By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Ever wonder if you would have the guts to fall asleep while lodging at the mouth of the world’s most active volcano?
Hawaii Island residents and visitors will once again have the opportunity to test their mettle, when Volcano House opens its guest rooms this month to the public as it completes renovations that began last year after a near three-year search for a concessioner that left the historic facility closed since Jan. 1, 2010.
Partners Aqua Hospitality and Ortega Family Enterprises, which operate the hotel inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the National Park Service, announced this week that Volcano House would be offering special “Pardon Our Dust” rates for customers beginning Friday and running through May 31, after which the remaining renovation work is estimated to be complete and the building will open to the general public.
Elizabeth Churchill, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Aqua, said Tuesday that work on the hotel’s 33 rooms is continuing, as well as renovations of the dining area, bar, and other public spaces.
“Right now, as of this Friday, we have eight crater view rooms fully completed and opening,” she said. “More rooms will be coming online over the next couple of months.”
About 1,000 people are on a waiting list and have already been contacted via email with the news about the specials beginning this week, she said.
Early bird rates between Friday and May 31 will be $200 per night for crater view rooms and $55 per night for the 10 Namakanipaio Cabins. She added that the dining room is not yet available, but snacks and other items are available in the hotel’s gift shop.
“We have not decided on (regular rates) at this point,” she said. “This is kind of our starting point, and we’ll take a look at what the demand is.”
She added that the companies are preparing to announce the hotel’s new general manager, who is a Hawaii Island resident. That person will begin a process of filling several positions at Volcano House.
The hotel has been partially open to the public for several months now as renovations continued. Three years ago, the National Park Service completed about $4 million in retrofitting and safety upgrades to the property, and an additional $2.5 to $3 million will end up being invested by Aqua and Ortega for refurbishments.
Volcano House provides a unique experience for visitors by virtue of its unique location — perched on the rim of Kilauea caldera. The facility features 33 guest rooms, a dining room, snack bar, lounge, gift shop, and will offer a variety of cultural events and demonstrations.
The 10 A-frame cabins at Namakanipaio Campground have been open since August, Churchill added, and have been booked up regularly.
“They’ve been quite popular,” she said. “They’ve sold out quite frequently, actually.”
The building itself can be traced back to 1824, when Chiefess Kapiolani and her entourage built a grass shack on the crater rim, according to volcanohousehotel.com.
“Throughout history, ancient Hawaiians came to Kilauea crater to worship the Volcano goddess Pele with offerings and prayers. In an ironic twist, the first structure was built on the crater rim … not to worship but rather to denounce Pele,” the site says.
Among the many people who have stayed in the hotel over the years was Mark Twain, who visited the island in 1866, when the structure was made of grass and ohia poles.
Most recently, Hilo businessman Ken Fujiyama served as concessioner at Volcano House. When his concession contract came to a close in 2010, the National Park Service outfitted the building with new fire suppression system and improved its ability to withstand earthquakes. The NPS also put out requests for applications from new concessioners.
The search ended up being longer than expected, with the NPS having to lower its franchise fees from 12.5 percent to 6 percent before striking a 15-year deal with Aqua and Ortega last year.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.