Apologies to the honeymooning couple at Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo, who had just come into the restaurant for a quiet dinner before bed. You didn’t realise that when you started innocently talking to the maître d' about lava you would be accosted by two wide-eyed women, covered in sea water and their own tears, who had just been on a sunset volcano tour.
You didn’t know you would be forced to sit through these two crazed loons showing you a hundred photos of the lava spout taken at slightly different angles, or have them recreate the fizzy explosion molten magma makes as it hits the cold ocean sea, their silly hands flailing about the air.
You didn’t know, because you couldn’t know, that staring into the hot eye of Mother Nature as she spits fire at you is like being reborn. But I, one of the babbling, sea-plastered women, will tell you, as you inch away from me: It is.
When you think of Hawaii, you think of sun, sand, surfing, blah blah blah. And look, that’s all very nice, and fun, and yes the water is warm like a bath and yes you can get a shaved ice and yes that’s all really pleasant, but my friend Alice and I aren’t just here to sunbathe.
Oh no. We’ve come to live out our nerdy, 10-year-old self dreams and see the volcano Kilauea in all of its fire-ball glory. We have come to see Pele, the Fire Goddess, at her home on The Big Island – the largest of the Hawaiian islands. And we have timed this very well, because thanks to the massive hit that is Moana, Pele has never been hotter property.
Moana imagery lines the buses, the airports, even the inside of the planes throughout Hawaii, despite the fact the story actually takes place in, ahem, Samoa. But it seems Pele approves no matter what – maybe she got a cut of the box office? – because the volcano we are here to see is the most active it’s been in almost 30 years.
On New Year’s Eve 2016, the lava shelf, and its teeny tiny rivulets of lava, collapsed dramatically into the sea. Now a lava spout, producing 800 metric tonnes of magma an hour, pours directly into the ocean. Yes, that IS a lot of lava in one sentence.
We have decided, after careful research, to take a two-pronged approach to getting up close and personal to the lava. Lava Ocean Tours run several trips out to the spout throughout the day, and we’ve selected the sunset tour.
After running through the list of physical requirements – no heart, bone or joint problems; able to climb a 10ft ladder – we board the tall, tin-looking boat that will take us to the spout.
The locals, milling around in the water, jokingly (we assume) ask us if we’ve signed our wills as the boat slowly lurches into the water. We speed along the edge of the volcanic cliffs as the sun sinks lower and then our captain tells us to look for the plume of smoke.
Our fellow boat riders – a mix of ages, tourists and locals – cheer as we barrel our way towards the small puff of smoke, and the shouts get louder as we draw closer, and the puff gets bigger. Neon orange and glowing against the dimming light, the lava spout is, without a doubt, the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen – and every cliché ever said about nature seems completely accurate.
It feels like staring into the face of God and both Alice and I weep uncontrollably at the display taking place in front of us. Look, I never said we were cool.
Later, when I try to explain this via text message to my friends back home, they are less than impressed. “Are you on drugs?” and “No offence, but you sound crazy,” are all that follow.
Never mind the poor, meek couple who dared to say the word ‘lava’ in the same room as us later that night. When we ask them what their volcano plans are, we are horribly smug when they tell us they’ll be doing a midday walk along the lava field. Because we – a step above your average tourist, we’d like to believe – are doing a sunrise hike, which means rising at 3.30am.
Run by John at Epic Lava Tours, the early morning walk feels adventurous from the word go. We are texted the location to meet the night before – the lava changes patterns, so you can’t plan too far ahead. We meet at a carpark in the main town centre of Kona, before driving along for another 30 minutes to the volcanic park.
John is one of the few certified lava guides allowed to take tourists onto the field, a costly and timely process for him, but he cautions against using the fly-by-night operators because of the nature of the walk. You’re on an active volcano field, hiking across dried lava flows, the surface of which looks like the moon and acts like cut glass if you land on it.
We are decked out in gloves, thick-soled sneakers, and wrapped up warm as we begin the slow process of walking to find the lava. At 5.30am, the only light comes from the moon and our torches, with the faint glow of the lava spout from last night (the face of Mother Nature herself, etc etc) in the distance.
John has a nose for lava, he tells us, and true enough, after 45 minutes of walking, he bolts ahead, heading towards the faintest of heat hazes, barely visible in the early morning light. It turns out my number one fear of accidentally stepping on some lava is impossible – because boy, that stuff is hot!
Getting within a metre of the slow sludge is unbearable – like inching closer to an oven, if that oven was cranked up to 800 degrees and would melt your face off in a second.
We get gingerly close for one photo and Alice is convinced her pants are about to catch alight (synthetic active wear is hike appropriate, but catnip to lava).
We hang around the lava for over an hour, watching it slowly ooze around, like melted cheese created by a cartoon villain. By now, the sun is up and hot, and the two litres of water we are each required to carry come in handy as we hydrate ourselves.
On the way back to the car, it’s incredibly disconcerting as all the ground stretching out before us looks the same, no landmarks at all, and I get completely turned around.
Luckily, John knows what’s up and leads us back to the main road, stopping to let us jump across a crevice first. Feeling pretty confident as we keep walking, I joke to John that even though it’s a lava field, it must be fairly safe, right? This is America, land of lawsuits, after all.
“Oh no,” John says seriously. “People die out here all the time. They don’t pack enough water, they get overheated, they hallucinate, they fall into the hot ground, they die and then they have to be pick-axed out of the rock.”
Ladies and gentlemen, tip your guide.
Smug tourist adventures aside, we do balance our volcano time with some seriously good relaxing.
Our first few days, as we get used to the heat (and the cocktails), are spent at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a Double Tree by Hilton, where we choose between the pool and the sea.
The hotel is dreamily set up for doing nothing; every afternoon I nap on a chaise lounge. But be warned, Hawaii sun is not the same gentle sun as the rest of the US, it is the no-ozone-layer sun we’re used to here. I learn this the hard way straight after the lava hike; our 3.30am wake-up call leaves us zonked, and we fall asleep by the pool afterwards.
Even though I am wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and sunscreen, and have positioned myself under a towel and a beach umbrella, I burn my kneecaps so badly it remains there four months later.
While Oahu is a tourist favourite – and rightly so – it would be a shame to just stop there. We headed to The Big Island to make our lava dreams come true, but you really get a sense of the ‘true’ Hawaii there.
The island feels alive – cue another ‘are you okay, you sound crazy’ text from back home – and the dramatic scenery is spectacular. There’s jungle, barren desert land, volcanic fields, snow-capped mountains, beaches and everything in between. In driving from the Hilo side of the island through to the Waikoloa area, we pass through Saddle Road.
Surrounded by two of the tallest volcanoes on the planet, it is the eeriest stretch of road I’ve ever felt – fog rolls in out of nowhere, there are ‘Caution’ signs from the US Military all along it. When we Google the road later, we find it’s so steeped in superstition, some rental car companies won’t insure you to drive along it (too late, Hertz!).
In the middle of the stark, volcanic rock countryside, the Hilton Waikoloa Village is like an oasis of palm trees and pools – the hotel complex is so large you can pick between a train or a boat to get around. After all of our Intrepid Tourist Activities, it’s a relief to stay still for a couple of days and go back to our main problem of picking between pools.
We do go on one road trip, to visit ‘Turtle Heaven’, a sun-soaked stretch of sand where the sea turtles come in to snooze each night. We get cosy with the resort’s dolphins as well, patting their smooth backs and watching them spin circles around each other in the lagoon.
Hawaii is, quite simply, good for the soul. It has the shopping and dining of a US destination, the swimming and relaxing of a tropical island, but there is something bigger and more profound at play in among the golden sand and warm seas.
The culture, the legends that surround it, the spirituality that lingers around those sacred sites. Go to Hawaii for the surf’s up Waikiki experience, but go further afield for the adventure that The Big Island has to offer. It really is as life-changing as it sounds.