Our first morning on the Big Island, my wife had made plans to go scuba diving, which would leave me with nothing to do. The previous evening, while walking through the lobby, I saw this sign.
It was outside of a large concierge office staffed with three young women in their twenties. I asked one of them about the helicopter tour of the volcanoes, because I was concerned that our plans to visit Volcanoes National Park later in the week would be unfulfilling. After all, I reasoned, how close will they let tourists get to a volcanic crater?
The concierge told me that on Hawaii and in Orlando, FL, Expedia is conducting a test marketing experiment. They are offering concierge services as an outsourced service to hotels. The hotel provides the work space, and Expedia provides trained staff. They are very, very good at it.
In the two helicopter tours that I have taken in my life, I was stuck in the center of the back seat because of my size (load balancing is important on helicopters). I asked the concierge to get me a window seat if possible. She made the call while I sat there, and in that strangely adorable and seductive voice that only girls in their twenties can master, begged the booking agent to seat me at a window. Nailed it.
Early the next morning, I dropped my wife off at the dive boat and snapped a picture of this colorful Hawaiian lizard clinging to a palm tree.
I had to drive to the other side of the Big Island, to the city of Hilo. The Big Island is very big indeed. I had exactly two and a half hours to get there before takeoff, and I barely made it. The other passengers had already received their safety briefing, so one of the tiniest human beings I have ever met took charge. Barking orders like a drill sergeant, she issued me a life preserver, delivered my safety briefing, and marched me out to the tarmac where the other passengers were waiting. This is her, standing next to a co-worker.
And this is me, standing next to the helicopter, trying not to look huge and dorky (and failing).
My Expedia concierge came through and I was seated at a window with an excellent view out the left side of the helicopter. We flew high along the coast, crossing carefully-tended macadamia nut and papaya plantations. The "bent" horizon is caused by shooting through the rounded plexiglass helicopter window.
Hilo sits on the windward side of the Big Island, so they get lots of rain. Just west of the city, several rivers cascade through jungle, creating dozens of waterfalls.
Before long, the landscape changed to thousands of acres of cooled, hard lava. Newer lava is silvery in color. Older lava is black.
Soon, steam vents appeared, covering the lava flows in veils of mist.
Volcanoes are formed when molten magma in the earth’s mantle rises through weak points in the earth’s crust. The magma rises because it is less dense than solid rock. Once it reaches the surface, it can spew forth in violent eruptions, or flow like a river over the surface. All of the Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanic eruptions on the sea floor that eventually built up to the surface. In fact, if measured from the sea floor, Mauna Loa on the Big Island is by far the tallest mountain on earth.
Our destination was Kilauea, the most active volcano on the Big Island. However, helicopter tours are forbidden from flying near the main crater. Instead, we flew to a secondary crater on the slope of Kilauea, known as Pu’u’O’o (POO-oo-OH-oh). It’s small by comparison to Kiluaea (about 700 feet across), but it has been erupting continuously since 1983.
We circled the crater slowly.
The lava inside the crater walls has formed a thick crust, but there is one spot that is currently open, about the size of a house, from which molten lava was being ejected in boiling, sloshing globs, instantly forming a silvery crust.
We headed down the side of Kilauea towards the sea, along the route of a lava flow that occurred in 2007. The lava was still cooling, and deep crevasses in the surface shone with an eerie red glow.
The town of Kalapana was mostly destroyed by lava in 1997. A few hardy souls still live there.
The lava flow continued down to the water, where it covered the town of Kaimu and Kaimu Bay, creating 500 acres of new waterfront real estate that will be lush and green and ready for hotel construction in about 10,000 years.