“You are standing on an active volcano”

Words you don’t want to hear, unless maybe you’re there to see steam, sulphuric smoke and lava coming out of a mountain. And we were.

Our oldest son, Aren, is fascinated by natural disasters, and Hawaii’s Big Island is, in geological terms, a natural disaster waiting to happen. That has happened, actually. There are steam vents, lava flows, mountains crumbling into the ocean, and the occasional tsunami.

The place to go to see everything is Volcanoes National Park and the guy telling us that we’re standing on a volcano — Kilauea, to be precise — is Rob Pacheco of Hawaii Forest & Trail, a tour operator. (He’s pictured above, with Aren, as they stand over a steam vent.)

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We expected to be on the volcano at some point during the day, of course, but Pacheco gave us the news as we stood on a beach near Kalapana. That’s a little disconcerting.

For several days now, I’ve felt as if the Big Island’s residents were tempting fate by building homes and roads directly in the path of lava that looked as if it had cooled only a few days ago (as it turns out, the lava flows are decades, and in some cases hundreds of years old).

This is the view from the top of the volcano observatory in the park. This is actually not the highlight of the tour; we returned here after dinner at Volcano Garden Arts, a restaurant and art gallery, to view Kilauea in the dark.

Despite a full moon, we saw Jupiter and Venus in the early evening sky, above a smoldering red Halemaumau Crater. It was, as Aren said, “awesome.”

Another thing you absolutely must do: explore the Thurston Lava Tubes, tunnels created hundreds of years ago by a torrent of melted rock. They’re best visited at night, but don’t forget to pack your flashlight.

The kids now have a healthy respect for nature and are on the lookout for Madam Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, who is said to appear as an old woman. I hope they’ll remember their manners.

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