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Lava from Kilauea Volcano meets the sea, Hawaii Island. (Hawaii Tourism)
Lava from Kilauea Volcano meets the sea, Hawaii Island. (Hawaii Tourism)

Scalding vapor, boiling lava: Vacations don't get any hotter than this Add to ...

Warren takes us up to the rim of the Kilauea Caldera to peer into a valley some three kilometres long and nearly five km wide. The Halemaumau Crater is smoking impressively. As we hike, cinders crunch beneath our feet like gravel. Warren reaches down, grabs a handful and sifts through it. He pushes out two small, smooth black droplets with his fingernail. “These are Pele's tears,” he says, created when molten lava is hurled into the air. These tears are sacred to Pelehonuamea, the volcano goddess, and we can't take them home with us. He warns us not to take any lava rocks home, either.

Jack is taken with the legend – how ancient Hawaiians believed Pele created the fiery islands in a fight with her sister, Namaka, the goddess of water. Soon Warren also finds “Pele's hair,” long thin glassy filaments of lava. Jack ever so gently picks up a piece but the brittle fragment breaks. As we look for more, Warren distracts us with a story and a taste of the sweet Ohelo berry – a native plant also sacred to Pele. Even today some believers won't eat the fruit until a ripe branch has been offered to the goddess by tossing it into a smoking crater. Uh-oh! I wish he'd mentioned that before I ate one.

Close by, the 400-year-old Thurston Lava Tubes await. Warren brings us here late in the day on purpose: The tour buses are long gone, and the dense towering hapu ferns and ohia trees make it feel like we're cut off from the rest of the world. And the tubes! They are a wonder of nature, created when lava cools and hardens at the surface, but still runs red hot underneath like a straw feeding lava to the ocean. The dimly lit, 800-metre tunnel is deserted; Jack runs ahead to explore and disappears into the darkness. Being inside an old eruption is nearly as good as seeing one live.

We spend hours enthralled by the volcanic landscape, enchanted by the Nene, the critically endangered Hawaiian goose we find beside the road, and marvel at how some trees continue growing even though their roots are encased in old lava. Finally, as darkness descends we get our first look at the red-hot lava lake in the smoky Halema'uma'u Crater. We're at an overlook 143 metres above, and unfortunately that's as close as we'll get. During our visit, in early March, there is no flowing lava – though on some days you can watch it pour spectacularly into the ocean at Kalapana outside the park. But at the end of a long day, this warm orange-red glow is enough for both of us.

We say goodbye to Warren and get back into our car for the long drive to the other side of the island. It would have been easier to stay in the nearby town of Hilo, but we've had enough of the tropical rains that make this part of the island so green. We're headed back to our resort on the sunnier, drier Kona coast, and the luxurious lushness on offer at the Four Seasons Hualalai.

At every turn, the Hualalai is a stunner. The ocean views, the long white beach, the king-size hammocks, the new adult-only pool that takes pampering to a whole new level with poolside massages, mini Zen gardens and alcohol-laced shaved ice cones. During our stay, we spend a lot of time by the ocean, strolling (me) and clambering (Jack) along the lava-rock ocean walk, combing the tide pools at sunset and watching for whales and honu (sea turtles) from comfy lounge chairs. One of the seven pools is King's Pond, a snorkelling aquarium carved into lava rock that's stocked with 3,000 fish and a spotted eagle ray. It's a fantastic, relaxed spot to try to ease uneasy swimmers into the sport. Snorkelling gear is free to use and, thankfully, the resort also offers child-size rafts with a window to the underwater world.

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