By land or air, volcano tourism makes Big Island a hot spot

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One of the most remarkable vacation experiences Hawaii has to offer is a trip to see the Big Island's active volcanoes. The eruption of Kilauea, youngest of the island's five volcanoes and centerpiece of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, is now in its 21st year, making it Hawaii's longest documented volcanic eruption cycle and one that has been experienced by millions of visitors.

Two decades of eruptions have been destructive, obliterating the village of Kalapana, the black-sand beaches at Kaimu and the ancient temple and visitor center at Wahaula. Lava rock covers portions of the highway that once connected the park with the district of Puna. Today, that road ends where lava flows met the sea, a 40-minute drive from park headquarters.

The friendly volcano

Despite its destructive power, Kilauea is actually one of the most accessible volcanoes in the world. As Kilauea's energy is released along miles-long fault lines called rift zones, the pressure that builds into cataclysmic eruptions of other volcanoes, such as Washington state's Mount St. Helens, rarely occur in Hawaii.

There are two ways to experience the Big Island's volcanic activity. On the ground, you start at the visitor center for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, 32 miles west of Hilo and about 125 miles from the Kona and Kohala coastal resort areas. Check in at the visitor center for eruption updates and advisories before heading to the coastal eruption zone. Over the years, some people who have wandered past posted limits have lost their lives.

The best viewing times are dawn and dusk, when the volcanic activity is most distinct and impressive. For dusk viewing, flashlights are a must, necessary for a nighttime walk back to your car over the lava rock.

For those with time to overnight -- two or three nights are recommended -- there are many convenient options in and adjacent to the national park. For example, Historic Volcano House (www.volcanohouse.com; 808-967-7321) offers no-frills rooms overlooking the Halemaumau crater.

Just outside park headquarters, Volcano Village features a selection of bed-and-breakfast and house-rental options, including the Kilauea Lodge (www.kilauealodge.com; 808-967-7366), with a main house, dining room and shop. Daily rates are $115 to $190, double.

Other options include My Island B&B Inn, one of the volcano bed-and-breakfast pioneers (808-967-7110, www.stayhawaii.com); Volcano Artist Cottage, a one-bedroom unit in a garden setting for $109 a night (808-967-7261, www.volcanoartistcottage.com); and the elegantly tropical Volcano Rainforest Retreat (www.volcanoretreat.com, 808-985-8696).

Hilo, 30 minutes to the east, provides another overnight alternative, with hotel and bed-and-breakfast options.

Volcanoes from the air

Helicopter tours provide another volcano-viewing option. Hilo International Airport is home base to four "helitour" operations focused on hour-long flightseeing over Kilauea's eruption zone.

The most popular tour also includes an aerial view of waterfalls in the lush rainforest surrounding Hilo. Flights are in the $200 range and are commissionable. Air tours also depart from Waikoloa in west Hawaii; however, with travel times to the eruption zone considerably longer, those two-hour tours price out at $424 and up.

For many, helicopter tours are the ultimate thrill, both for the views they afford and for the experience of helicopter flight. I've done it a number of times over the years, and each time it's been awesome and distinctive.

The proliferation of helicopter tour operators, each with four- or five-passenger craft, points to a high level of satisfaction and positive word of mouth. They include:

" Blue Hawaiian Helicopters: The largest of the volcano helitour operators, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters offers wide visibility on six-passenger ECO-Star helicopters at $200 for the 55-minute volcano/rainforest flight from Hilo's main terminal, and $424 to $477 for the two-hour departure from Waikoloa.  Call (800)745-2583 or visit www.bluehawaiian.com.

" Safari Helicopters: Safari Helicopters, family-owned and in business since 1987, offers a 45-minute volcano-only tour at $164 and a 55-minute waterfall-volcano combo for $209. Call (800) 326-3356 or go to www.safarihelicopters.com.

" Paradise Helicopters: Paradise Helicopters offers a 45- to 50-minute volcano-waterfalls tour aboard its wide-visibility, four-passenger Hughes 500 craft for $185, or $215 with doors off. Six-passenger helicopters are used out of Waikoloa on two-hour, $385 air tours that range the island. Call (866) 876-7422 or visit www.paradisecopters.com.

" Tropical Helicopters: Tropical Helicopters offers volcano tours starting at $132 and a special Feel the Heat doors-off tour at $180, as well as custom charters, with departures from both Hilo and Kona airports. See www.tropicalhelicopters.com.

" In addition, Above It All (800-538-7590) and Mokulele Flight Service (866-260-7070, www.mokulele.com) both offer fixed-wing airplane tours of the eruption zone.  Above It All offers 50-minute flights from Hilo at $155, a circle-island tour out of Kona for $278 for two hours and a 90-minute Volcano Sunset Tour from Kona at $174.  Mokulele's twin-engine planes guarantee every passenger a window seat on a 90-minute Circle Island tour that departs Kona International for $249.

For more on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visit www.nps.gov/havo.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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