VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII -- Flashlights in hand, the kids led the way through the dark, spooky cave. They were having too much fun to be scared.
Nor were they the least bit interested in the once-in-a-lifetime geology lesson they were getting. The cave was the Thurston Lava Tube, formed centuries ago from a river of red-hot lava that had cooled and crusted over but not discovered until 1913. Wow! Talk about an in-your-face nature experience. Of course, the adults were more impressed than the kids. After their adventure in the cave, they were ready for a snack, not conversation.
But they won't forget this place. No one of any age could help but be awed by Volcanoes National Park -- all of the black lava rock, steam hissing from fissures in the ground, the strong smell of sulfur where volcanic gases have seeped out, the gaping craters (calderas) created when the lava caused the summit to collapsed, lava trees taller than the kids. Kilauea is the world's most active volcano and has been for the last century. Mauna Loa, meanwhile, is the world's most massive mountain -- more than 100 times the size of Mount Rainier.
We peered over the Halemaumau Overlook into an active crater. All through the park are easy and hard hiking trails as well as Crater Rim Drive, through terrain you won't see anywhere else -- deserts, rain forest, mounds of lava. One two-mile trail leads to the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Hawaii -- more than 15,000 carvings. Another takes hikers past footprints made by Hawaiian warriors caught when the volcano erupted in 1790.
Welcome to Pele's house. Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, legend says, had been chased by her sister, the goddess of the sea, from island to island until she found a home here in Kilauea, We're warned not to take any of Pele's black lava rocks. They cause bad luck.
It's easy to see why this national park, 30 miles south of Hilo, despite often rainy weather, is Hawaii's top tourist attraction. But too many tourists opt to see the park only from a helicopter, locals lament. They and their kids are missing out big time. We were joined on our trek though the park by Lorna Jeyte, a retired teacher who owns the Kilauea Lodge nearby, and her grandchildren.
Volcanoes National Park, Jeyte tells us, is one of their favorite hiking haunts. ``This is a great place to start kids off hiking because the distances aren't too great, and there's so much that's weird to see.'' Recently, she led her 6-year-old grandson on a dusk hike to watch the lava spewing into the sea.
Jeyte wishes visitors would take time to linger here. ``A volcano isn't something you can see everywhere,'' she explains. ``This is the real thing.''
That's the way I felt wherever we stopped on the Big Island. Sleepier than Maui, it's an easy place for kids to get up close and personal with nature as well as Hawaiian culture.
My 8-year-old daughter Melanie won't forget the giant sea turtle she met in the black sand on Puna Lu'u Beach about 30 miles south of Volcanoes National Park. The black sand is formed when hot lava strikes the sea, breaking into bits carried by the ocean current along the coastline. It feels rougher than white sand, we decide -- not good for sand castles.
After passing a multitude of coffee farms, we find all the white sand we want and plenty of traditional fun in the sun along the Kona-Kohala Coast. ``If you really want to unwind with the kids, the Big Island is the place to come,'' said Gerrie Denkus, a Queens, N.Y., banking executive who has been bringing her nieces here for more than a decade.
These are especially good bets for families:
-- The Aston Hotels has the most condos on the island and an ``Astonishing Triple Deal'' that offers a fifth night free along with other discounts. Call 1-800-92-ASTON or visit the Web site at www.aston-hotels.com. According to the Web site, condos average $200-$300 a night.
-- Every kid will love the gigantic Hilton Waikoloa Village with its four-acre water park, 175-foot water slide and chance to interact with the resident dolphins. The sprawling 1,200-room resort is so big, boats ferry visitors around. There's a supervised camp program for kids 5 and older, which costs $50 for the first child. Value rates start at $240. Call 800-221-2424 or www.hilton.com (navigate to waikoloa) and ask about third-night-free deals.
-- The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows offers families two connecting rooms and Camp Mauna Lani for two children (a $60 value) for $490. Call 800-367-2323 or check out www.maunalani.com The kids will love the resident baby sea turtles and visiting prehistoric caves and tidal pools.
-- The ultra-luxe Four Seasons is one of the most kid-friendly resorts I've ever seen, with a first-rate complimentary kids' program for those 5 and older, a pool carved out of lava rock teeming with exotic fish that's great for young kids learning to snorkel and another sand-bottom foot-deep children's pool with plenty of sand toys for the adjacent beach. Every junior guest gets a stuffed sea turtle to take home. Rates start at $450. Call 888-340-5662 or www.fourseasons.com and ask about the family discount for a second room.
-- The small Kona Village, right next to the Four Seasons, is a trip back to old Hawaii. Families stay in individual thatched-roof cottages. The kids' program for those 6 and older also is free and focuses on Hawaiian culture, crafts and water life. The resort boasts one of the island's best petroglyph fields. All-inclusive rates start at over $700 for a family of four with grade-schoolers, less with younger children.
IF YOU GO TO THE BIG ISLAND
-- Call the Big Island Visitors Bureau at 808-961-5797 or www.bigisland.org and ask about helicopter tours. Aloha Airlines sells seven-day Island Passes, offering unlimited island hopping for $321, plus tax, per person. Call Aloha 800-367-5250 or www.alohaair.com. Ask about substantial AAA discounts on regular Aloha fares.
-- Call Volcanoes National Park at 808-985-6000 or www.nps.gov/havo. Ask about drive-in campgrounds. For an eruption update, call 808-985-6000.
-- Geologist Janet Babb offers customized hikes and tours for families (and others) in Volcanoes National Park. Call 808-985-9901 or e-mail email@example.com for prices and details.
-- For eco-minded families, the University of Hawaii-Hilo offers special week-long Hawaiian Edventures certain weeks of the year. Costs, including lodging, average $150 per person Call 808-974-7555 or www.uhh.hawaii.edu/~confctr.
-- We stayed a mile outside the park at Kilauea Lodge. Rates start at $120, including full breakfast. Dinner is great, too. Ask about the two-bedroom cottage. Call 808-967-7366 or www.kilauea-lodge.com.
-- For fun-in-the-sun after touring the volcano, head about 100 miles around the island to the Kona-Kohala Coast for golf courses, beaches and resorts.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate