Story by Kai E. White
Photos by Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams
Since its first incarnation in 1866 Volcano House has probably been the only hotel on the planet where you can sip beer and watch the earth boil at the same time. But that ironic pleasure, once enjoyed by Mark Twain, Jack London and Franklin D. Roosevelt, was no longer possible after New Year’s Day 2010, when the historic hotel closed. The National Park Service embarked on an agonizing three-year search for new management that led, finally, to a partnership among Ortega National Parks, Aqua Hotels and The Hawaii Volcanoes Lodge Company. After a $7 million renovation, the thirty-three-room Volcano House reopened last June.
Uncle George Lycurgus would be proud. A photo of the hotel’s patriarch, who bought Volcano House in 1904 and managed it until a year before he died in 1960, hangs in the new lobby where wall-to-wall picture windows offer a panoramic view across the lava plain to the steaming crater. The updated Caldera View rooms retain their country charm, with the original windows from the 1941 building designed by architect CW Dickey. The restaurant has been revamped, too, offering a locavore’s cornucopia of Kona steamed mussels, kabocha pumpkin soup, Hilo coffee-rubbed lamb and pineapple-wrapped ono from Suisan Fish Market.
The morning grays and blues of the caldera rim entice hikers out onto one of the trails near the hotel, like the meandering Sulphur Banks boardwalk, where nature lovers might see some of Hawai‘i’s rare forest birds, honeycreepers like ‘amakihi and ‘apapane. “But bring your own water bottle,” says Gina MacIlwraith, the hotel’s sustainability director. “You won’t find water for sale in a plastic bottle here.” The engraved glass bottles of filtered water stocked in each room are part of Ortega’s green initiative, which also includes monitoring the hotel’s water, waste and energy.
It’s a good time to visit Volcano House, as Kilauea is in the midst of an extended period of activity, though you never quite know what you’ll see—a brilliant red glow at dusk or a lazy plume of steam blending into the morning mist? It’s Pele’s call.