In the 19th century, before tourism became Hawaii's middle name, the islands' singular attraction for world travelers wasn't the beach, but the volcano. From the world over, curious spectators gathered on the rim of Kilauea's Halemaumau crater to see one of the greatest wonders of the globe. Those who came to stand in awe took shelter after sundown in a large grass hut perched on the rim of Kilauea--Hawaii's first tourist hotel, which became Volcano House.
Since Kilauea and environs were officially designated Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1916, a village has popped up at its front door. Volcano isn't a town so much as a wide spot in Old Volcano Road: a 10-block area with two general stores, a couple of restaurants, a post office, a coffee shop, a new firehouse (built in one weekend by volunteers), and the only ATM between Keeau and Ocean View. Volcano has no stoplights or jail, and not even a church or a cemetery, though it does have a winery. There's no baseball diamond either, which is probably just as well, since it rains a lot in Volcano--100 inches a year--which makes everything grow Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style. If Volcano didn't have a real volcano in its backyard, it would probably be called Rain Forest.
Geographically speaking, Volcano isn't actually the gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; it's really a little off to the side and north. Highway 11, the Hawaii Belt Road, which leads directly to the park, bypasses Volcano Village. But if you're going to see the volcano, Volcano is a great place to spend a few days--in fact, it's the only place.
Even if you're just visiting the park for the day, it's worth turning off to stop for gas at Volcano General Store, on Haunani Road, where kindly clerks give directions and sell fresh orchid sprays, local poha berry jam, and bowls of chili rice, a local favorite.
Volcano Winery, Pii Mauna Dr., off Hwy. 11 at the 30-mile marker (go all the way to the end; tel. 808/967-7479; www. volcanowinery.com), is worth a stop to taste the local wines, made from tropical honey (no grapes) and tropical fruit blends (half-grape and half-fruit). Lift a glass of Volcano Blush or Macadamia Nut Honey and toast Madame Pele at this boutique winery, open daily from 10am to 5:30pm; tastings are free.
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