Gin bottles and flower leis litter the crunchy black rock at the feet of an elderly woman in a bright red mumu dress singing an ancient mele. Her voice echoes to the bottom of the deep and dormant Halemaumau Crater, the sacred centerpiece of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the home of Pele, the feared and revered Hawaiian volcano goddess (gin being her favorite, fiery drink). Tourists in shorts stop and stare at the scene, their heads bowed down in geological reverence. (See pictures of volcanoes.)
The huge and wild Big Island of Hawaii is made up of roughly 4,000 square miles (10,000 sq km) and about a dozen microclimates (including one that generates winter snow), and has about 37 inhabitants per square mile. Not one but five of Pele's volcanoes reside on the island, and one of them, Kilauea, has been continuously erupting since 1983 from a vent known as Pu'u 'O'o. World-class resorts and beaches with black, white or green sand abound, but the real draw for thousands of travelers are the lava spurts and cascades themselves. Visitors drive down the slope from the forested uplands of misty fern to the coastline of cracked rock to watch the molten lava rivers that regularly explode into the Pacific under massive steam clouds. The foolhardy climb over the heated ground to catch an up-close glimpse of the liquid rock, despite the pleas of the park service. (See 10 things to do in San Francisco.)
Smarter tourists fly over the Pu'u 'O'o vent itself, which if you hit it right can be one of the most spectacular shows on earth. Check on the current flows with the U.S. National Park Service, www.nps.gov/havo, and then book a flight out of nearby Hilo with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, www.bluehawaiian.com. There's great accommodation at Hale Ohia, www.haleohia.com, a collection of antique cottages just outside the park. Go for a long hike, then soak in an outdoor Japanese furo tub under tsugi pines. You may have just seen volcanic hell, but you'll feel like you're in heaven.
Got an awful travel gripe? The Avenger may be able to sort it out for you. Click here to tell us your problem.