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Volcanic Paradise

The area was a residence for ali'i, or royal chiefs, and a sanctuary for defeated warriors, noncombatants during wartime and those who violated sacred laws. A reconstruction of a temple, complete with tower for offerings, and remnants of a massive wall from the 1500s serve as windows into Hawaii's past.

What attracts the most camera lenses, however, are the sea turtles -- an endangered species -- gently washing in and out with the waves along the black lava rocks.

Another Planet

The next day -- without the kids -- we headed south to Volcano National Park , enjoying the stunning ocean views on a winding two-lane road past coffee farms, mango trees and green undeveloped hills.

After passing the southern tip of the island, we stopped at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. I thought I had seen it all after traveling to such far-flung beaches in Egypt, Greece and Portugal, but I was still amazed as I poured the strange, fine charcoal-like grains of black sand at Punalu'u through my fingers.

Continuing northeast, we arrived at the park after a quick stop at the overhyped historic Volcano House hotel, whose dated wood paneling, worn carpeting and hot dog-eating tourists depressed me.

But just out back, we saw the attraction: The lodge is perched on the edge of a giant, gaping hole in the earth called Kilauea Caldera, a crater that looks as if it was created by a massive meteor strike.

At the visitors' center, a helpful park ranger indicated on a map how far it was possible to venture out to the lava flow, which is moving all the time. He also showed a picture taken of the flow from the viewing area, our first clue that we weren't likely to see much. Undeterred, we decided to visit the flow at sunset and explore the rest of the park until then.

From a viewing point, we spotted tourists far below hiking across the bottom of the Kilauea Iki, or Little Kilauea, crater, tiny specks in an arid black landscape. We then headed down the approximately 3-mile Kilauea Iki Trail.

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