HILO, HAWAII — We stood hushed in awe, staring at the volcano's spectacular, gargantuan caldera spread before us. From our spot at the Jaggar Museum observation point, we suddenly realized we were witness to the ancient geological process that had formed Hawaii's Big Island.
What made this moment even more memorable was the superb wheelchair access we'd found. The barrier-free museum, with its adjacent handicapped parking, houses a variety of interesting displays about volcanoes, but its prime feature for us was the obstacle-free and roomy observation area. Wheelchair users can take in vistas of Kilauea's primordial cauldron from various locations without the obstruction of eye-level railings or other tourists.
This was of the utmost importance to us because Heidi uses a wheelchair for mobility.
Seeing exotic natural sites by wheelchair is a special treat for the two of us. It's no fun for Steve to leave Heidi back at the hotel while he treks up steps, down ladders, or over rock to get to a stunning vista.
Finding access to many of the Big Island's charms was a special bonus for us. Things are getting better, but many park rangers, beach patrols, and others have yet to figure out how to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs.
To get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we had driven past fields of unforgiving, jet-black lava rock, up hills of grass-covered ranchland, along highway switchbacks threading through emerald green valleys, and into lush rain forests.
Because much of the island remains unspoiled, we wondered how much a person on wheels could see. We were delightfully surprised to find plenty to see and do for visitors who are disabled.
For views of wildlife in an accessible location, head to the Panaewa Rain Forest Zoo near Hilo. The zoo is small, but ornamented with exotic flora and made easily accessible by a network of smooth, paved paths that lead guests to the outdoor exhibits. The modest gift shop is wheelchair-accessible, and there's handicapped parking near the zoo entrance.
We ventured along a path, toward a huge caged area containing sprightly monkeys. We struggled to focus on one in a nearby tree only to discover another climbing impishly on the wire mesh a few feet above our heads.
The zoo's focal point is the white tiger exhibit, which has accessible raised walkways around the perimeter.
The heat on the island's east side can be fierce, especially since its rain forest climate means high humidity.
Even so, sights such as Rainbow Falls make it well worth working up a sweat. Just one of several on the island, this waterfall in Hilo is noteworthy because of its accessible view.
A paved sidewalk from a nearby parking lot leads up a concrete ramp to a raised platform. Wheelchair users can gaze at the shiny, silvery waters that gush into the serene gorge below. Just as jaw-dropping as the falls is the multitude of wide-leaved plants and wondrously colorful flowers growing all around.
Though a sizable city with a thriving downtown, Hilo itself is no stranger to natural beauty. Hilo Bay offers idyllic azure ocean views. Right on the bay, on aptly-named Banyan Drive, grow banyan trees so tall, so expansive, so multilayered, they boggle the mind.
The most dramatic natural phenomena that have shaped Hawaii - that continue to shape it - are volcanoes. There is no better place to learn of them firsthand than south of Hilo at Volcanoes National Park.
As with the other national parks we've visited, we were impressed with the degree of access available to guests with disabilities despite the park's rugged terrain. A good approach is to start at the visitor center with its handicapped parking, barrier-free entrance and accessible restrooms. Then proceed along the drive that circles Kilauea's caldera, Crater Rim Drive.
While the view of the caldera at the Jaggar Museum's overlook is mesmerizing, there are other sights along the way.
One attraction, called the steam vents, are little more than holes in the ground. The eerie-looking steam rising from the holes is generated by groundwater that seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks and returns to surface as steam. We stood near one of the holes and found ourselves bathed in the warm, sauna-like vapor. We suddenly felt a very long way from the flat farmland of Ohio.
Another other-worldly experience awaited us at Devastation Trail, which features an easily traversed paved pathway and adjacent parking. This area of the park was rained on by lava during a 1959 eruption, destroying virtually everything in its wake. Since that time, a few plants have come back. But for the most part, the land is decimated and barren, like the surface of another planet. Pieces of wood lie scattered, like flotsam left over from some great prehistoric ocean that receded. It is hard to walk along the trail and not feel slightly unsettled.
Though the east side of the Big Island features stunning volcanoes, waterfalls, and rain forests, the arid west side is by no means without its charms. Resorts, ranging from super-posh to wonderfully rustic, line the Kailua-Kona coast. Kona Village Resort does a fabulous job of blending history, rustic appeal, and wheelchair access. A ramp provided outstanding access up to our Polynesian-style hut built on stilts over a former lava flow. Inside, there was barrier-free access to the sleeping area, ocean view deck, and large restroom equipped with a roll-in shower.
While Heidi listened to the waves just outside our hut, Steve swam in the ocean, snorkeled along the rocks and used one of several sea kayaks to ride the Pacific's waves.
Kona Village Resort has an excellent beach wheelchair available free to guests. We used it to make our way along the beach, where we spotted a sea turtle and soaked up the sun and sea.
Honaunau is a beautiful bayside national historical park with reconstructed Hawaiian houses, temples, and statues. The rocky beach is a favorite sunning spot of sea turtles.
The parking lot and visitor center are completely barrier-free, and wheelchair users with some gumption can make it around the hard-packed sand that surrounds the re-created buildings on this sacred ground.
The Painted Church is a stone's throw from the place of refuge. Between 1899 and 1904, Father John Velge created frescos on the inside walls and ceiling of Saint Benedict's Catholic Church.
Because many of his parishioners couldn't read, the priest painted scenes from the Bible in his tiny hillside church. A well-marked rear entrance provides wheelchair access to the altar area, which provides a good view of the paintings.
Near the northernmost tip of the Big Island is where locals and visitors marvel at the unmatched view of raw, untamed Hawaii.
The Pololu Valley Lookout, at the edge of a paved parking lot, provides a wheelchair-accessible view of a lush, foggy valley that appears to go on forever. It is untouched by development.
The observation point also provides a breathtaking glimpse at four-hundred-foot vertical cliffs and the crashing waves of the Pacific below. The beach is pure, exotic, black sand. However, it can only be reached by a grueling 20-minute hike through lush vegetation.
From valleys to volcanoes to ocean vistas, the Big Island of Hawaii is a perfect blend of untouched beauty and wheelchair-accessible paradise.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society