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Family Room to Roam

Carrying bed and breakfast 'on their backs' in an RV, visitors experience nature on a leisurely, intimate basis at almost-empty beachfront parks

August 20, 2000|LINDA CAMERON | Linda Cameron lives in Thousand Oaks

KAILUA, Hawaii — Ahh, Hawaii. Wide sandy beaches, clear blue water, the sound of gentle waves rolling in, a soft tropical breeze rustling through the windows of your . . . motor home?

My husband, John, and I are avid campers, and the addition of a baby didn't change that. Gordon was 3 last fall, a good age, we decided, for a vacation in Hawaii.

Yes, this was our choice for our first visit as a family to Hawaii.

After we saw an advertisement in an RV club newsletter, the decision to camp on the Big Island was easy; it's where Island RV is, and it's easy to get around the less-visited island. There's a lot to see--various kinds of beaches, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and other natural wonders--and overnight RV parking is allowed in the county beach parks.

Island RV--the only rental outfit on the island--would throw in a free night in a gorgeous resort hotel to round out the week, so we'd get a taste of the Hawaii most vacationers choose. The price: $1,495, which may seem steep, but only until you consider that $200 a day would cover lodging, "wheels" and most meals for the whole family.

Four weeks later, we were driving an almost-new 22-foot Tioga out of the lot in Kailua-Kona. The rig had an oven, stove, microwave and refrigerator, a barbecue grill and outdoor chairs and table, a dinette and a couch, both of which could be reassembled into double beds, and a large bed over the driver's compartment. To complete our creature comforts, the bathroom had a small but efficient shower. There was even an outdoor shower, a hand-held spray mounted on the exterior of the coach, which we found handy for rinsing off sand and salt water after our frequent ocean swims.

Our first stop was a supermarket. We had been warned about the high price of groceries in Hawaii, but it took some fortitude to pay $5.32 for a gallon of milk. Still, this is one of the great attractions of motor home travel when you have a young child: familiar food, on hand when the mood strikes. As a practical matter, there are precious few places to buy meals on the road on the Big Island.

We took a counterclockwise route, starting on Hawaii 11 south from Kailua, 45 miles to the legendary Green Sand Beach at the island's southernmost point. Yes, the sand really is green, colored by olivine, a mineral deposited by a volcanic eruption. We had to walk for 30 minutes across ancient lava flows and sandy roads to see the green sand, and Gordon got to ride "home" in Daddy's backpack.

We had planned to spend our first night at Whittington Park, about 15 miles beyond. We found some locals sitting around a picnic table drinking while their children ran wild in the darkening park, so we kept going a few miles down the road to Punaluu Black Sand Beach. The first sight that greeted us there was a group of children doing their homework under the bare lightbulb of one of the park's picnic kiosks. That experience taught us to arrive at our subsequent camping destinations while there was enough daylight to inspect the site.

Parking spots were not marked, and in most of the parks we could pull up right to the edge of the sand. The parks are patrolled, and all have restrooms and covered picnic areas. Trees were abundant, offering shade for lazy afternoon siestas. We found ourselves alone most nights, feeling as if we had a tropical paradise all to ourselves.

Snugly parked at Punaluu, we fell asleep to the sound of waves rolling across the rough black sand. In the morning, as we walked along the shore, we happened upon a green sea turtle basking on the beach. Sensing our approach, the turtle lumbered to its feet and crawled slowly to the sea. Our son danced behind, delighted to have an animal to inspect at his own pace and at such close range.

Ahead was the prime destination of our trip, the island's literal hot spot, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The gradual ascent of 4,000 feet from the coast spanned 25 miles, an easy drive, allowing us plenty of time for exploring.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanoes, and two are still active: the Big Island's Mauna Loa and Kilauea, the latter being the main attraction in the park. At the Kilauea Visitor Center, we learned that just two weeks earlier, the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, had turned off the fiery faucet that had been belching lava from a vent on the side of the volcano for 15 years.

Even with the absence of surface lava flows, the park has amazing sites. Most of the action on Kilauea has been in its caldera, the five-mile-wide crater at the summit, where bubbling hot pots of mud and vents of sulfuric steam are evidence of geothermal activity just below the surface. We saw a handful of people walking in the caldera, picking their way gingerly on a marked path, as we circled in comfort on the 11-mile circuit of Crater Rim Road.

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