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Big Island: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Volcano House tell two stories

SPECIAL HAWAII ISSUE

The Big Island hotels are legendary. Whether you are a guest or not, you should check out their wondrous surroundings.

April 26, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

If the Mauna Kea parking spots are full, Hapuna Beach State Park, about a mile south, has ample parking and is often listed among the best U.S. beaches. But brace yourself for crowds and crumbling concrete picnic tables.

The Mauna Kea is not paradise. Though the food was good, those gracious servers at Manta had to apologize a few times during a long wait for my seared ahi dinner and then again as we waited for lunch at the Hau Tree cafe the next day. We showed up at 2 p.m., waited 20 minutes to be seated and 30 more minutes for our simple orders to arrive. When you're traveling with a 4-year-old and paying $25 per waking hour for your stay, this does not go down easily.

But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. If the Mauna Kea people can get so many other things right, they can solve their kitchen-service issues. And the beach cannot be improved.

Volcano House

If only the second half of this hotel tale were as simple. For that, we head to the southeastern end of the island and climb to 4,000 feet above sea level, where you'll be glad you brought your sweater. This is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea smolders and the Volcano House struggles.

First, you'll want to see the volcano, erupting since 1983. The easy way is to look at Kilauea's fuming Halemaumau Crater from the rim-top Jaggar Museum or to drive down Chain of Craters Road for a view of rising plumes as lava spills into the sea.

The hard way, if you want the closest view of that lava striking the sea, is about an hour's drive from the park entrance to a viewing area at the end of Hawaii Highway 130 near Kalapana. You'll need to arrive between 5 and 8 p.m. and leave by 10 p.m. (This area, outside of the park, is controlled by Hawaii County.)

We compromised. A couple of miles down Crater Rim Drive from the park entrance and Volcano House, you can stroll a few hundred feet through the Thurston Lava Tube, then pick up the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4-mile loop that drops 400 feet to the caldera floor.

This gave us an exhilarating chance to creep across hard black lava like ants in a soup bowl, drawing near -- but not too near -- the steaming vents. Since March 2008, heightened sulfur dioxide levels near the rim have closed down a 4-mile stretch of Crater Rim Drive. But since a brief closure in April 2008, the hotel and most visitors have been unaffected.

The Volcano House, perched on the crater rim, is mostly a 1941 building, two stories, wooden siding painted red, with black-rock columns and retaining walls. But the enterprise dates to the mid-19th century, when early entrepreneurs put up a grass shack. By June 1866, when Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) came along on horseback, there were four rooms and the going rate was $4 a night.

Clemens stayed several days and filed a story for the Sacramento Daily Union, noting that "the surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did."

The Volcano House grew. By 1935, a "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" cartoon was reporting that the lobby's stone fireplace had been blazing unabated for 61 years. Then in 1940, a kitchen fire ignited the building.

If the official story is to be believed, firefighters doused the building fire, but somebody saved burning embers from the fireplace, carried them elsewhere for safekeeping while the staff rebuilt, then returned them in 1941.

I want to believe it. The night of our arrival, we carried a bedtime book to the pair of fireside koa wood rockers, read Grace a story in the glow of the supposedly everlasting embers, and I tried mightily to visualize that fire crew, knocking down flames on one side, protecting them on the other.

That might have been our hotel high point. The Volcano House's rooms, art, furnishings, restaurant and bar are inescapably humdrum. Service was alternately cheery and abrupt, with one desk clerk verging on outright hostility when I merely asked about a trail.

In the end, view notwithstanding, we regretted paying $205 for a rim-view room.

The hotel management company reached the end of its 20-year concession contract in December. Though Hilo-based Ken Direction Corp. will continue to run the hotel through 2009, the company this summer will have to bid against rivals for the chance to run the hotel. By the end of 2009, park officials expect to hand the winner a new set of marching orders.

"The Volcano House is ready for a good face-lift," said Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. "We've been a little dismayed with some of the on-site management. . . . We want to restore the grandeur." (Ken Direction execs did not return a call seeking comment.)

Until that grandeur reappears, I suggest a therapeutic walk to the neighboring Volcano Art Center. From 1877 to 1921, this wooden building was the Volcano House, but the structure and its exposed ohia wood beams were shouldered aside in the expansion. In fact, its brick fireplace is where the supposedly everlasting embers spent their hiatus.

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