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Hawaii is Hot!

Kilauea volcano

Photo by Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG

You’re looking for a winter vacation with sunny skies and warm temperatures, but you’re not a huge fan of beaches. Next stop: Hawaii. The Aloha State’s hottest offering has nothing to do with the ocean or a beach. It’s an opportunity to visit some of the newest land on the planet—the hot lava currently pouring out of Kīlauea volcano on the state’s “Big Island,” Hawaii.

The island of Hawaii is a perfect locale for nonaquatic adventures (though scores of aquatic ones beckon if someone in your party is so inclined). For starters, it’s huge. At some 4,000 square miles, it’s bigger and taller than all the other islands combined (and still growing thanks to the hot stuff mentioned earlier). Plus, it has 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones, so if you skip the beaches (which come in black, white and green, by the way), that still leaves you nine ecosystems to explore: from tropical rain forests, grassy plateaus and desert—to volcanoes.

About those volcanoes: There are five of them. Two, Maunakea and Maunaloa, are quiet but very high—over 30,000 feet. Mauna Kea is an astronomer’s paradise: There are 13 telescopes from 11 countries scanning the heavens. There are tours that will take you to the top, feed you, warmly clothe you and guide you on a nighttime hike for your own stargazing experience.

The hot action lies in the southeast portion of the island, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the closest experience on Earth to being on another planet. There, the island’s most prolific volcano, Kīlauea (Hawaiian for “spewing”), has been in its current eruption period since 1983, one of the longest eruptions in the world. For a long time, Kīlauea’s activity took place in more remote areas, but in recent years the eruption has become extremely accessible, with a number of locations from which to potentially view live lava flows.

So active are the various eruptions that, at present, the only ways to know what to do or where to go is to check in at the Coastal Ranger Station or on the park’s website. If you’re leery about venturing around unsupervised, there are lots of companies offering guided hikes and bike tours.

But self-sightseeing is easy. Kīlauea has been called the “world’s only drive-in volcano.” At its 4,000-foot summit, the lava lake in the currently active Halema’uma’u Crater rises and deflates to surreal effect, like a breathing entity. No wonder the crater is considered to be home to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes.

Another great vantage point in the park is at the nearby Jaggar Museum, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see lava from the Pu’u ‘O’o Vent flowing over steep cliffs and into the sea. Also be sure to visit the relatively new Kalapana viewing site, which offers an especially close view. The Coastal Ranger Station is a must-visit stop where you can get eruption updates and hiking and safety tips, especially if you choose to hike directly to a hot lava ocean entry—eight to 10 miles round trip (and don’t try this in flip-flops).

If you’re nervous about the new stuff, visit some old stuff instead. The Thurston Lava Tube is a huge underground hollow shell left after lava passed through it some 500 years ago. Get a flashlight and hike past the passageway lit for tourists, then turn off the light to experience the darkest kind of dark.

If you prefer sunnier situations, one of the most vibrant hikes on the island is through the rain forest and across the Kilauea Iki crater. When it last erupted in 1959, the volcano spewed fountains of lava almost 2,000 feet high. Steam still pours through vents in the crater floor, reminders of the live lava resting just 200 feet below the surface. As you walk, look for the small ti leaf-wrapped packages left here and there—offerings to Pele.

A final warning—no lava rock souvenirs. In addition to legal restrictions preventing the removal of rocks, an old Hawaiian curse warns that any visitor who takes lava rocks or sand away from Hawaii will suffer bad luck until the items are returned, and post offices on Hawaii are inundated by packages of rocks and sand returned by visitors convinced the curse is real. So save the postage and take a picture instead.

Where to Stay

The historic Kilauea Lodge, just a five-minute drive from the park, has an Old Hawaiian feel—even at 3,700 feet. It gets pretty cool at night in Volcano, and the lodge’s huge stone fireplace and overstuffed chairs make it especially cozy. 

Where to Eat

At The Rim Restaurant at Volcano House, the warm glow you’ll see during dinner comes from the lava in nearby Halema'uma'u Crater. The recently renovated restaurant features food sourced from local ranchers, farmers and suppliers. 

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