comscore An hour in Niaulani forest inspires a lifetime of wonder
Hawaii's Backyard | Travel

An hour in Niaulani forest inspires a lifetime of wonder

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    A close-up of a leaf from the kanawao, a small endemic tree.
    Guide Dean Gallagher discusses endangered native rainforest birds during a nature walk in Niaulani Rain Forest.
    There is no common name for this otherworldly mushroom, which only grows on hapuu tree ferns. Like the hapuu, it is endemic, found nowhere else on earth.
    Emerging fronds, called fiddleheads, of the native hapuu tree fern. Hapuu ferns are found in abundance in Hawaii rain forests.
    Kahili ginger, which is native to the Himalayas. Although pretty, this ornamental is one of the most invasive plants in the rain forests of Kilauea.

Whenever her job gets hectic, Tanya Aynessazian, chief executive officer of the Volcano Art Center, heeds the call of the Niaulani Rain Forest just outside her office. Along a loop trail — one-seventh of a mile that meanders at the foot of giant koa and ohia trees — she often finds a place to sit, relax and listen.

"The sounds of the apapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper), the wind blowing through the trees and the rustling of leaves center me," she said. "I’m nourished and cleansed by the forest spirit. Niaulani means ‘brushed by the heavens,’ and that’s how I feel when I emerge — revitalized and with clarity to continue on through the day."

Long ago the Hawaiians did not live, hunt or grow crops in this magnificent, mist-shrouded oasis 4,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Kilauea Volcano. They believed it was a sacred wao akua, realm of the gods.

Today, the center is the steward of the 5.5-acre Niaulani, one of the last remaining old-growth forests in Hawaii. Founded in 1974, the Volcano Art Center is a nonprofit educational organization that helps perpetuate the artistic and cultural heritage of Hawaii’s people and environment through events and activities revolving around the visual, literary and performing arts. Niaulani has become a muse for painters, sculptors, ceramists, photographers, writers, composers, performers and others dedicated to creative pursuits.


» Place: Meet at Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani campus, 19-4074 Old Volcano Road, Volcano Village, Big Island

» Time: 9:30 a.m. every Monday, including holidays

» Admission: Free (donations are welcome). Advance reservations are not required, although they are appreciated for groups of 10 or more.

» Phone: 967-8222

» E-mail:

» Website:

» Notes: The Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani campus is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you can’t attend the free walk or if you prefer going on a self-guided tour, the trail is open daily during daylight hours. A private tour can also be arranged Tuesday through Friday for a small fee and with at least two weeks’ notice. Because the climate in Volcano Village is usually cool, the recommended attire is jeans; a sweat shirt or long-sleeve shirt; and comfortable, closed-toe walking shoes. Bring wet-weather gear, including a slicker and an umbrella.


Scientists and teachers also frequent the forest to study its flourishing ecosystem. "Native rain forests on the Big Island are situated near the summit of volcanoes and act as green sponges," said Amanda Spaur, the center’s education coordinator. "They trap, collect and filter water into water tables. Without them, water would move very quickly, in massive amounts, down the flanks of the mountains and into developed areas."

Every Monday morning, rain or shine, center guides lead visitors on a stroll through Niaulani. They point out native plants and explain how the early Hawaiians used them for food, medicine, shelter, clothing, adornments and religious ceremonies.

"Most of the land in Hawaii is dominated by plants that, although beautiful, are not native to Hawaii," Spaur said. "Pictures of introduced ornamentals such as orchids, bromeliads and Himalayan gingers often appear in publicity for Hawaii, which gives visitors the mistaken impression that they originated here. During the walk we talk about the islands’ evolution, environment and native inhabitants, as well as the fragile and unique nature of our rain forests."

According to Spaur, foresters who previously resided in Niaulani protected native plants from harvesting and controlled the spread of invasive species. When the center leased the property from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources in 1997, it was with the understanding that it would continue those conservation efforts and spearhead campaigns to reintroduce native trees, flowers and shrubs.

During the walk, guides also identify the primary components of the Hawaiian rain forest, including epiphytes, which obtain nutrients from the air and rain and usually grow on other plants for support. The intriguing, artistic formations of established plants captivate shutterbugs. For example, some epiphytes grow high up in the canopy, their long roots entwined around trees’ branches and trunks in a gentle embrace.

Spaur enjoys accompanying visitors in the quiet majesty of Niaulani. "Even though our weekly walks are only an hour, visitors are able to make a profound, intimate connection with the forest," she said. "Niaulani is truly magical. It’s a compelling classroom that reveals so much about the wonders of nature without saying a word."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.


Following are highlights from Volcano Art Center-Niaulani’s January and February calendars. Other activities are scheduled at the center’s gallery in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Call, e-mail or visit the website for details.

» Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.: "The Art and Traditions of Hula" with Leilehua Yuen and Manu Josiah. Hula lesson: 10:30 a.m. to noon. Hands-on demonstration of lei hili (braiding method of lei making): noon to 1 p.m. Ukulele/guitar lesson (bring your own instrument): 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Free (donations are welcome).

» Friday, 7 p.m.: Poetry Slam. This high-energy, audience-judged competition is open to up to 15 poets, who will be selected via a lottery that evening. Prizes will be awarded to the top four finalists. $8 at the door.

» Saturday, 7 p.m.: Guitarist Pete Herzog will perform many original tunes from his "Homestyle" CD and blues opera "Steel Guitar." Tickets are $10 per person, $5 for children age 2 through 14.

» Jan. 28, 6:30 p.m.: HINA (Hawaii Island Network of Artists) invites you to meet on the last Friday of each month to get acquainted with other artists, work on a creation and learn about community art projects, exhibition opportunities, internships and career development. Free (donations are welcome).

» Jan. 30, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Arthur Johnsen teaches a plein-air workshop on sketching with oil paints. $95 fee includes materials.

» Feb. 5, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Learn the basics of block printing or improve your skills while making a one-of-a-kind tote bag or other fabric item with Caren Loebel-Fried. $85 to $92 fee includes supplies.

» Feb. 12, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.: The seventh annual Love the Arts fundraiser enables the Volcano Art Center to continue its community arts programs. $45 admission includes silent and live art auctions, champagne and wine, buffet dinner, handmade chocolate truffles and live entertainment.


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