2018 Update: As of late May, lava flows from the devastating Kilauea Volcano eruptions of have reached the ocean. While conditions vary by day and even by hour, a few local operators have resumed lava boat tours on a very different tour and to a new ocean entry. See my 2018 Lava Boat Tour review in this new post.
These days, I’m certainly a “budget conscious” traveler. Sure, I chase adventures and marvel at new experiences but I hate having to pay for anything I think I can do on my own. So, when I planned a trip out to the Big Island of Hawaii to check out Kilauea Volcano’s lava flows I naturally opted to start with a (free) hike to the lava. Now don’t get me wrong, the hike was epic in its own right, so epic that I bumped my plans to head to Waikiki Beach, extended my stay, and slept in my car to do it all over again. But as impressive as the hike was, tantalizing photos on Instagram made it clear that a boat tour was something else.
Choosing a Boat Tour Operator
Coughing up $200 for a couple hours on the ocean was not a decision I came to quickly however. Standing above the flows, I’d seen large, jam packed boats crowding the lava’s exit point. On TripAdvisor, reviews shared woes from people who had been stuck waiting for their tour to turn around for the chance of a view. Still, I wanted that classic lava meets water view and Imore so, I wanted to see the lava close up so I decided to take the plunge.
Of course there are several boat operators to choose from with varying sizes of crafts and packages. Most important to me was the capacity of the boat, having a fun crew, and admittedly price. Shotty websites and a host of questionable tourist desks made it hard to sort out so I decided to do my research in person instead. For that, I headed back down to the lava viewing area where several tour operators have setup booths for the visiting crowds.
Kalapana Culture Tours grabbed my interest from the start by sharing video clips from their recent trips (you can see footage from them regularly on Instagram) but really it was their relaxed vibe and incredibly inviting attitude that won me over. Well, that and their small (6 passenger) boat. After a few more questions, I snagged a last minute spot for the next morning’s 5am sunrise trip. Sunrise because I’d been told it was the best time for photos though I think sunset might be the best view of the day, not that any seemed bad!
Hitting the Water for My Lava Boat Tour
Most of the lava boats depart a few miles down from the viewing area at a small dock by a park. With a 4:30am start, I opted to skip the spendy hotel and crashed in my car for a couple hours at an undisclosed location. Starting out in the dark with half a night’s sleep is never fun but there’s something to be said about a little misery in making for an adventure.
My fellow passengers and I were well into conversation about what the day would hold our energetic (or perhaps well caffeinated) captain rolled on up to meet us, boat in tow. Perhaps he was just hyped up because he gets paid to look at lava every day! Either way, we were quickly on the boat and underway towards the view.
The Incredible Experience Only a Lava Boat Tour Offers
With boat tours running all day long, the operators do not mess around in hauling out to the lava and I felt like were flying as the captain charged ahead (we were just doing 23 knotts but on a small boat in the open ocean, it felt plenty fast). Apparently we lucked out on having calm flat seas but even still it was a bumpy, hour long ride to start the morning.
Nearing the lava in the dark was an unforgettable experience with the glow growing brighter and brighter in the lessening distance. Even in the dark, the venting flows threw out enough light to see steam billowing from the ocean as new land was slowly being formed!
For over an hour we sat out by the flows, gawking at the view and cheering for more light (to help with the photos.) Those of us with big cameras snapped away endlessly but every now and then I had to stop just to take in the stunning site a few hundred feet away (and also to let the rolling feeling subside.) We were one of the first boats out but soon several others joined us. Despite the crowd, you could tell most of the crews knew each other well as they engaged in a coordinate game of leap frog for positions around the viewing area.
Within a few minutes of arriving I felt like I’d already snapped something worthy of adding to my wall at home and even iPhone shots looked killer. What you really can’t tell from a distance is just how dynamic the lava is however. From one moment to the next it would change completely as cooling land blocked a breakout forcing another one to build up. Months later the entire landmass we had looked at is gone, fallen away and replaced by a “firehose” funnel; the earth is truly alive.
True to my initial impressions, the Kalapana Cultural Tour team delivered an incredible experience. Leaving the dock, we were one of the first boats out in the morning, the first to actually arrive on scene and the last of the morning run to head back. Our captain and his first mate were friendly and knowledgeable about the volcano and the Island at large with plenty of stories to share along the way. While the boat was about as basic as it gets, it delivered and without the big crowd concerns of some other other options.
Reality: It’s a Rough Ride!
Now I’ve been all thumbs up and glowing to this point because really, the view is just that good but there’s always a catch, always a reality to bring up in an honest review.
Rocking back and forth to try and stay of a few feet of land is certainly not the most enjoyable feeling in the early morning no matter how you approach it. Throw in a long-length camera lens and there were a few tough moments for all of us. Anyone who easily gets motion sick may want to pass here unless you’ve really dialed in your Dramamine doses.
Similarly, while there are plenty of different types of boats that run the waters, functionally the tours all come down to getting more bodies in front of more views and little more. At 4:30am I didn’t need much but if you’re expecting luxury tour with a coffee, bagel or even a bathroom, I don’t think you’ll have much luck.
Finally there’s the cost. With tours starting at $200, this isn’t going to break the bank for most people who flew out to Hawaii individually. But, coughing it up for a family of four is a lot more than renting a few bikes for a ride to the viewing area!
The Bottom Line: Book It
Aside from the sea motion and spending a few bucks, the tour is quite simply incredible and something I can’t recommend enough if you want to get right up to the lava (and live to tell about it.) Do the hike / bike, take a helicopter ride if you like and then wander over to Kalapana Cultural Tours or whatever operator your prefer and book a boat trip – it’s so worth it.
And oh, if you do want a tour, be sure to call in advance. Boats book up early at times but also need enough paying passengers to run in the first place so last minute spots may not be all that likely.
More Details – 2018 Update
The eruptions of 2018 have tragically impacted the area where this tour took place. As such, this post is not longer accurate of the current offering but remains up for those interested in the past experience. Now is a great time to visit Hawaii and I strongly encourage you to make the trip and support the local community with your business. You can read my 2018 Lava Boat review post for current details.