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Say Aloha to the World's Biggest Volcano

Travel to the awe-inspiring Mauna Loa in Hawaii -- on the cheap.

Standing at the edge of a rain forest, looking out across a cracked crater as steam rises between slabs of hardened black lava, I'm having a tough time believing I'm still in the U.S.

The Kilauea Iki crater, part of an active volcano, is just one of many natural wonders in awe-inspiring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park covers environments from sea level to the summit of the earth's most massive volcano, Mauna Loa, at 13,677 feet. An 11-mile loop called Crater Rim Drive and well-maintained trails lead to an underground lava tube and a lava field shrouded in sulfur and steam -- all for an admission fee of $10.

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Of course, getting to Hawaii on the cheap was the trick. To pull off my three-night, $1,000 adventure from Washington, D.C., I snagged a $577 fare (with taxes and fees) on America West at Travelocity.com to Kona on the Big Island. Although Hilo is closer to the park, flying into Kona was much less expensive.

On Hotwire.com, three nights at a two-star Hilo hotel totaled just $205. Hilo has a well-deserved reputation for rain, but it's also easygoing, affordable and resplendent with tropical plant life and waterfalls. And it's just a 30-mile drive from the park. It's also the home of Big Island Candies, where you can sample Kona coffee and Hawaiian macadamia nuts hand-dipped in chocolate.

A compact car from Hertz (booked through Hotwire) cost just $68 for three days, and even with the 200-mile round trip between Kona and Hilo, $50 worth of gas was plenty. Dining out in Hilo was reasonable. A filling bowl of saimin (a local noodle soup) cost less than $6. For $100 I ate well and even had enough for a locally brewed Mehana Hawaii Lager with dinner.

-- Amy Esbenshade Hebert

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