Parenting: If it's hot and it gurgles, kids love it

David Murphy says if you're lucky enough to make it to Hawaii, make the Big Island and its active volcano part of the plan.
August 10, 2011

While Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head draw plenty of families to Oahu, and the pristine rain forest and prime resorts of Maui make that island one of the main draws, even a couple of added days on Hawaii (The Big Island) is enough to experience one of nature's most awesome and unforgettable displays. Kilauea Volcano on the southern tip of Hawaii is often in bloom. Whether it's bright orange rivulets snaking down the mountainside, or bubbling bursts of flying lava, Volcanoes National Park is sure to please everyone in your troupe. In the weeks after witnessing a bright orange mini-eruption a few feet away, my son was actually thinking about becoming a volcanologist!

The park is a roughly two-hour drive from the airport on Hawaii (which is kind of neat, as the planes all park out on the airfield and the terminal consists of nothing more than some smallish, thatched-roof buildings). Bed-and-breakfast inns and private homes make up most of the lodgings closest to the park in the aptly-named Volcano Village. This can be a crap-shoot, especially in the tropics where bugs rule, but we got a nice house with no such trouble through a local b-and-b/inn operator. As always, I recommend for traveler reviews before you book a given property. Lodging options are easily searchable online. There are also some nice beachside hotels south of the airport for a place to crash and snorkel after you finish with the park.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as you'll see when surveying the park website, consists of multiple experiences, from a visitor center and old crater overlook, to ancient lava tubes (some of which you can enter) and wonderful gardens with exotic flowers thriving in the nutrient-rich environment. But the big show (best to be saved for last) is the active lava flow near the ocean. The exact entrance point is always shifting, since lava sometimes spills over the road, forcing a move. Each day, park rangers scope out the changing landscape and mark safe hiking paths over the flow. It's advised to bring a box lunch along, since there can be a lot of walking involved and there are no refreshment stands up on the flow. But it's worth the effort, because the farther you go, the closer you get to the bright-orange stuff, which is unlike anything you'll see anywhere else in the States, and way better in person than what you may have seen on TV. You should also bring flash-lights (the bed and breakfast inn that rented us our house provided these on loan for free). This is because you want to plan on being on the mountain after dark to get the best views of red-hot lava as it lights-up the environment at night. It really is stunning.

They warn you going in not to be too adventurous, and for good reason. It can be a fatal mistake to venture off the marked path, as weakened sections of lava rock can give way and dump you into a molten oven. Also, care must be taken while walking on the lava. It's sharp and a fall can lead to a serious cut. For this reason, toddlers are probably not cut-out for this adventure. But our youngest was only about 5-years-old when we went, and because he was well-behaved, he made it through the experience unscathed, without even a close call.

The best part of the day for us came as we had stopped on some grass next to the flow to enjoy our meal. As we sat there, a red hot, bright orange glop of lava began oozing out of the previously dormant lava rock directly before us, perhaps twenty feet away. We stood next to it, mesmerized, as others gathered to join in the experience. Park Rangers also materialized shortly to make sure no one got too careless. But it was as if Mother Nature had chosen our little family for a private show at first, as we were the only ones there to see this initial breach. The experience more than made-up for the fact that there were no great, skyward bursts of lava going on during our visit, but rather gentle streams of lava dripping down the mountainside. But you never know what you're going to find at Volcanoes National Park. A few weeks after we came home, the park was in the news because a new eruption of lava right at the seaside was tossing-up incredible plumes of lava in a kind of earth-born fireworks show.

The Big Island also has great snorkeling on the west beaches, and a wonderful black sand beach loved by giant turtles on the east. But the main attraction is Volcanoes National Park and its unbridled scenery and ongoing evolution. It's worth at least a few days tacked on to the end of your Hawaiian family vacation and easily accessible via inter-island commuter planes from any other spot in the Hawaiian chain.

---David Murphy

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