"Whoa! What is that?" my son cried as our car turned a corner on Chain of Craters Road. We'd been driving through Hawaiian rain forest, past towering ferns and tall ohia trees. But now there was no vegetation at all. As far as the eye could see, slabs of hardened black lava rose out of the ground at odd angles – some as big as refrigerators, others no larger than a coffee table.
The lava was not smooth like the solid puddles of old flow we'd seen in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And it wasn't like the rough jumble of baseball-size lava rocks that stretched out for miles like tilled fields in the park and elsewhere on the island. This sci-fi lava landscape looked like a bleak episode of Star Trek, or if you're 7, a pretty cool place to run around. As I tried to keep up with Jack, our Hawaiian guide, Warren Costa, who used to work at the park, told us why it all looked so weird, how a forest had been obliterated by sulphur-gas-rich lava about 40 years ago. The lava had cooled and hardened around tree trunks, and then the ground had sunk, leaving tall black columns, many with hollow cores, where trees used to be.
Jack and I had come to the Pacific Ring of Fire (a volcanic region) to see a real live volcano. The entire state of Hawaii is made up of ancient and newer volcanoes, but it's on the Big Island where you'll find Kilauea, a volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1983 – not in massive, spectacular blowouts (though it has put on a glorious show at times), but in near continuous slow-moving molten flows. Much of it heads to the ocean; along with destroying more than 180 homes and businesses, Kilauea has added 500 acres of new land to the island.
From the moment we landed at Kona International, built on top of 200-year-old lava, the landscape took our breath away. The drive up the Kona coast to our resort is on a two-lane highway that cuts through miles and miles of sharp, chunky lumps of what's called a'a lava. Clumps of dried grass break up the black expanse (as do eye-catching messages "written" with carefully arranged white coral found on a nearby beach), but little else. It's a bleak but fascinating drive, and so different from the lush vegetation we'd see later in our stay. Our resort, the five-star Four Seasons Hualalai, uses the lava to great effect: Its 18-hole golf course was built carefully around the sharp dark rocks. The contrast – green grass, black lava and, in the distance, a white-sand beach and turquoise ocean – is jaw-dropping.
But all that luxury would have to wait – we were headed for hot lava. Jack is fascinated with the science of volcanoes. But no book, nor the kitchen experiments, prepared us for the power of an active volcanic area.
Throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we see and feel steam vents that emit scalding vapour (many are hidden, so don't go off the trail) and smoking sulphur banks give us a whiff of the power below our feet. Then there's the vog (volcanic smog). The sulphur dioxide gas smells terrible and irritates the lungs, and a portion of the park has been closed for four years because of it. But rainy weather keeps the vog down on the day we visit. Hawaii Volcanoes, at nearly 135,000 hectares, covers the summits and rift zones of Kileau and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes. The landscape swings from oceans of iridescent black rock, to lava fields dotted with ohia trees (the first plant to take root after an eruption), to lush rain forest that flourishes in rich volcanic soil hundreds of years after a lava flow.
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.
But even when we got out of the water, we never stopped feeling its presence. Both the Pahuia and Beach Tree restaurants gave us decadent sunset views right on the beach. Here, 75 per cent of the dishes are prepared using local foods from nearby farmers: Try the white pineapple, Kona oranges, ahi poke (a raw fish salad) and Kona coffee-crusted steak. (Aficionados will already know that Kona is a sweet mild brew grown only on the Big Island; they may not know Four Seasons arranges boutique tours of Green Gecko Coffee Farm. It's a fascinating, personal wander around a small farm on the side of a volcano, and the owners brew up a fresh pot to share while you indulge in such exotic fruits as vee, star apples and magic berries from their orchards.)
On our last day in this slice of paradise, it's Kona coffee I'm drinking to prepare for our overnight flight home. I'm trying to pack when Jack cries out in horror: "Mom, there's lava in my shoes!" Sure enough, there are several large pebbles of lava in the treads of his sneakers. This is serious. Taking rocks off Pele's island brings bad luck – the park's visitor centre receives a lot of mail from tourists returning lava to erase any possible curse.
"We've got to take it back to Pele," he pleads. But there's not enough time to cross the island again. Instead, I dig out the rocks with tweezers and we have a small ceremony on our patio. We thank Pele for sharing her volcanoes with us, promise we'll come back as soon as we can, and toss the rocks into the orchids and spider lilies outside. After eating that sacred Ohelo berry, I wasn't taking any chances.
IF YOU GO
What to do: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open year-round. Check the website for information on current eruption activity. The $10 entrance fee per car is good for one week. There are no restaurants and few services in the park, so come prepared with lunch, snacks and water for a day of exploring. Volcano village, a mile east of the Kilauea visitor centre, has restaurants and lodging. nps.gov/havo
Kona Coffee Tour: Hawaii is the only American U.S. State to grow coffee, and on the Big Island Kona is king. You can sample the sweet, mild brew at several farms, but try to arrange a small, boutique tour at Green Gecko Farm built on the slopes of the Mauna Kea volcano. Owners Michael Katz and Lawton Allenby let you gnaw on ripe coffee cherries and eat the exotic fruits such as rambutans, loquit, vee, white pineapples and miracle berries as you wander their groves. The variety of exotic fruits and flowers growing throughout the property is unforgettable. 808-324-1600; www.greengeckocoffee.com
Get A Guide: It's easy to drive around the park in a rental car, but a local guide takes you off the map. Native Guide Hawaii is a one-man operation: Warren Costa is a Hilo local, is an archeologist by training (he used to work at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park), packs a great lunch of local foods, and knows how to make volcanic fact and folklore entertaining for all ages. 808-982-7575; nativeguidehawaii.com
Where To Stay: Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is easily the most luxurious getaway on Big Island. The 243 rooms feature L'Occitane amenities and some have outdoor garden showers. 72-100 Ka'upulehu Dr., Kailua-Kona; 888-340-5662; Fourseasons.com/hualalai; from $545 (U.S.).
More accommodation can be found closer to the park in Hilo (about a 30-minute drive) or Volcano Village, a mile outside the park gates. Find rain forest cottage rentals at hawaiivolcanovacations.com; and boutique hotel rooms at volcano-hawaii.com/accommodations.