If you associate Hawaii with Mai Tais, luaus and colorful shirts, you've probably never been to the Big Island, the largest and one of the least-visited islands in the 50th state.
None of those cliches resonate on what we like to call the real Hawaii. It is far more exciting. And, at times, 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, to sidestepping deep lava tubes obscured by rainforest foliage, we feel lucky to still be alive.
It wasn't our first family travel adventure to the real Hawaii. Two years ago, we stayed near the Kona side, a part of the island covered by black volcanic rock. The Kona region is where the world famous and preposterously expensive Kona coffee is grown. This time, even though our accommodations were on the Hilo side of the island, we made the two-hour drive over 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 tasty organic coffee -- was a tour of the farm by the farm's owner, Trent Bateman. He told that when he first began cultivating the land, his tractor almost fell into an overgrown lava tube. As we hiked down a path, he urged us to watch our step. I grabbed my daughter's hand instinctively before stepping precariously close to a 10-foot dropoff. The lava tube!
Sorry, Madame Pele
They say that if you walk through a lava tubes, you're forgiven. We walked through the Thurston Lava Tubes at 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 Madame 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 persisted, 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 scars to remember this by.)
The volcano also became very active during our visit. Kilauea started belching smoke and lava, as if to say, "Now you've done it!" When we drove deep into Volcanoes National 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 and cautioning that the sulfuric 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 steam into the air.
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 replied.
No, we hadn't. We were gone, I explained. And 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. 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, it was the second time we'd experienced a tsunami evacuation. 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 as if you're in the Colorado or Utah desert. At night, all you have to do is look up at the stars and planets, and you might convince yourself 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.
We consider the fact that we came to the Big Island and escaped the wrath of a volcano goddess, sidestepped her lava tubes and a possible tsunami, to have made our journey all the more interesting.
After all, if we wanted safe, we could have just stayed home.
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