Although the Big Island of Hawaii could hold all the other islands with room to spare, it has the population of a medium-sized town, with just 185,000 people (perhaps half what it held in Captain Cook’s day). Visitation remains lower than at Oahu and Maui; despite its fair share of restaurants, bars and facilities, this is basically a rural community, where sleepy old towns have remained unchanged for a century. The few resorts are built on the barren lava flows of the Kona coast to catch maximum sunshine.
Thanks to the Kilauea volcano, which has destroyed roads and even towns, and spews out pristine beaches of jet-black sand, the Big Island is still growing, its southern shore inching ever further out to sea. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which includes Mauna Loa as well as Kilauea (though not Mauna Kea, further to the north and higher than either), is absolutely compelling; you can explore steaming craters and cinder cones, venture into the rainforest, and at times approach within feet of the eruption itself.
As befits the birthplace of King Kamehameha, more of the ancient Hawaii survives on the Big Island than anywhere else, with temples and historic sites including the Puuhonua O Honaunau in the southwest, and lush Waipio Valley in the northeast.
The Big Island’s southernmost volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, jointly constitute HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, thirty miles from Hilo and eighty from Kailua. The park’s dramatic landscapes include desert, arctic tundra and rainforest, besides two active volcanoes.
Evidence is everywhere of the awesome power of the volcanoes to create and destroy; no map can keep up with the latest whims of the lava flow. Whole towns have been engulfed, and once-prized beachfront properties lie buried hundreds of yards back from the sea.
The main focus of the park is Kilauea Caldera, the summit crater of Kilauea, twenty miles up from the ocean. Close to the rim, both the visitor centre and the fascinating Jaggar Museum of geology offer basic orientation. Kilauea is said to be the home of the volcano goddess Pele, who has followed the “hot spot” from island to island. When Mark Twain came here in 1866, he observed a dazzling lake of liquid fire; after a huge explosion in 1924 it became shallower and quieter, a black dusty expanse dotted with hissing steam vents. Volcanic activity in the caldera resumed in 2008, however, so visitors currently can only admire the merging plumes of smoke from a distance.
It’s still possible to hike nearby. The five-mile Kilauea Iki Trail explores an adjoining crater, where you pick your way from cairn to cairn across an eerie landscape of cracked and jagged lava, while the mile-long Devastation Trail is a boardwalk laid across the scene of a 1959 eruption.
Chain of Craters Road winds down to the sea from Crater Rim Drive, sweeping around cones and vents in an empty landscape where the occasional dead white tree trunk or flowering shrub pokes up. Fresh sheets of lava constantly ooze down the slopes to cover the road, so it now comes to a dead end a short way along the coast, a fifty-mile round-trip from the park entrance (with no facilities along the way). Depending on where current volcanic activity is concentrated, it is possible at times to walk across the congealed lava from the end of the road to see molten rock gush from the earth – sometimes directly into the sea.
See our comprehensive first-timers-guide to the Hawaiian islands for overviews of all six freely visited islands.