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Volcanic Paradise

We arrived a little later than planned at the end of the road, where black lava rock abruptly took over the pavement. It was already dark, the only guidance coming from the full moon high overhead.

After parking, my husband, brother and I became one of several small groups hopscotching from one jagged rock to the next, the anticipation slowly building as if we were awaiting Fourth of July fireworks.

Instead of a man-made show, a glowing red mass illuminated the darkness a few miles away. Having only flashlights, attempts to get closer quickly became futile, so we sat down under the stars, joining a few dozen others who had ventured out on the deserted 20-mile drive to the Pacific Ocean to witness a live lava flow.

We were all on the Big Island of Hawaii, home to the planet's most active volcano.

With its five volcanoes and history of earthquakes and tsunamis, the island hardly sounds like an ideal vacation spot.

But the dazzling offshore aquarium and diverse landscape -- from expanses of lava to rainforest to rolling green pastureland, all within a couple hours' drive -- make a trip to the largest Hawaiian island truly memorable.

Aloha, Kona

At about the size of Connecticut, the Big Island is two times larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. Even after nine days there, I left wistful that I didn't see more (due to time constraints and two children in tow).

We stayed near the town of Kona on the island's west side. With McDonald's, Costco and traffic jams, Kona is less charismatic than Hilo, to the east, which boasts charming century-old buildings and a laid-back atmosphere.

But Kona is more popular because it receives much less rain. And Kona's waterfront, flanked by restaurants and shops, is scenic in a touristy, almost southern-Californian way.

Although the small beaches around Kona get crowded, the snorkeling alone at one inlet, Kahalu'u, makes a visit to this area worthwhile. It was amid the coral in Kahalu'u's crystal0-clear, calm blue water that my brother swam beside a sea turtle -- the first of many that we would see on the trip.

Snorkeling here was like entering a new world, the waters teeming with fish of every color conceivable -- bright yellow, black and white polka-dotted, luminescent orange and green, and a strange black fish with a single dramatic turquoise stripe along its sides.

Trolling the Kohala Coast

As sand worshippers from California, we also made it our mission to find a beach more idyllic than our childhood haunts in Santa Barbara and Del Mar. Hawaii's Kohala coastline did not disappoint.

If you can visit only one beach on the Big Island, it should be Mauna Kea, about 30 miles north of Kona. A tranquil crescent-shaped white-sand beach with views of Maui, Mauna Kea also has shade trees to allow for a long, relaxing visit.

Sea Turtles in Action

The beach is only accessible through the Mauna Kea resort, the first resort in Kohala, built by Laurance Rockefeller in 1965. Friends and guidebooks recommended arriving to Mauna Kea as early as 8:30 a.m., because the resort only has about 30 public parking spots.

We drove into a practically empty lot at 10 a.m. on a weekday and discovered an upside to the annoying parking-spot rationing: no crowds.

We had the sky-blue water to ourselves for amazing snorkeling in endless coral reefs. I only decided to leave this underwater paradise for shore after spotting a peculiar thin, bluish-green tube-like fish with a threateningly long needlelike tail.

For a taste of Hawaiian history, we drive south of Kona to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, a national historic park on Honaunau Bay.

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