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Big Island’s Volcano House Slowly Comes Back to Life

Veteran National Park Concessionaire Aims For Full Reopening By May

Tanya Ortega’s no stranger to America’s national parks. At age 17, as a member of the Youth Conservation Corps, she cleared trails and monitored geysers at Yellowstone. Maybe the parks are in her blood. Her great-grandfather was a miner in Death Valley.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, when seeking new business opportunities, Tanya, her brother and father—collectively known as Ortega Family Enterprises—migrate toward public lands operated by the National Park Service. They operate concessions at seven properties across the country, from beach clubs at New York’s Gateway National Recreation Area to a gift shop at California’s Muir Woods National Monument.

The Ortega’s latest venture takes them well beyond the West Coast to Hawaii’s Big Island, where they’re breathing new life into a storied, but shuttered, hotel at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There’s been lodging on the rim of the Kilauea volcano since a grass shack was raised on the site in 1846. Known for decades simply as Volcano House, the property, according to the National Park Service, has the distinction of being the state’s oldest hotel.

In a state where scores of hotels rightfully boast enviable locations with drop-dead-gorgeous views, Volcano House has the enviable honor of being the only accommodation within the National Park. It’s literally just across Crater Rim Drive from the visitor center. But, even better, it continues to sit at the edge of the active volcano. From a walkway along the caldera just behind the hotel and from many guestrooms, clouds of steam can be seen eerily rising from the bowels of the earth.

For the past three years, though, the property’s been closed. The Park Service didn’t renew the contract of the previous operator and began a lengthy bidding process that prompted Tanya Ortega to temporarily relocate to the island of Hawaii to oversee efforts to bring Volcano House into the family fold.

“There are different points the Park Service likes to see addressed,” she says. “I think our bid for Volcano House was about 1,000 pages. A substantial amount of information went into that.”

The family’s lengthy relationship with the federal government—dating back decades to when Tanya’s uncle snared the trading post concession at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument—certainly helps.

“How we can support the Park Service in their goals is very specific,” says Ortega. “It’s something a lot of these companies that also bid on these on these properties have been doing for many years. And we’re very fortunate to have a background in this. We involve the communities [and] the locals as much as we possibly can. You have to be on site to cull everything and to pull it together.”

Ortega’s bid—a partnership with Hawaii-based Aqua Hotels and Resorts—eventually got the government’s nod. The firm took possession of Volcano House on August 15, 2012. Within three days, a newly remodeled gift shop opened its doors. A campground with rustic cabins—not adjacent to the lodge, but still part of the deal—has also opened. However, getting the rest of the place up and running is proving a greater challenge.

While there’s already a waiting list of people seeking reservations, Ortega says they will be “staggering the room openings,” with completion anticipated by late next spring.

When finished, Volcano House will lure visitors with a look and feel reminiscent of its pre-World War Two heyday, when guests were more likely to be Japanese than American. Everything from the custom-made furniture to the wallcoverings will hark back to quieter times.

“We went back through the [Park Service] archives to see pictures from before the War,” says General Manager Jorge Mangino. “All the furniture, etcetera, will take it back to what it was like then, something unique.”

“This is how detailed-slash-possibly crazy we get about the details,” says Ortega. “We had furniture made that is like that furniture in those [archival] photos. Also the décor, the lighting, the rooms, everything. We went a little overboard.”

Refurbishing a hotel in the Islands has its own set of obstacles. Geography—and the resulting transportation logistics—are major hurdles, according to Mangino.

“A three-day Mainland delivery becomes four weeks,” he says. Furniture and other goods have to be shipped from the West Coast to Honolulu. Once on Oahu, they’re transferred to container barges for the final, 200-mile leg of the journey to the Big Island.

The hotel will feature 32 rooms, 20 of them with volcano views. There will also be two gift shops, a snack bar, a dining room—the only restaurant in the entire park—and a bar with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the crater.

Ortega said the bar’s name, Uncle George’s Lounge, will be kept. Generations of guests have enjoyed island-themed cocktails served from the regal bar, constructed of rare Koa wood. It will remain a focal point of the lounge, named for Greek immigrant George Lycurgus, who owned Volcano House in the early 1900s.

Throughout the hotel, traditional works of art on loan from various museums around the state will be displayed. They will help create the authentic feel the Ortegas strive to bring to all their properties. As Tanya Ortega says, that’s particularly important at parks that are of cultural significance to the locals, whether they’re Native American or Polynesian.

“We had a small Hawaiian blessing before we started doing any construction-type stuff,” she says. “When we are done with the hotel rooms—hopefully, that’ll be in May (2013)—we’ll have another one that will be bigger and public. And that’s necessary. It’s one of those things that could be overlooked, but we’re not going to overlook that at all.”

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