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.

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.

The hike began in a dense rainforest of ferns, ginger plants and 'o'hia trees full of spiky red blossoms. Then, at the bottom, the trees suddenly cleared, and there was no sign of vegetation, just a giant uneven plain of scraggly black rock -- all that remains after the crater shot fountains of hot lava as high as 1,900 feet in 1959.

We hiked past steam floating up through vents in the ground and black rock jutting up violently like asphalt that had buckled during an earthquake; I felt like a misplaced tourist beamed onto a prehistoric planet.

But as we neared the edge of the crater, birds began chirping and flowers peeked from the ground. Another rainforest there offered much-needed shade for the hike up.

Night Vision

After recharging with a spicy Thai dinner in the tiny town of Volcano, we returned to the park's Chain of Craters Road, hoping to see lava pouring into the ocean.

As we drove along the two-lane road with no other car in sight, we heard a park ranger on the radio warn to head for higher ground immediately in the event an earthquake occurred. Sure. My imagination ran wild as I pictured a giant wave washing away our car.

We finally arrived at a mile-long line of parked cars and joined a small parade of people walking to the end of the road, which was crossed by lava in 2003.

After venturing out slightly farther on the rock and sitting down, we resigned ourselves to the idea that all we would see was a fiery red glow somewhere in the distance.

Anticlimactic? Maybe. But it was also strangely tranquil, sitting so far from civilization, with waves crashing just feet away and the full moon studding the night sky.

Next time we come to the Big Island, we'll get closer, I consoled myself, certain that there will be a next time. The pull of Hawaii will compel me to return to explore more of this strange land.

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