Updated July 23, 2020.
Disclaimer: I have not and will not receive compensation for this blog post. It was such a great experience, I needed to write and tell you about it.
There are a few epic experiences from our travels that really stand out: swimming with penguins and sea lions in the Galapagos, hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, attending an opera at the Sydney Opera House, to name a few. But the sunrise lava boat tour off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island has made its way to the top of our “epic experiences” list! After a bit of hesitation and some serious consideration, we decided this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we just had to do!
Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours
We chose to go with Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours based on recommendations Trip Advisor reviews, and the fact that it’s owned and operated by locals. One of the other companies takes out a big catamaran with 49 people, but several other companies take out 6-seaters. Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours not only takes out the smaller boat, it’s operated by local Hawaiians who actually make their living by showing off the natural disaster that took their homes when they were younger. That, my friends, is making lemonade out of lemons!
There are a few options for tours each day: sunrise, sunset, and one or two others throughout the day. We chose the sunrise tour to take advantage of our East Coast jet lag!
I think it’s crass to talk about money, but the simple fact is the cost was the only thing holding us back before we decided to take the leap. All the companies we looked at charged basically the same price, $200, with some discounts for young kids or members of the military.
The company we chose was up front about the price and the surcharge of 5% for charging a credit card as opposed to paying with cash. We chose cash. They also do not charge you until the tour is finished. The water was pretty choppy from some recent storms and maybe some other factors, so if Captain Kai had decided it was too rough, we wouldn’t have gone and we wouldn’t have been charged.
Bottom Line: It was worth the cost.
Many, if not all, of the boats leave from Isaac Hale (pronounced “ha-lay”) Beach Park in Pahoa, about 45 minutes from Hilo proper. It was quite the adventure getting there in the dark! There’s a crazy roundabout on Pahoa Bypass Road, so be careful about that. I’m just glad there were no other cars on the road when we went, and I’m thankful it was an easy fix when I took the wrong exit. On the map it looks like a regular roundabout, but in reality, it’s not.
Beyond that, it’s smooth driving until Pohiki Road, a one-lane, less than perfect road. The last several miles were actually fun for me to drive because not only does it remind me of the road I grew up on, a wild boar crossed our path in front of us! So be on the lookout. Don’t worry, there is enough room for two cars to pass, you’ll just need to use the area beside the one lane road.
There is a bathroom at the beach park, where you will be parking, but there is not one on the boat. It’s about a two hour experience: 45 minutes out, 30 minutes at the lava, 45 minutes back in. Also, it’s up to you whether and what form of seasickness meds you use. Even with the rough waters that morning, no one on our boat got truly seasick while we were on the move. Sitting at the lava for half an hour got to a couple of people because of the sulfur smell of the lava, exhaust from the boat’s engine, and the tossing of the boat while we were not moving forward. But never fear! The guys with Hawaiian Lava Boat tours have water and ginger chews ready for you!
Need something out of your bag, like your camera or dramamine, but afraid it’ll get wet or it will bounce out into the sea? The nice guys who take you out on your tour will happily place them in a spot under the front of the boat for you and pull them out when you need them!
So here’s what you’ve all bee waiting for: the unforgettable experience! We did have to wake up at 3:00 am to make sure we got to Isaac Hale Beach Park by 4:15 am, but that was 9:00 am for us on East Coast time! We arrived early (because that’s how we roll). So we chatted a bit with our new friend and First Mate Kekahi who told us they were waiting to let the first morning light start to come in so they could get a good look at the water to see how rough it would be. He let us know up-front that the first 10 minutes would be pretty rough, then it would ease up, then we hit a rough patch again before getting to somewhat smoother waters for the rest of the 45 minute ride out.
When decision time came, Captain Kai said it was up to the six of us passengers. For one couple on our boat, this was their third try to see the lava, so they were in! The second couple looked to be adventurous and ready for anything, so they were in, too! And for Steve and me, this was our one shot for the foreseeable future. We like to stick with a plan, and we don’t really get seasick anyway. We were in!
The 6 of us along with Captain Kai piled into the boat, which was still on its trailer and attached to a truck. First Mate Kekahi backed us in and parked the truck so he could join us in the boat, and we all were on our way! About 20-30 minutes into our journey, both the Captain and First Mate made sure we all got to watch the sun coming up behind us:
On the way to the lava viewing area, First Mate Kekahi gave us some great information about lava and how the close we got, all the land we were seeing is brand new since 1986 or after! He also told us about how he and Captain Kai both lost their homes to the lava when they were little. He said his parents used to tell the kids to go play with the lava while they packed up and boarded up windows (to keep out squatters, not to combat the lava!). They used to throw things in it to see what would happen!
Lava is a slow-moving, but inevitable disaster. You’ll have a little time to get away when you realize you’re living in its path, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it besides pray that it changes direction. Lava is 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, so it will melt everything in its path, except itself. That house is a goner, my friend. Homeowners insurance in the area can be as much as a mortgage, so most people buy land, build the house themselves, and only pay for their insurance instead of that plus a mortgage. It’s also pretty common for people to literally move their homes when they find out the lava is heading their way. That’s an unpredictable and adventurous way to live!
And then we arrived:
Happy anniversary to us! We are so glad we decided to do the lava boat tour. As far as I know, this is the only place in the world where you can see lava flowing into the ocean from a boat. We looked into helicopter tours to see the same area, but the pictures we saw were mostly smokey and steamy, not including any visible, glowing, orange lava. So, the boat was the way to go, and it was 100% worth the cost, the early wake-up, and driving in the darkness. Look how much fun we’re having!
The guys on the boat pointed out that there are lava rocks actually floating in the water for a while before they sink. When the lava bursts through and hits the water, it instantly turns to rock, but gases are trapped inside since it goes from liquid to rock so fast, which causes them to float for a while before they sink below! Also, the water around the lava entry point is around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the guys scooped some up in a bucket to let us feel it. That’s hotter than I like my bath water to be!
The lava was really flowing when we went out. We could smell the sulfur it produces, but the most impressive part of the experience was seeing the lava glow and realizing it’s power! It literally bursts through whatever lava rock is in its way so it can get out. It’s been erupting like this since 1983 (and off and on for thousands of years before that!), but it can stop at any time. Make plans to see it soon! Are you convinced yet? Check out my Pacific Islands Page for more!
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