Hot Spot

With volcanic rivers of free-flowing lava, this island's on fire

Mar 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
Big Island

Kilauea Volcano, on the Big Island's southeast coast, active since 1983

MY FIRST THOUGHT UPON SEEING the torch-bearing shapes of Ka huakai o ka po ("Night Marchers")—ghosts of past Hawaiian warriors—was that they were hallucinations caused by staring too long at the 2,000-degree flow of fiery red lava from the Puu Oo vent, on Kilauea. I'd driven to the end of Chain of Craters Road and hiked a couple hours over sneaker-shredding aa, or lava rock, to witness the spectacle. A couple dozen hikers and I stood half a mile away from where the ominously glowing molten river hit the ocean in an explosion of steam and rock. It was like watching the beating heart of the Big Island: land so new it's still in the process of creation. Indeed, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983.

Earlier that day, I'd sat on the cliffs overlooking the rocky shore at South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States and thought to be the place where the first Polynesians landed on the Hawaiian chain, about 1,600 years ago. I tried to imagine how those first settlers, after a 2,300-mile voyage from the Marquesas, saw the island: its green- and black-sand beaches, fuming volcanoes, dense, highland forests, snow-covered mountaintops, and lush, windward valleys.

Since the Big Island is the original Hawaiian homeland, it's where many of the gods, goddesses, and demigods live and are revered even today. It seems there's not an acre of land that doesn't have a story and a hefty dose of mana, or spiritual power. I went horseback-riding in the Waipio Valley, on the northeast coast, where Uli, goddess of sorcery, and Nenewe, the evil shark-man, reside. I trekked to the top of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, past Lake Waiau, where ancient Hawaiians brought the umbilical cords of their children to give them the strength of the mountains. I spent two days hiking a few of the 150-plus miles of trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, including a great six-and-a-half-mile hike to the steaming Halemaumau crater, home to Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes.

Hawaiian myth holds that when the Big Island was being created, Pele and her lover, Kamapuaa (the pig god), quarreled, and in the split they divided the island. The pig god took the rainier windward side, while Pele got hot and dry Kona, on the west coast. But the fact that Mauna Loa and Kilauea are still active is evidence that Pele hasn't gotten over the breakup. Fortunately, she can be bribed. Gifts of leis or bottles of booze are offered at Halemaumau, and locals around Puna will tell you in all earnestness that if you see an old lady hitchhiking near a volcano, give her a lift: She could be Pele in disguise.

While there are plenty of mana-free things to do on the Big Island—snorkeling and scuba diving in Kealakekua Bay, on the Kona coast; swimming with manta rays; sportfishing for marlin, swordfish, and tuna; whale watching off Kona; mountain-biking the upcountry ranch land outside of Waimea—I always find myself drawn to those places that connect the old Hawaii with the new.

Which brings me back to my dilemma on the aa path near the Kilauea flow. To show proper obeisance when encountering Night Marchers, it is customary to remove all clothes and lie facedown until they pass. Before I could oblige, however, they emerged from the mist: five Japanese teenagers in matching rock-tour T-shirts, armed with flashlights. Seeing my shocked expression, they giggled nervously and moved on. A few minutes later, I stumbled on the sharp rock and gashed my leg. As I limped in the dark, back to where I'd left my car, I began to wonder if those Japanese kids weren't Night Marchers in disguise who'd cursed me for not showing the proper respect.

On the Big Island, you never know.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Waianuhea, near the northeastern town of Honokaa, is a stunning five-room, off-the-grid B&B, 15 minutes inland from the Hamakua Coast. It's the perfect base for exploring the Waipio Valley and the up-country ranch town of Waimea. Doubles from $190; 888-775-2577, » In Kona, on the island's sunny west coast, is the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, with 500-plus rooms on 22 oceanfront acres, plus meandering pools, grottoes, and water slides. Doubles from $169; 808-930-4900, » Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the southeast, Volcano Rainforest Retreat has four cedar and redwood cottages and three hot tubs—perfect after a day spent wandering the lava flows and craters. In addition to boning up on volcanology, you can get an in-cottage shiatsu massage. Doubles from $125; 800-550-8696,

Dine: Tex Drive In, on Highway 19 in Honokaa, specializes in addictive fried pastries called malasadas—try the pineapple-and-papaya filling. 808-775-0598, » If Hawaiian doughnuts don't cut it, the French-Asian Daniel Thiebaut Restaurant, in Waimea, is one of the top-rated eateries in the United States. Don't miss the Asian crab–crusted mahi-mahi with sweet-chili butter sauce. 808-887-2200, » Kaaloa's Super J's take-out, on Highway 11 in Honaunau, serves true-blue Hawaiian dishes like kalua pig and lomi salmon. 808-328-9566

Get Out: Swim offshore with gentle manta rays and guide James Wing, the original manta man. Wing is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of manta behavior and for providing close encounters. From $75; 808-987-8660, » Captain Ron, of Kailua-Kona–based Coral Reef Divers, will run you up the coast to dive sites like Pyramid Pinnacle and Golden Arches. Two-tank dive, $95; 808-987-1584, » You'll need at least two days to explore the Kilauea Caldera and the 150-plus miles of hiking trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; call the eruption hotline for details on Kilauea's lava flow. 808-985-6000, » Hawaii Forest & Trail leads driving excursions and guided hikes to the ever-changing lava flow. $145; 800-464-1993, » Ahalanui Beach Park—on the Puna coast, south of Hilo—features a 90-degree spring-fed geothermic pool. 808-961-8311 » At the bottom of a steep, switchbacking road on the northeast coast, lush Waipio Valley is perfect for hiking, riding horses, and exploring the black-sand beach. Ride the rim with Waipio Ridge Stables before venturing to a waterfall in the rainforest. $145; 877-757-1414,

Shop: Mid-Pacific Store, in Hilo, sells vintage aloha shirts, kimonos, and muumuus. 808-935-3822 » Coffee connoisseurs know that Kona coffee is a smooth, subtle, light-to-medium bean originally from Guatemala. Get your fix on a plantation tour at Kona Blue Sky Coffee, in Holualoa—it's one of the few places that offer 100 percent Kona beans. 877-322-1700,