The problem with volcanoes is they don't take requests.
My husband and I visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii hoping to see an eruption. This was not asking much. Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, has been spewing lava almost continuously since 1983. Although it has destroyed roads, wiped out black-sand beaches and engulfed structures in and around nearby Hilo, the Big Island's largest city, it's fairly benign, as volcanoes go, more a trickle than a gush.
We had hoped that, during our visit, we'd be able (like many lucky visitors we'd read about) to walk right up to the hot, flowing lava, ponder the awesome powers of nature and go home and brag about it. But no. Kilauea did not cooperate. We didn't even get to see the haunting red glow over the mountains, which we'd read about, too. Just days before and after, park visitors had been able to witness amazing feats of liquid geology. For us, the volcano took a nap.
Even without spouting lava, Kilauea did manage in one day to take us from the moon to the rain forest to the shimmering Pacific Ocean. There were dormant volcanic basins, or calderas, with a few hearty plants peeking up through the cooled lava. The stillness of the gaping holes in the ground did not betray that an eruption could occur at any moment. There was the Devastation Trail, a boardwalk past a lush forest cut in half by lava flows and vivid proof of volcanic destruction. There was sulfur-scented steam rushing out of cracks in the earth; in earlier days, it was used to heat the Volcano House Hotel on the rim of Kilauea Caldera. There was the Thurston Lava Tube, a dank 10-foot-tall tunnel created by surging lava that cooled on the outside while the inside drained away. It's surrounded by a thick and lavish rain forest. We looked out past all of this, and saw the sparkling blue Pacific.
We also saw testaments to Hawaiian lore. Leis, fruit and stacks of rocks left near the volcano's summit by those paying their respects at the sacred home of Pele, the volcano goddess, illustrated the power Kilauea continues to have over people. Petroglyphs etched in lava gave us a view into ancient Hawaiian cultures. Kilauea has added about 500 acres of fresh real estate to the Big Island since 1983, covering celebrated beaches and ancient ceremonial sights and creating a new outline in the Pacific. It could bury the District of Columbia in five days.
All of these sights made us feel privileged to witness the wonders of nature at its most destructive and beautiful. It would have been nice to see it erupt. But then, if a volcano kept appointments, would it really be worth seeing?
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a 45-minute drive from Hilo (30 miles) or a 2 1/2-hour drive from Kona (96 miles), both home to airports serviced by Aloha and Hawaiian airlines. You can take in the park ($10 per car, $5 for pedestrians or bicyclists) in one day, though two would be better.
Volcano House Hotel (808-967-7321), built in 1941 on the edge of Kilauea Caldera, is across the road; the hotel itself isn't much, but the view into the 500-foot-deep caldera is breathtaking. Rates start at $95.
Info: Big Island Visitors Bureau, 808-886- 1655, 808-961-5797, www.bigisland.org; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, 808-985- 6000, www.nps.gov/havo.side orders