The captain did a quick double honk to alert the waders in the popular swimming hole at Isaac Hale Beach Park as we slowly entered the water. A few minutes of carefully navigating the rocks and families at the makeshift launch pad and we were off into the Pacific.
This was not your average sunset tour on the Island of Hawaii. No, this was a minivoyage on a mission to see one thing: lava.
Kilauea is the only volcano on Earth erupting from two locations simultaneously: from the summit crater and the Puu Oo vent in the remote East Rift Zone. A record amount of lava is being produced, according to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and it's flowing into the ocean at the Kamokuna entry point.
Given my very specific mission, I opted to stay in Hilo, only a 45-minute drive from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo celebrated its opening as a DoubleTree by Hilton in November 2016, following a $30 million renovation. The 383-room bayfront hotel managed by Aqua-Aston Hospitality has undergone a stream of enhancements since then, including the opening of Hula Hulas, where the menu showcases the island's unique flavors.
"The reopening of the renovated Grand Naniloa has played an integral role in putting Hilo on the map," said Ward Almeida, the hotel's general manager. "As the only Hilton-branded hotel in Hilo and the largest hotel on the east side of the Island of Hawaii, guests can enjoy their vacation knowing they have chosen an authentic and historic gathering place where art, music, hula, culture and adventure share the same sky for both visitors and hula enthusiasts alike."
A stay here, where rooms start at $134 a night, was a perfect home base to explore the volcano. I booked a Lava Expedition Tour through the hotel's on-site tour company, KapohoKine Adventures. The all-day adventure included a hike across the lava flows looking for outbreaks, a visit to a volcanic winery and night viewing at the park's Jaggar Museum.
But first I was off to see the lava by boat, with Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours. We arrived at Kamokuna after a 40-minute ride along the coast. The five other excited passengers and I bobbed up and down in the waves for about 20 minutes as the boat maneuvered around the flow, carefully hugging the coastline. Hot tub-temperature water splashed on us every once in a while as we watched land break away and form in front of our very eyes.
"There's more flow now than just a couple of hours ago," said the captain. "You're lucky!"
To my delight, I'd hear that phrase again the next day on my tour with KapohoKine Adventures.
After another pleasant night at the Grand Naniloa, I set off on my hiking excursion to see the lava from another perspective. My group decided to forgo the two-hour-plus hike so as not to miss the lava lake viewing at the museum; to our delight, the erupting summit didn't disappoint.
At this point, I'd had my share of lava. But I wasn't ready to end the mission just yet. That's why I spent my last night at Volcano House, located within the national park. While there are no TVs or high-end amenities, watching the plume of gas rising from the lava lake from the lobby, restaurant or even your bedroom window was entertainment enough.
Rooms with a view start at $257; see www.hawaiivolcanohouse.com