The most recent island in the Hawaiian chain to come bubbling out of the sea, the Big Island is still very young in geological terms.

In fact, as Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, continues to spew molten lava from deep within the earth's center, this largest of the Hawaiian islands continues to acquire even more land mass.

Hawaiian mythology attributes the mighty force of the volcano to Pele, goddess of fire, who is said to dwell in Kilauea's fiery crater. Her wrath is usually appeased by offerings, but occasionally she lets her power be known. In 1983 Kilauea erupted with more intensity than any other volcano in Hawaii's history, and the flaming trails of lava emitted from its crater destroyed virtually everything in their paths.

The volcano is still spewing lava, albeit at a much slower pace. It is possible to see the hardened flows in and around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and visitors can wander by scalding steam vents, sulfur beds, and life forms thriving on the volcanic soil, such as wild ferns, exotic orchids, and numerous species of tropical animals.

The Big Island is hardly all volcanic rock, however; rather, it resembles a miniature continent whose distinct terrain ranges from lava beds and arid ranch lands to lush rain forests and sumptuous beaches. The landscape is also dotted with caves in which petroglyphs inscribed by the island's early inhabitants give witness to the Big Island's long human history.

In recent years the Big Island has become a mecca for scientists: The world's most recognized astronomers study the stars from a colony of high-tech observatories clustered on the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea, and several other internationally recognized scientific teams have set up here to study the island, its volcanoes, and varied ecosystem.

Because the area is so spread out, visitors to the Big Island rarely feel crowded. There is plenty of room for everyone on this intensely diverse, magical island, where Pele the fire goddess still reigns supreme.

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