Dispatch, Hawaii: In search of lava


There is nothing like hearing the thrill in your kid's voice saying, "I see lava!"

And it's red. As in hot, fresh, earth-being-born lava.

We're on the Big Island of Hawaii and it's been two days of volcanoes and it has been great, traveling with our resident 13-year-old volcanologist. And it is particularly sweet when we are doing it in a place where volcanoes are just part of the rhythm of life.

Our adorable ranger at Volcanoes National Park told us how the volcanoes were intertwined with her parents' romance. The first day her father asked her mother out in the 1980s, Kilauea shot a 17,000-foot plume of lava into the air -- a sign of the power of her father's love for her mother, or so family lore went.

Dating in Hilo meant dinner and a movie, and then going to watch the lava flow.

Even dormant volcanoes are part of the fun. The ranger and the super sweet and engaging staff at the Hawaiian Style Cafe in Hilo all told of driving up to Mauna Kea and loading up the backs of their trucks with snow to take back down and play with in the backyard or the beach.

Volcanoes are a constant presence in the Big Island, or at least the part around the town of Volcano, (I want to join the Volcano Rotary, I kid you not, there is one there!) which sits just outside the park.

The Hawaii office of Civil Defense gives daily volcano updates on the radio, the announcer delivering the latest in a very FM voice.

In the town of Pahoa, where Hawaii meets Haight-Ashbury, the proprietress of a food stand at the Sunday market just shrugged when I asked her about the flow that stopped at the edge of town in October. "I just make sure I have red wine," she said.

The lava stopped right at the town's landfill and recycling center and when we visited last Sunday, it was business as usual -- locals dropping off garbage and recyclables, and picking up sweet treats at a bake sale being held there, a reassuring sign of normalcy.

Fresh as that lava was, it wasn't fresh enough for our 13-year-old -- or for me or my husband. Twenty-plus years ago, on our last visit to the Big Island, a chance meeting with a park ranger meant we got to go hiking along a river of lava. We could feel the heat of the lava through the thick soles of our hiking boots as we walked along flows of red-hot lava, heard the tinkling sound of lava hardening and watched rocky promontories of hot, lava crash into the sea, sending up plumes of steam.

We didn't expect Pele to smile on us in the same way twice. The lava flowing now is in remote, inaccessible areas of the park. But Travel Weekly's contributing editor, Honolulu-based Shane Nelson, told me that the best chance of seeing hot lava was on a helicopter tour, and recommended Paradise Helicopters, which he has covered for Travel Weekly several times, most recently in September.

So after stopping to see the lava that stopped at the edge of Pahoa, we continued on to Hilo, and boarded one of Paradise Helicopter's Hughes 500s -- doors off -- and took off for the Puu Oo vent. And there, with our pilot, Jordt, circling clockwise and then counterclockwise to make sure all three of us got a clear view, we could see through steam and smoke. Jordt flew to about 500 feet of the volcano -- close enough for us to feel its heat (which is why I went for the doors-off tour). And that's when, through my headset, I heard my daughter's excited voice: "I see lava!"

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