Getaway: Outdoor exploration on Big Island, Hawaii, from volcanoes to snow

Tania Mejer

We blew past a "road closed" sign at the end of Highway 130.

Beyond the taillights of the SUV we were following was pure darkness. I wondered if my mother and I would have to explain to the car rental agency why we had gotten stuck late at night in a desolate lava field, miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

But when a glowing red river came into sight, it was so thrilling such thoughts didn't matter anymore.

We were with about 30 locals (some of whom had generously offered to let us follow them) standing inches away from flowing molten lava at the Kalapana viewing area - the caldera of active Kilauea volcano about 20 miles away. Shades of red, white and gray swirled, gurgled and popped in a lava pool, occasionally spraying molten rock in miniature fireworks-like displays.

It's no wonder some locals packed a cooler just to watch - this process of earth expansion as lava flows to the sea is mesmerizing.

Nearby, two kids poked red-hot rock with a signpost. But others warned you really don't want to take a chance of angering Pele, one of the island's most revered deities, the goddess of fire and creator of this spectacular display.

As the lava moves, so does viewing. A week earlier, to see the flow you'd have to hike for hours, we were told. The day after our visit, authorities closed off the area, later reopening it after setting up a "safe" viewing site. Pele is unpredictable.

When the lava was beginning its inexorable slide earlier in the week, we were busy kayaking on the other side of the island in South Kona's Kealakekua Bay, beneath lava tubes in towering cliffs with Kona Boys ( After we propelled ourselves through the surf into the calm bay, a school of spinner dolphins gracefully approached. We watched them play while our guide related some history - including the use of the lava tubes as burial ground for royalty.

Beneath our kayak, an extensive reef teemed with aquatic life that revealed history of a different sort. Kealakekua Bay is considered the island's prime snorkeling spot. Our best snorkeling adventure came at night, a little farther to the north.

Huge flashlights in hand, my mom and I plunged off the side of a boat operated by Bottom Time ( into the darkness. With the waters illuminated by divers from below and us from above, we waited patiently for the guests of honor. I knew they were close when I heard shouts of excitement rendered unintelligible through snorkels.

Slowly, a thin, alien-like wing came into view, and the next thing I knew, I was face-to-face with a manta ray, giant mouth agape to feast on the plankton that our lights attracted. Within minutes, dozens of the gentle giants - some of their wingspans more than double my height - curled their horns while they swooped and rolled below, tickling my legs as they dined.

Between molten lava and manta rays, it's hard to imagine a better use of the evening hours. But as astronomers know, the snow-capped summit of Mauna Kea - a dormant volcano 13,796 feet above sea level - is perfect for taking in the celestial view. We shivered through a glorious sunset there before a guide took us own the icy road several thousand feet (and up several degrees in temperature) to identify constellations. We even got to see Saturn through a small telescope.

Some locals like to play in the wintertime snow - bringing surfboards up the mountain for use as snowboards. Others haul snow to build snowmen on the beach.

But I was happy to trade in my parka for a bikini at swimming holes and beaches where giant sea turtles sun on the rocks.

The Big Island's diverse terrain also includes the dense green rainforest and fields of Waipio Valley, where Ohia Lehua trees are plentiful. Our guide from Hawaiian Walkways (, explained the tree was named for two lovers who had angered a jealous Pele, and that to pick the beautiful red, urchin-like flowers of this tree would be to separate them.

When my mom and I pressed on to Ka'u, the southernmost point of the United States, I vowed to jump off the imposing cliffs into the sea like locals do. Alas, the waters were rough, no one else was jumping, and I couldn't see the way back up. After all our Big Island adventures, I think my mom was just as happy I didn't take the plunge.

If you go

STAYING THERE: South of Kona's main drag, the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort (808-322-3441,; rates from $130 per night, including breakfast) is a quiet beachfront hotel and guestrooms have lanais (patios). For a full resort experience, complete with resident cultural historian, check out the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows (808-885-6622;; rates from $355) on the Kohala Coast. Host Jacqueline whips up an amazing breakfast at the Waipi'o Wayside B&B in Honoka's, complete with fresh-squeezed juice straight from her gardens. (808-775-0275;; rates from $99).

LAVA VIEWING: To check for safe viewing areas for lava flows, call 808-961-8093 or visit

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