Hawaii’s Volcano House and Volcano Art Center

We could see an active freakin’ volcano from our room!

In today’s blog post I will be taking you to the historic Volcano House hotel where we stayed in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, as well as letting you enjoy an amazing art gallery that is easy to overlook if art isn’t your thing, and as you will see, that’s a crying shame.

Volcano House has been around in various forms, in various nearby locations, since 1846, long before the national park was established. Mark Twain even stayed there in 1866, and according to this article by the National Park Service, he wrote about it in his book, Letters From Hawaii, which is actually a collection of articles that he wrote for a Sacramento newspaper called the Daily Union. He was in the state long before it became a state, and he visited the Big Island as well as Oahu and Maui. (For four months. Nice work, if you can get it.) Of the hotel, he said it was “neat, roomy, well furnished and well kept.” Then, in typical Twain fashion, he added, “The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did.”

Fortunately, he (and we) didn’t stay at the first version of the hotel, which is said to have had a dirt floor and a fireplace and not much else. The rain/drinking water was caught in an old canoe full of sludge and rotting leaves, and it was so nasty that even the horses didn’t want to drink it.

Twain got to stay in version two the same year it was built, and it was a vast improvement. The floors were made of wood, and it had a brick fireplace and a thatched roof, and people raved about the food. Twain himself said, “The house is new – built three or four months ago – and the table is good. One could not easily starve here even if the meats and groceries were to give out, for large tracts of land in the vicinity are well paved with excellent strawberries.”

Volcano House was rebuilt again in 1877. It was now more sturdy, and had elaborate nail-less joints and redwood shingles from California. It also used native timber. This article about the house’s history mentions that “Princess Liliʻuokalani (who would later be the final monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom), witnessed the start of the 1880 rift zone eruption of Mauna Loa” from this location.

Due to the hotel’s popularity, a two story Victorian addition was added in 1891. Then, in 1921, all but the Victorian portion was moved to a different spot, and eventually became the Volcano Art Center, which I’ll describe in more detail below. In its place, a two story wing was added to the Victorian house, thus quadrupling its capacity. Volcano House now had 104 rooms.

After all those expensive additions, the hotel was sold for $300 at a sheriff’s auction during the Great Depression, and trundled along without any additions or deletions until 1940, boasting such visitors as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart.

And then it burned to the ground. A kitchen fire made quick work of the structure. For a time, the current Volcano Art Center became a part of the hotel once again, until a new structure was built late in 1941. This Volcano House is the one that stands today, and has hosted presidents Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon. And me!

I was very grateful that the current Volcano House hotel, despite being near the rim of the very active Kilauea caldera, is still going strong. I’ve always wanted to settle into one of the historic national park lodgings, so for me, for two glorious nights, this was a dream come true. It has 33 rooms, 10 cabins, and 16 campsites.

What was probably state of the art in 1941 is charming but dated now. The rooms are small, and the bathroom is even smaller, with a tile shower, a pillar sink, and no counter space whatsoever. The second story hallway reminded me so much of the one in the movie The Shining that it kind of gave me the shivers…

…but the place was clean and comfortable, the staff were welcoming, and The Rim restaurant served us some delicious Hawaiian fare.

From our room, we could see the steam of Kilauea during the day (when the fog burned off), and its orange glow at night. Since the place needs no air conditioning, it has none. We slept with the screened windows open, and got an occasional whiff of volcano sulfur for our troubles. I kept waking up, not because the place was noisy, but because I couldn’t believe I was able to see an active freakin’ volcano from our room! I mean, how cool is that?

As an added treat, here’s a time lapse video that Dear Husband took of the volcano late at night from our room. You’ll have to forgive the screen. It was nailed shut, so there was no avoiding it. But it’s still an incredible sight to see. There are two other videos of it on my YouTube channel, but this one is the best.

If you ever have the good fortune to stay at the Volcano House, it will have been because you made your reservations in advance — at least 6 months in advance during shoulder season. I can’t imagine what high season is like. But it’s worth the effort and the expense, Dear Reader.

Having given you the full history of this delightful hotel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the equally wonderful Volcano Art Center, which resides in the 1877 building that had once been part of Volcano House until it was sawed into pieces, moved, and reassembled in 1921.

According to a flyer given to me at the art center, the building was used briefly as the hotel’s interim lobby, bar and post office after the catastrophic fire in 1940. Then it was employee housing, then it was a storage place for furniture. Eventually it was deserted and started to disintegrate.

In 1971, two photographers came upon its ruins and decided to rent it out so that they could hold wilderness photography workshops. These workshops were so successful that they asked the park if they could use it permanently, and permission was granted starting in 1974. Needless to say, the structure needed a lot of rehabilitation, but you can still see the amazing nail-less joinery from its original builder.

This building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as Hawaii’s oldest visitor accommodation, and it sits about a half mile from the current Volcano House. It’s worth visiting even if you are more interested the volcano, or more in architecture than art.

I have to say that as an art lover, I found this gallery to be a treasure. It now displays the work of up to 300 Hawaiian artists at a time, and you can see Kilauea’s influence on their work everywhere you look. I wanted to buy everything in there (especially the painting of the goddess Pele with the lava hair), but to do that I’d have to start cashing in my gold teeth. (And, mind you, they are amalgams, so they’re not worth much. I might have to yank out yours, too, if you have them. Fair warning.)

This amazing place also hosts music concerts, book signings and readings, art and environmental workshops, Hawaiian language classes, and hula performances. Sadly, none of those activities were going on during our visit, but the art alone was spectacular. Check out their website here, and if the spirit moves you, become a member or make a donation to this amazing nonprofit.

I took about a million pictures in the gallery, knowing I wanted to tell you all about it but that words would not suffice, so now I’m faced with the daunting task of weeding through all of them for the best ones, which I’ll include below. Enjoy!

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