Volcano House Hotel
1 Crater Rim Dr., Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, hawaiivolcanohouse.com; 33 rooms from $285 (U.S.).
In 1846, the first visitors to Volcano House bedded down in a one-room grass hut to be as close as possible to Kilauea, an active volcano on Hawaii Island (or the Big Island). Larger and more comfortable versions of the hotel followed, but when the latest closed in 2010, locals feared the inn that hosted such notable guests as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson might be lost to history. Three-and-a-half years and $7-million (U.S.) in renovations later by a Hawaiian-based hospitality company, the hotel is again welcoming visitors who want a front-row seat on the volcanic action.
When you can watch gas billowing out of the volcano's crater while brushing your teeth, you know you're as close as you can get to Kilauea, which has been erupting continuously since 1983. Volcano House is the only hotel in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, so it's got a monopoly on that remarkable view. That also means you might get an occasional whiff of the sulphury vog (volcanic gas), but it's not enough to put you off your breakfast.
Staying at the hotel also puts you in the perfect spot to explore the park, which offers easy walking trails and more challenging day hikes. The park's visitor centre is just across the street, and the non-profit Volcano Art Center (in the still-standing 1877 version of Volcano House) is nearby.
The hotel has an undeniable retro charm, but it's modest by Hawaiian resort standards – there are no elevators, no TVs, no minibars, no air conditioning and no spa or fitness room. The beds are comfortable, but the renovated bathrooms are tiny and spartan, and the refreshed decor might best be described as Pier 1 meets Don Ho.
ROOM WITH A VIEW
Spring for one of the 21 crater-view rooms. If you want a private outdoor spot to watch the volcano do its thing, ask for a room with a lanai in the hotel's annex.
EAT IN OR EAT OUT?
You don't have many options – Hilo, the island's biggest town, is 50 kilometres away and there are just a few restaurants in the nearby village of Volcano. Thankfully, the hotel has two decent dining options, both with excellent views of the volcano.
The Rim restaurant serves a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was nice to see that the dinner menu is weighted towards locally caught or farmed seafood and island produce. Try the kampachi, a delicate whitefish farm-raised on the Kona coast, either as a sashimi starter or seared and served with lobster seaweed salad as an entrée. For something lighter, there's Uncle George's lounge (it's named after George Lycurgus, a Greek American instrumental in creating the national park, and who ran the hotel for years). Here you can drink classic cocktails and nibble on ahi poke (a Hawaiian take on sashimi).
IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING
I would have gladly traded half my huge walk-in closet for a bigger, more luxurious bathroom and somewhere to put my toiletry bag other than on top of the toilet tank.
The free Internet and fluffy bathrobes are nice, but you're really here for the view. It's awe-inspiring during the day and even more impressive at night, when the crater takes on the orange glow of the lava roiling just beneath the surface.
The writer was a guest of the hotel.