kilauea will be a surprise. It’s a shield volcano, located in a 400-foot-deep, 3-mile-wide depression, with the main vent in the center continuously spewing billowing clouds of steam, along with the occasional squirt of lava. An impressive and mesmerizing sight.
Also located in the park is the Thurston Lava Tube, formed when a river of lava builds up walls and a ceiling, then subsides, leaving a tunnel. The easy half-mile loop trail winds through a lush rain forest filled with birds and exotic plants, and takes you through the cavelike lava tube, said to be 500 years old.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park offers much more than we had time to experience. The Chain of Craters Road is a 38-mile round-trip drive, descending 3,700 feet to the coast. It requires about two hours to traverse, and offers overlooks and petroglyphs, and ends where the road is buried by previous lava flows. We’ll put that on the list for next time, along with a nighttime viewing of the caldera, when it is said to glow spectacularly, eerily red.
The park is open daily 24 hours. Admission is $10 per vehicle, or free with the National Parks “Senior Pass.”
Nancy Armbruster is a retired elementary school teacher, married to Jim Armbruster, a retired pharmacist. They live in Mankato, enjoy volunteer work and love the horizon-expanding adventures of travel. Recent favorite destinations, in addition to Hawaii, include French Polynesia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.