(YES this is a super late post. WHOOO. My Hawaii trip actually happened in June 2016! If you missed my previous posts, I talked about presenting my research at the International Coral Reef Symposium, exploring Diamond Head, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, eating my way around Hawai’i, and my souvenirs from the trip. And don’t mind the numbering of the posts. There WILL be a part 4 that covers an entire day going around Honolulu, but I managed to write this one first so I decided to post this first.)
We took Hawaiian Airlines’ 5:00 am flight to Hilo because it was the only one I could book using my Delta Skymiles. Used to NAIA’s rule of being at the airport two hours before a domestic flight, we were at the airport by 3:00 am. Too bad Honolulu International Airport and the check-in counters only open at 4:00 am so we had to wait outside on the concrete steps.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea were our non-negotiables for this island. Pro tip: prepare for cold weather. We think Hawai’i is all endless sunshine and humidity but it does get cold, rainy, and windy, especially as you go up the volcanoes. Wear layers and a woolly hat and bring a rain jacket. Also wear comfortable hiking shoes (no to flip-flops and sandals!) as you’ll be scrambling over areas of uneven terrain in the parks.
Our first stop was at HVNP’s Kilauea Visitor Center to get maps and updates on driving and hiking conditions, plus the schedule of ranger-led activities. We had a lot of fun during the “Exploring the Summit” walk, where we learned about how the volcanoes influenced Hawai’i’s culture, plants, and animals. The walk is done along a paved road on easy terrain so everyone can join in. Ranger Travis also shared the history of HVNP and pointed out the shards of Pele’s Hair that we saw along the road. Pele’s Hair is strands of volcanic glass that formed when lava was ejected into the air and stretched out by the wind. While they look really pretty, remember that they’re glass so don’t touch them unless you’re prepared to cut your fingers.
After the tour, we headed to the Jaggar Museum on volcanology along Crater Rim Drive for an expansive view of Kilauea Caldera and its erupting Halema’uma’u crater. Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes – the eruption I saw started in 1983! Confession time: we slept in the car for about an hour after we got to the Jaggar Museum because we were so tired after our early morning flight.
If the tiny spot of glowing lava that you see during the day doesn’t impress you, come back after sunset to appreciate the full glow of lava coming from deep inside the earth. If you’re based out of Volcano Village (which is what we did) or Volcano House, you can come back at around 8pm to avoid the crowd basing out of Kona.
After the Jaggar Museum, we drove further down to check out the Thurston lava tubes. The parking lot beside the entrance to the lava tubes is pretty small so try to get there early. Lava tubes are tunnels created when the outer shell of a river of lava cools down and solidifies while the middle flow goes along its merry way. I’m claustrophobic so I initially didn’t want to go in, but the path through the lava tube was lit so it was all good.
After this, we transferred over to the Chain of Craters Road and drove past solidified lava fields in various stages of ecological succession.
There are lookout points scattered along the road, with my favorite one being the one at the start of the Keauhou Trail. I didn’t want to leave because the view was just breathtaking.
Once you get to the “End of the Road”, you’ll get a panoramic view of vast lava fields slowly inching their way across the coastal plain towards the ocean, plus the Holei sea arches.
Pro tip: bring packed lunches and drinks and take advantage of the numerous picnic areas around the park. The only place to buy food inside HVNP is Volcano House, which is located near the entrance. Volcano House started off in 1841 as a one-room shelter made of ohia wood but is now a 33-room luxury hotel with views of the Kilauea caldera or the park grounds. Though if you have enough cash to splash out for dinner at Volcano House, good for you!
WHERE TO STAY:
Holoholo In (yes, it’s really spelled that way) in Volcano Village offers comfy hostel rooms for a fair price – still on the expensive side but that’s typical of Hawaii. We booked a room good for five people only the day before we arrived. Don’t be like us! 😛
The room was pretty big and Satoshi (the owner) provided a lot of blankets. The room isn’t heated so you’re going to need them. The shared bathroom downstairs is a bit small and could use some renovating. However, the big winner was the kitchen. Sure the appliances are slightly old, but the kitchen feels really light and airy and you can see the plants outside.
Possible downside: Satoshi doesn’t allow early check-ins or bag drops 🙁 We arrived in Volcano at around 9am (we drove directly from Hilo) and hoped to drop our bags off before heading to the park. No can do so we had to keep our bags in the car.
Renting a car is a must if you want to get around the Big Island quickly and with maximum flexibility. While the Hele-On public bus has a decent network and only costs $2 per ride, it’s geared towards getting locals to and from work and school, not sightseeing. There are fewer buses during the weekends and holidays and they don’t always go where tourists need them to go. For example, while the bus will get you to the entrance of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you’ll still need a car to get around the park. The bus also doesn’t go to Mauna Kea.