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, KonaAt 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 CoastAs 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|
Another PlanetThe next day -- without the kids -- we headed south to
Night VisionAfter 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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