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The trail to the petroglyphs at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Photograph by Christopher Elliott)

Dodging Danger on Hawaii’s Big Island

If you associate Hawaii with Mai Tais, luaus, and colorful shirts, you’ve probably never been to the Big Island.

None of those cliches resonate on what we like to call the real Hawaii. Even though it’s one of the least-visited islands in the Aloha State, the Big Island (also known as Hawaiʻi Island) is far more exciting, and, at times, more dangerous.

To say our family just survived a visit might be a stretch — but not much of one. From an erupting volcano to a tsunami warning, we feel lucky to be alive.

It wasn’t our first trip. Two years ago, we stayed near the Kona side, a part of the island covered by black volcanic rock, where world-famous and preposterously expensive Kona coffee is grown.

This time, our accommodations were in Hilo, on the other side of the island, but we decided it was worth it to make the two-hour drive on a mountainous road to revisit Kona and Thunder Mountain Coffee, an organic coffee farm.

The highlight of our tour — other than the adults drinking way too much organic coffee — was a tour of the farm by its owner, Trent Bateman. After relating the story of how his tractor almost fell into an overgrown lava tube (a natural tunnel through which lava travels beneath the surface of a flow) in the farm’s early days, he urged us to watch our step. As we hiked down the path, I grabbed my daughter’s hand instinctively before stepping precariously close to a ten-foot drop off. The lava tube!

Sorry, Madame Pele

They say that if you walk through a lava tube, you’re forgiven. We walked through the Thurston Lava Tubes at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park the next day, but only because we had done a bad thing. A certain member of our family — we won’t say who — had, um, borrowed a lava rock on our last visit to the Big Island. We returned it on this visit and walked through the tubes, hoping for the best.

But Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, apparently had other plans. Our middle son, Iden, decided the hardened surface of a volcano made a great playground. Despite warnings from his parents, he insisted on throwing rocks and running around.

“Don’t disrespect the volcano,” I warned him.

Minutes later, he was on his hands and knees, having tripped over a large rock. The scrapes were deep enough for us to look for the closest walk-in clinic (he’s fine, but he’ll have a few scar souvenirs).

The volcano became very active during our visit, with Kilauea belching smoke and lava as if to say, “Now you’ve done it!” When we drove deep into the park to get a closer look at the eruption — which, now that I think about it, probably wasn’t the best idea — we were met with signs warning us to keep our windows closed because the air might be dangerous to people with respiratory ailments.

Fortunately, Kilauea isn’t a fast-moving volcano, but if it had been, I’m pretty sure she would have blown her top when we arrived. Instead she just blew sulfur into the sky and churned out more lava.

And now, the tsunami

If you’re the superstitious type, or if you are a Hawaiian person of faith, you probably won’t be surprised at what happened next: We arrived at our vacation rental after a long day of touring Kilauea to a phone call from our landlady.

“Everything is probably going to be alright,” she said.

“What do you mean, probably?”

“You didn’t hear the sirens?” she asked.

No, we hadn’t, I explained. We had been gone. That’s when she told us about the earthquake in British Columbia that might have triggered a tsunami, and that we could be asked to evacuate, but that we probably wouldn’t be.

She was wrong. But our neighborhood, which is right along the water, was cleared of residents and we spent five tense hours huddled in a parked car waiting for the warnings to be lifted.

Unbelievably, this wasn’t the first tsunami evacuation for some of us. Two members of our family were in Maui during the Japanese earthquake a few years ago.

Having experienced all that, you’d think we would never want to return to the Big Island again. Not true.

There’s something truly authentic, if not exotic, about this place. There are moments, when you’re driving along Saddle Road, between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, that you feel like you’re in the Colorado or Utah desert. At night, looking up at the stars might convince you that you’re on another planet.

(To really understand what you’re seeing, head over to the newish Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, which explains the appeal of stargazers over the centuries and offers fascinating insights into their connection to Hawaiian culture.)

Despite the lava tubes and a possible tsunami, we have no regrets about our latest visit to the Big Island.

After all, if we wanted safe, we could have just stayed home.