Hawaii O-Five

No one denies that our 50th state is Paradise, USA. But anyone who's ever been to this lush chain knows a simple truth: Not all the islands are created equal. So which is best? Welcome to the Great Hawaiian Island-Off. Read on, and pick your perfection.

Grab your shades, wax your board, and check out our tropical—paradise smackdown, in which we scour the Aloha State's sweetest shorelines, lushest mountains, coolest adventures, choicest chow, and hippest nightlife—then we let you decide which island is the big kahuna of beach-bound delight.

KAUAI: Wild Thing
By Amy Linn

HAWAII: Big Island Hot Spots
By Kent Black

LANAI: Luxe Outpost
By Ethan Watters

MOLOKAI: Real Aloha
By Joe Kane

OAHU: Blue Diamond
By Alex Heard

MAUI: A-List Island
By Daniel Duane

Getting There: Major carriers offer nonstop flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Honolulu, Oahu, Kahului, Maui, and Lihue, Kauai—home to Hawaii's largest airports—for sometimes as low as $370 round-trip. Hawaiian (800-367-5320, www.hawaiianairlines.com) and Aloha (800-367-5250, www.alohaairlines.com) airlines serve many smaller cities along the West Coast—including Portland, Seattle, Oakland, Orange County, and San Diego—and fly nonstop routes to the Honolulu, Kahului, and Big Island's Kona airport, starting at about $400. Once you're there, Island Air (800-323-3345, www.islandair.com) offers shuttle service between the six major islands, from $86 one way.

Resources: Visit HawaiiWeb.com for a photographic catalog of many of the islands' best beaches; check out GoHawaii.com, the Web site of Hawaii's tourism board. For the best maps, pick up a copy of Atlas of Hawaii (University of Hawaii Press, $50).

Wild Thing

Give in to temptation and go feral

Kauai
One of Kauai's Fountains of Youthful Jubilation. (Comstock)

SHORTLY AFTER LANDING IN KAUAI—the island air like a balm, the route north flanked by soft beaches, the impossibly green mountains poking through the mist—I can't help but notice all the chickens crossing the road. Cattle egrets, red-footed boobies, and a lot of surfer dudes, I expected. But chickens?

"They're everywhere, man," says the smoothie maker at Banana Joe's Fruit Stand, near Kilauea, as he hands over a to-die-for blend of locally grown papayas, bananas, and pineapples. "Chickens, goats, cows, pigs—they all went wild here."

What he didn't add was this: "Everything does." It's Kauai's mojo, it's the cosmic undertow, it's the bizarre unseen force here that somehow invades your synapses and returns you to a state of primordial bliss. Centuries ago, Polynesians introduced moa (chickens) to the Garden Island, as Kauai is called, and now the cluckers are everywhere, bold and cocky in the sheer delight of shedding their domesticity.

For me, the shedding takes about a day. By the time I wake up to aloha music in the sweet oceanfront condo at the Hanalei Colony Resort, in Haena—just up the road from Hanalei, the north shore's epicenter of surfing, biking, kayaking, coffeehouses, and barefoot locals—I've already lost it.

How else to explain the sudden urge to get in a helicopter, when in normal life I can barely sit on a swing without Dramamine?

"Loook at zee waterfalls!" croons Maurice, the Brazilian-born chopper pilot for Heli USA, after liftoff from the tiny Princeville airport, a few miles east of Hanalei. "Zo many, you can't count!" We buzz deep into the untouched interior—about 90 percent of Kauai is inaccessible by road—where clouds snag on volcanic cliffs and rivers spout spontaneously above the rainforest.

We ride the spine of Mount Waialeale, one of the soggiest places on the planet, which divides the island's arid west from its moist, lush north. We hover over the Alakai Swamp, a rainforest that's home to wild boar and some of the world's rarest plants. We swoop into 12-mile-long, 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon (the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"), and then head north to the sublime Na Pali Coast. Jungly 3,000-foot spires rise like buttresses on an earthly cathedral, and the 11-mile Kalalau Trail—famed for its Pacific views—hugs the cliffs above the pounding surf. Nothing could be mo' betta—until it is. A rainbow circles us: not just an arch but an entire, brilliant ring of color. Is this even possible?

On Kauai, the answer is yes—and then some. It's the oldest of Hawaii's main islands (dating back about six million years), so crashing waves have had time to create more than 50 miles of beaches—more sand per mile of coastline than on any island in the state. And with less than half as many visitors as Maui and none of the massive condo clots, traffic jams, and high-rises, a low-crowd shoreline is a fact of life.

I drive to Secret Beach, a lovely half-mile-long haven of white sand near the Kilauea Lighthouse, and Anini Beach, where the exposed reef draws summer snorkelers. I check out Hanalei Bay, a rapturous crescent of coastline framed by the cliffs of Mount Makana. I swim at Tunnels Beach and Kee Beach, and each new strand tempts me to explore another. There's no question that this is as good as Hawaii gets.

Even when it rains.

On a stormy north-shore day, I take the coast road to the sunny south, music blaring from the radio like the soundtrack to the greatest movie I've ever seen—which happens to be my life at the moment. In bustling, resort-filled Poipu, I snorkel with sea turtles at Hoai Beach, then it's onward to the 1920s-era Waimea Plantation Cottages, a banyan-treed beachfront oasis in the tiny outpost of Waimea. It's not easy to leave after a lomi lomi massage at the resort's spa, a mai tai at its brewpub (to the tunes of Ambrose, the seventy-something ukulele player), and an ono taco at the Shrimp Station, in town, but there's more exploring to be done.

A long, jolting drive down a rutted road brings me to Polihale Beach, 15 spectacular miles of sand on the far western edge of the Na Pali cliffs, with only ten other people in sight. When I park near the dunes, I hear what sounds like a goat bleating beyond the vast surrounding sugarcane fields, which can't be right—there's no farm in sight. And then I remember: It's wild.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Hanalei Colony Resort's spacious condo living, on the North Shore, is the closest lodging to the Na Pali Coast. It's totally unplugged (no TV or phone) and right on the beach. Two-bedroom condos from $210; 808-826-6235, www.hcr.com » Whaler's Cove, in Poipu, offers oceanfront luxury with its glass, marble, and private-terrace condos. Hot tubs and full kitchens (complete with blenders) round out the swank. Doubles from $349; 800-225-2683, www.whalers-cove.com » The gorgeously restored 1920s-era Waimea Plantation Cottages sit amid banyan trees and coco palms on a black-sand beach on Kauai's remote western side. Hawaiian-style massages ($80 and up; 808-338-2240, www.hartfeltmassage.com) at the on-site spa are amazing. Doubles from $195; 800-992-4632, www.waimea-plantation.com

Dine: For a quick and delicious breakfast, try the Hanalei Wake-Up Cafe, the north-coast locals' hole-in-the-wall favorite. It closes at 11 a.m. so employees can go surfing. 808-826-5551 » Sit under the thatched veranda at Hanalei Bay Resort's Bali Hai restaurant, overlooking the water and Mount Makana. 808-826-6522, www.hanaleibayresort.com/about-hanalei/dining.html » When you're ready to splurge, the torchlit, tiki-chic Plantation Gardens, in the Kiahuna Plantation Resort, in Poipu, is famous for dishes made with locally grown produce. 808-742-2216, www.pgrestaurant.com

Get Out: Hike the steep and strenuous, sometimes muddy, and always gorgeous Kalalau Trail, on the Na Pali Coast. Camping permits are available from the Division of State Parks. 808-274-3444, www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dsp/dsp.html » Rent a kayak or take a guided tour of Hanalei Bay with Kayak Kauai, in Hanalei. From $28; 800-437-3507, www.kayakkauai.com » Head out on horseback across 400-acre Silver Falls Ranch, in Kilauea, to a waterfall pool where you can take a dip and eat a picnic lunch. $100; 808-828-6718, www.silverfallsranch.com » On the south shore, swim and lounge at Mahaulepu Beach, three miles east of the Hyatt Regency in Poipu. The draw? Two miles of unspoiled dunes and golden sand.

Shop: Check out Aunty Lilikoi's award-winning passion-fruit sauces in Waimea. 866-545-4564, www.auntylilikoi.com

Hot Spot

With volcanic rivers of free-flowing lava, this island's on fire

Big Island
Kilauea Volcano, on the Big Island's southeast coast, active since 1983

MY FIRST THOUGHT UPON SEEING the torch-bearing shapes of Ka huakai o ka po ("Night Marchers")—ghosts of past Hawaiian warriors—was that they were hallucinations caused by staring too long at the 2,000-degree flow of fiery red lava from the Puu Oo vent, on Kilauea. I'd driven to the end of Chain of Craters Road and hiked a couple hours over sneaker-shredding aa, or lava rock, to witness the spectacle. A couple dozen hikers and I stood half a mile away from where the ominously glowing molten river hit the ocean in an explosion of steam and rock. It was like watching the beating heart of the Big Island: land so new it's still in the process of creation. Indeed, Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983.

Earlier that day, I'd sat on the cliffs overlooking the rocky shore at South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States and thought to be the place where the first Polynesians landed on the Hawaiian chain, about 1,600 years ago. I tried to imagine how those first settlers, after a 2,300-mile voyage from the Marquesas, saw the island: its green- and black-sand beaches, fuming volcanoes, dense, highland forests, snow-covered mountaintops, and lush, windward valleys.

Since the Big Island is the original Hawaiian homeland, it's where many of the gods, goddesses, and demigods live and are revered even today. It seems there's not an acre of land that doesn't have a story and a hefty dose of mana, or spiritual power. I went horseback-riding in the Waipio Valley, on the northeast coast, where Uli, goddess of sorcery, and Nenewe, the evil shark-man, reside. I trekked to the top of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, past Lake Waiau, where ancient Hawaiians brought the umbilical cords of their children to give them the strength of the mountains. I spent two days hiking a few of the 150-plus miles of trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, including a great six-and-a-half-mile hike to the steaming Halemaumau crater, home to Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes.

Hawaiian myth holds that when the Big Island was being created, Pele and her lover, Kamapuaa (the pig god), quarreled, and in the split they divided the island. The pig god took the rainier windward side, while Pele got hot and dry Kona, on the west coast. But the fact that Mauna Loa and Kilauea are still active is evidence that Pele hasn't gotten over the breakup. Fortunately, she can be bribed. Gifts of leis or bottles of booze are offered at Halemaumau, and locals around Puna will tell you in all earnestness that if you see an old lady hitchhiking near a volcano, give her a lift: She could be Pele in disguise.

While there are plenty of mana-free things to do on the Big Island—snorkeling and scuba diving in Kealakekua Bay, on the Kona coast; swimming with manta rays; sportfishing for marlin, swordfish, and tuna; whale watching off Kona; mountain-biking the upcountry ranch land outside of Waimea—I always find myself drawn to those places that connect the old Hawaii with the new.

Which brings me back to my dilemma on the aa path near the Kilauea flow. To show proper obeisance when encountering Night Marchers, it is customary to remove all clothes and lie facedown until they pass. Before I could oblige, however, they emerged from the mist: five Japanese teenagers in matching rock-tour T-shirts, armed with flashlights. Seeing my shocked expression, they giggled nervously and moved on. A few minutes later, I stumbled on the sharp rock and gashed my leg. As I limped in the dark, back to where I'd left my car, I began to wonder if those Japanese kids weren't Night Marchers in disguise who'd cursed me for not showing the proper respect.

On the Big Island, you never know.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Waianuhea, near the northeastern town of Honokaa, is a stunning five-room, off-the-grid B&B, 15 minutes inland from the Hamakua Coast. It's the perfect base for exploring the Waipio Valley and the up-country ranch town of Waimea. Doubles from $190; 888-775-2577, www.waianuhea.com » In Kona, on the island's sunny west coast, is the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, with 500-plus rooms on 22 oceanfront acres, plus meandering pools, grottoes, and water slides. Doubles from $169; 808-930-4900, www.sheratonkeauhou.com » Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the southeast, Volcano Rainforest Retreat has four cedar and redwood cottages and three hot tubs—perfect after a day spent wandering the lava flows and craters. In addition to boning up on volcanology, you can get an in-cottage shiatsu massage. Doubles from $125; 800-550-8696, www.volcanoretreat.com

Dine: Tex Drive In, on Highway 19 in Honokaa, specializes in addictive fried pastries called malasadas—try the pineapple-and-papaya filling. 808-775-0598, www.texdrivein.com » If Hawaiian doughnuts don't cut it, the French-Asian Daniel Thiebaut Restaurant, in Waimea, is one of the top-rated eateries in the United States. Don't miss the Asian crab–crusted mahi-mahi with sweet-chili butter sauce. 808-887-2200, www.danielthiebaut.com » Kaaloa's Super J's take-out, on Highway 11 in Honaunau, serves true-blue Hawaiian dishes like kalua pig and lomi salmon. 808-328-9566

Get Out: Swim offshore with gentle manta rays and guide James Wing, the original manta man. Wing is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of manta behavior and for providing close encounters. From $75; 808-987-8660, www.dolphindreams.com » Captain Ron, of Kailua-Kona–based Coral Reef Divers, will run you up the coast to dive sites like Pyramid Pinnacle and Golden Arches. Two-tank dive, $95; 808-987-1584, www.coralreefdivers.com » You'll need at least two days to explore the Kilauea Caldera and the 150-plus miles of hiking trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; call the eruption hotline for details on Kilauea's lava flow. 808-985-6000, www.nps.gov/havo » Hawaii Forest & Trail leads driving excursions and guided hikes to the ever-changing lava flow. $145; 800-464-1993, www.hawaii-forest.com » Ahalanui Beach Park—on the Puna coast, south of Hilo—features a 90-degree spring-fed geothermic pool. 808-961-8311 » At the bottom of a steep, switchbacking road on the northeast coast, lush Waipio Valley is perfect for hiking, riding horses, and exploring the black-sand beach. Ride the rim with Waipio Ridge Stables before venturing to a waterfall in the rainforest. $145; 877-757-1414, www.waipioridgestables.com

Shop: Mid-Pacific Store, in Hilo, sells vintage aloha shirts, kimonos, and muumuus. 808-935-3822 » Coffee connoisseurs know that Kona coffee is a smooth, subtle, light-to-medium bean originally from Guatemala. Get your fix on a plantation tour at Kona Blue Sky Coffee, in Holualoa—it's one of the few places that offer 100 percent Kona beans. 877-322-1700, www.konablueskycoffee.com

Luxe Outpost

Mellow never had it so good

Lanai
Going nowhere fast: fat-tire riding, Lanai

I WAS IN THE GARDEN OF THE GODS at twilight when the feeling first came over me. From Lanai's only town, I had driven half an hour north on a single-lane dirt road to this otherworldly plateau of red dust, pinnacles, and encrusted lava. I turned off the engine of the jeep but left the radio blaring rock from a Big Island station. Walking away from the car—at just the point where the trade winds began to drown out the electric guitar—I felt suddenly and deliriously alone.

Like many city dwellers, I fantasize about being stranded on a Pacific island. I read Robinson Crusoe as a kid and saw Cast Away the day it opened, but I'd never experienced the exquisite ache of loneliness that a shipwreck survivor might feel until that moment, standing at the northern edge of Lanai and looking out at the darkening ocean. Of course, this was an illusion. When I turned around, my jeep was there, with the Stone Temple Pilots singing an anthem to modern-day alienation. But all was not lost: I was still on Lanai.

Shaped like a teardrop, 18 miles long, and only 13 miles across at its widest point, Lanai has retained a sense of splendid seclusion. No theme-park resorts here. In fact, since the island was once used for growing pineapples and cattle ranching—and 98 percent of it is owned by a single real estate holding—development has been kept to a minimum. Lanai City, with a population of just 3,000, is tightly contained in less than four square miles and still looks like the 1920s pineapple-plantation village it used to be. About half of the island's coast is sheer cliff against ocean, and most of the land is arid—red dirt and low grass. There are less than three dozen miles of paved road, not a single mile of which runs along the coastline; nearly all shore access is by jeep trail, hiking, or rappelling. From almost any place on the island, I had to walk only 15 minutes and I could be deep in my thousands-of-miles-from-civilization reverie.

The illusion of utter isolation is a delicacy, but like ordering blowfish at a sushi bar, it's one you want carefully served with the poison excised. Which is to say that the thrill of feeling stranded can sometimes lead to restlessness if you don't have an ultra-luxe hotel to head back to at the end of the day.

Fortunately, Lanai has two such retreats. The low, Mediterranean-style buildings of the Manele Bay Hotel are terraced into a hillside next to the island's nicest strand, Hulopoe Beach. The most decadent suites—outfitted with four-poster beds—come with butler service, so I wasn't surprised to learn that, back in the early nineties, Bill Gates had rented the entire place for his wedding. Ten miles away, close to town, the Lodge at Koele, with its old-world hunting-estate decor, is an oddity in Hawaii. Because it's situated at 1,700 feet in the island's center, breezes are often cool enough to warrant use of the lobby's wood-burning fireplace. Both resorts have golf courses that are so well manicured and cleverly designed, with ocean backdrops and island greens, that they look like the virtual landscapes in a golf video game.

What I like best about Lanai is that it manages a perfect balance between what there is to do and what there isn't. Sure, you can hook up with scuba and fishing charters, sample world-class snorkeling off Shipwreck Beach (so named because a World War II Liberty Ship rusts on the reef), sea-kayak with pods of spinner dolphins in Kaunolu Bay, mountain-bike down the Munro Trail, and ride horses above Maunalei Gulch. But karaoke nightclubs and beachfront bacchanalias? If you use party as a verb, this is not your island.

In the end, your choices come down to a happily manageable handful: Should I play croquet or visit the sporting-clay facility to blow some plates out of the sky? Should I take a jeep down that dirt road or rent a mountain bike and go exploring? Should I get the alii banana-and-coconut scrub or the ki pola hoolu ti leaf wrap?

Still want more? Take your day planner and head for Maui.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: The 249-room, Mediterranean-style Manele Bay Hotel is the only resort on the water. Its spacious rooms open onto garden courtyards or overlook Hulopoe Beach, the island's best. Doubles from $400; 800-450-3704, www.manelebayhotel.com » If you're into fetishizing the lifestyle of English lords and ladies, the 102-room Lodge at Koele, just north of Lanai City, is perfection. The largest wooden structure in the islands, it's modeled after old English hunting lodges, with a full croquet course and pros to teach you the game. Doubles from $400; 800-450-3704, www.lodgeatkoele.com » The oldest and most low-key of the island's accommodations is the 11-room Hotel Lanai, on the edge of Lanai City. Built by pineapple king James Dole in 1923 to house his execs, the plantation-style rooms have a warm charm. Doubles from $105; 877-665-2624, www.hotellanai.com

Dine: The Blue Ginger Café; is a casual local favorite just across the street from Dole Park, in the center of Lanai City. Eat there two days in a row and you're likely to see the same friendly faces. 808-565-6363 » Henry Clay's Rotisserie, in the Hotel Lanai, serves hearty New Orleans fare at moderate prices. The small bar here is one of the few places where locals and visitors mingle. 877-665-2624

Get Out: Trilogy Ocean Sports Lanai is the catchall guiding service on the island. It leads catamaran-supported scuba dives to the walls and reefs below Lanai's rocky shores, rents jeeps to explore the island's mostly dirt roads, and arranges guided four-wheel-drive expeditions if you don't want to go it alone. Prices vary; 888-628-4800, www.visitlanai.com » Thanks to the cliffs that cover nearly half of Lanai's 47-mile coastline, access to many beaches requires a hike or four-wheel drive. There is one notable exception: Hulopoe Beach, at the south end of Route 440, is not only car-accessible; it's continually rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. On the west end of the beach, the Manele Bay Hotel keeps a stash of snorkel equipment in a kiosk for its guests. » Blast a couple of clay pigeons at the Lodge at Koele's sport-shooting facility. $150 for 100 rounds; 808-559-4600, www.lodgeatkoele.com

Shop: The Heart of Lanai art gallery sells island paintings by local artists and custom-made ukuleles. 888-565-7815

Real Aloha

Your ticket to the land of big cliffs and big hearts

Molokai
Kalaupapa, on the fin-shaped Makanalua Peninsula, jutting out on the north coast of Molokai. (courtesy, Tourism Hawaii)

MOLOKAI IS THE WILDEST and most mysterious of the Hawaiian Islands—sparsely settled, sporadically visited, fiercely independent, and protected by the world's highest sea cliffs. There are no stoplights here; in fact, with Big Pineapple long gone and Big Condo not quite arrived, there are hardly any lights at all. Viewed at night from nearby Maui, Molokai looms like a wary hulk guarding a secret. And it is—Molokai is the Hawaii that used to be.

Molokai's only real town, Kaunakakai, is three blocks long. The shops' floorboards creak with age, but the place has a funky charm—it's where the Joads would have washed up if they'd put in to the Pacific and had better luck. My first night "downtown," locals were gathered in front of the library, talking in pidgin and English and cheering wildly when guitarist Zack Helm and his daughter, Raiatea, lit up the night with traditional Hawaiian songs. I was the odd white face in a sea of Filipino, Japanese, and Polynesian blood, but people greeted me with smiles and nods.

Molokai is called the Friendly Isle, but that's overly simplistic. Perhaps it's more accurate to call it the most Hawaiian of the major islands—almost half its 7,000 inhabitants are natives, and the island is known for the virtue of ohana, or family. "If you want to make a lot of money, go to Oahu," a Molokai resident named Joe Kalipi told me. "Here, you judge a man by his aloha spirit. You judge him by his heart."

Wander into a homey little roadside cookhouse, lured by visions of guava-sauce ribs and a cold beer, only to discover that it doesn't have an alcohol license? Not to worry. The waiter will likely offer you the last frosty Bud from his personal stash. And because there are far fewer people to crowd the beaches of Molokai, you won't find any of the competitive surf vibes of the other islands. The day I boogie-boarded off Kepuhi Beach, a popular swimming and surfing spot on the west side, three young locals paddled over to warn me away from hidden rocks and suggested I'd get better rides if I moved up on my board.

All this packed into an island 38 miles long and ten wide. Though it's the second smallest of the major Hawaiian islands, Molokai's sheer wildness and diversity is unparalleled. The rainforest atop its steep northern shore receives nearly 160 inches of precipitation annually. Laau Point, a few miles west, gets fewer than ten inches. Try making that transition on a mountain bike: Start atop a 2,000-foot cliff that drops straight into the Pacific and finish by hurtling to the sea along red-desert singletrack so thrilling it explains why Molokai is called Mini-Moab.

For an offshore perspective, sea-kayak the south coast, which is protected by the state's longest barrier reef, stretching almost the entire length of the island's southern side. Stuff a picnic lunch and snorkeling gear into your pack and find a perfect white-sand beach, like three-mile Papohaku (the state's longest), to call your own.

After all, you've come to Molokai to be alone. Up in the high country there are at least a dozen forested hiking trails you'll almost surely have to yourself. (Beware, however, that some cross private property and can't be accessed without a local guide.) All are dramatic, but my favorite is the cliff-face descent via 26 posted switchbacks into the leper colony at Kalaupapa, on the island's north shore, a setting so spectacular—with a story of such tragedy and courage—that it inspired the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

Spectacular, isolated, ignored, unique: This is Molokai. The island's residents prefer it that way. They might mumble something about too many visitors, but the next thing you know, they're inviting you home for dinner, giving you their last beer, or helping you catch a wave. Now that's a friendly isle.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Relaxed but lively, the Polynesian-style Hotel Molokai has 47 thatch-roofed rooms and an ocean-view restaurant and bar that attracts visitors and locals alike. Doubles from $90; 800-535-0085, www.hotelmolokai.com » The Lodge at Molokai Ranch—the island's only resort—is a gorgeous plantation-style estate with 22 rooms on 65,000 acres on the western third of the island. Doubles from $280; 888-627-8082, www.molokairanch.com

Dine: Molokai isn't known for haute cuisine, but you can eat cheaply and well; ribs and fresh fish are the island specialties. Good bets are Kualapuu Cookhouse (808-567-9655) and the Molokai Pizza Café; (808-553-3288), in Kaunakakai. » Stanley's Coffee Shop, on Puali Street, in Kaunakakai, has Internet access and espresso. 808-553-9966 » The Neighborhood Store and Counter, on the Kamehameha Highway, will sell you a Japanese-style box lunch for a day trip to the remote eastern beaches. 808-558-8498

Get Out: Hook up with Damien Tours for the 3.1-mile trek down the treacherously steep Pali Trail to the Kalaupapa leper colony, a national historic site that's still home to 35 people. At the bottom, board the bus driven by Richard Marks—a wry resident and a fierce advocate for the victims of the widely misunderstood disease. $40; 808-567-6171 » Mountain-bike with Activities Maunaloa on the world-class singletrack at the Lodge at Molokai Ranch. Head guide and native son Kawika Puaa leads half-day rides through the wildly varied terrain, from muddy rainforest to hardpack desert. $45; 808-552-0184 » For fishing, scuba diving, and one of the few available tours of the spectacular north shore (accessible only by boat), Walter Naki, of Molokai Action Adventures, is your man. $100; 808-558-8184

Shop: The Plantation Gallery, on Maunaloa's main drag, has the best beads and trinkets on Molokai—and maybe in the whole state. Check out its sister shop, the Big Wind Kite Factory, next door. 808-552-2364, www.molokai.com/gallery, www.molokai.com/kites

Blue Diamond

North Shore surf plus Honolulu nightlife—proof that you can have it all

Oahu
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the "Pink Palace of the Pacific," on Waikiki Beach. (courtesy, Tourism Hawaii)

I GET IRRITATED WHEN PEOPLE disrespect Oahu—letting you know, smugly, that when they travel to Hawaii, all they do in Honolulu is catch a flight to one of the "other islands." The rap is that Oahu is too urban, too touristy, too whatever. The great abomination is supposedly Waikiki, the 1.5-mile-long resort-and-beach strip just east of downtown Honolulu whose loud garishness represents everything modern island travelers think they ought to avoid.

These gripes miss a larger truth: Oahu's many parts, both kitschy and genuine, come together to form a wonderful whole. There's more than enough nature, outdoor sports, beaches, mountains, and solitude to please anyone, and Oahu's urban life is a strength, not a weakness. Honolulu and Waikiki are a blast, home to classic luxury hotels (my wife, Susan, and I stayed at the fabulous Royal Hawaiian, called "the pink palace of the Pacific" for its Pepto-Bismol–colored stucco coat), rich history, beautiful public spaces, cool bars, and friendly people. Waikiki's beachfront nightlife connects you to a magical past, when honeymooners wiggled toes in its sands and Hawaii Calls—a globally syndicated radio program broadcast from the Banyan Courtyard, at the Moana Hotel—sent out a musical aloha every Saturday night.

Today, Honolulu and Waikiki hum with Pacific Rim energy, and you can have plenty of fun just sunning, bodysurfing, strolling, shopping, and watching the limo-powered migrations of Japanese wedding parties. I especially liked the Ala Moana Center—a mall with an entire store devoted to ukuleles—and the huge, thrice-weekly flea market at Aloha Stadium. I bought used flippers; Susan picked up a few bushels of inexpensive jewelry and the first in her now alarmingly large collection of carved tikis. These weren't mass-produced junk, either, but grimacing, two-foot-tall mini-masterpieces chipped out of monkey pod wood by local craftsmen.

Honolulu residents characterize a trip to the North Shore—where we spent several days at the spiff Turtle Bay Resort, an oceanfront golf-and-luxury spread near the island's northernmost point—as going to the country. But you can get there in 45 minutes from downtown, so it's more like going from San Francisco to Stinson Beach. We soon realized we could build busy days around my doing outdoor stuff in the morning, Susan going on urban adventures in the afternoon, and us doing something romantic together at night.

On a typical morning, I would surf (Turtle Bay's resident pro, Hans Hedemann, taught me the basics), snorkel, or sea-kayak (in Kailua, you can paddle to a pair of offshore islands). Then I'd pick Susan up at lunchtime and we'd floor it to the nearest coconut stand. We'd either explore the North Shore—home to legendary beaches and surf spots like Waimea Bay and Pipeline, as well as Haleiwa, the main town for local hipsters—or we'd head back to the city, usually via the more scenic route on the island's eastern shore. After a drink with a new pal like Lloyd Kandell—cofounder of Don Tiki, an Oahu-based band that specializes in the "exotica" sounds made popular in the fifties—we'd zoom north and stake out a hot tub at the resort. Our favorite offered a tiki-torch-framed view of Turtle Bay with a surf-powered blowhole going off in the foreground. The full moon came at no extra charge.

The last thing I did in Oahu wasn't my usual scene: I signed up for a day of sportfishing out of Honolulu's Kewalo Basin on a boat that, in its time, had landed a 939-pound blue marlin. This wasn't one of those times, and by 9 a.m. I intuited that the adventure would be defined by eight hours of smelling diesel exhaust and watching hooks drag through the water without result.

Luckily, this was Oahu, so one of the other clients was my kind of boat mate: a spirited, chain-smoking divorcé;e from Los Angeles who made it clear with her friendly chatter that she was determined to have fun. Before long she noticed me sitting in the fighting chair looking glum.

"Were you wanting a beer or anything?" she offered.

I checked the time: 9:30. Yes.

"Kinda. But I didn't bring any, so—"

"Hey, man," she rasped, "I brought two six-packs and a bottle of Mr. Boston rum. And I'm not planning on taking any of it back."

I saw her differently then. She was a sweet goddess, offering the rarest of island nectars. What could I say but mahalo?

Access & Resources
Hole Up: The 387-room Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa, at Ko Olina, in Kapolei, dominates a cliff-backed spit of sand on Oahu's west coast. In a full day here, you can snorkel the private lagoon, play 18 holes of golf, and still have time for a spa treatment. Doubles from $370; 808-679-0079, www.ihilani.com » With five miles of prime North Shore beach, 443 rooms, and two 18-hole golf courses, Turtle Bay Resort offers luxury on a grand scale. Snorkel the bay or take surf lessons with Hans Hedemann, then hit 21 Degrees North for martinis. Doubles from $400; 808-447-6508, www.turtlebayresort.com » If you yearn for the quiet comforts of life on a Hawaiian beach, try one of the B&Bs available across the island—including the hotel-free eastern side—through Affordable Paradise. Studios from $55; 808-261-1693, www.affordable-paradise.com

Dine: Chai's Island Bistro, in downtown Honolulu, has upscale seafood, perfectly mixed cocktails, and a crack waitstaff in an unpretentious environment. 808-585-0011, www.chaisislandbistro.com » North Shore locals swear by Giovanni's shrimp truck, with its $11 garlic-laden scampis. It's always parked on the Kamehameha Highway in Kahuku. 808-293-1839 » For the Waikiki experience, try the Mai Tai Bar, at the Royal Hawaiian. Tiki torches, Hawaiian music, and hula dancers complete the vibe. 808-923-7311, www.royal-hawaiian.com

Get Out: Even novice sea kayakers will enjoy the reef-protected islands near Kailua Beach Park. Guide Steve Haumschild, of Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks, will lead you to some good snorkeling and teach you how to boat-surf waves along the way. From $39; 808-262-2555 » Wild Side Specialty Tours provides uncrowded (no more than 16 guests) dolphin- and whale-watching and swimming tours from a 42-foot catamaran off the west coast. From $95; 808-306-7273, www.sailhawaii.com » Wake up early and hike a mile and three-quarters to the top of 760-foot Diamond Head volcanic crater for the best view of sunrise over Honolulu and Waikiki. » At Mokuleia's Dillingham Airfield, Honolulu Soaring offers 15-minute to hourlong rides in an aerobatic glider. You can't beat the cockpit view, riding updrafts above the North Shore surf. $129–$228; 808-677-3404, www.honolulusoaring.com » Or try a tandem jump with Skydive Hawaii. $225; 808-637-9700, www.hawaiiskydiving.com

Shop: Seek out the talented (and hilariously grumpy) Tongan tiki carver Kini at the International Marketplace on Kalakaua Ave, Waikiki's main drag. 808-971-2080, www.internationalmarketplacewaikiki.com

A-List Island

Surfing superstars, media magnates, Hollywood glitterati—and you

Maui
Maui's bright side
Maui
Just press play: La Perouse Bay, Makena; opposite, Hotel Hana-Maui's sea-ranch suites

SO HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FEEL when the valet at the Hotel Hana-Maui (which must be the most understatedly elegant, eco-positive hotel on earth, in a genuine rural paradise) smiles and says, "You know, the surf's so uncrowded around here that I'm usually trying to find people to go with me"? Especially when the guy's eyes light up as he describes jet-ski trips to breaks so remote that you don't see a single building, road, or human all day? Or when he freely gives me directions to a nearby beach break and those directions take me past the sleepy old Hasegawa General Store and out toward a barbecue stand with a hand-drawn sign reading LOCAL KIND GRIND?

And sure, I know that Carol Burnett, Jim Nabors, and George Harrison used to live out here in Hana, the easternmost point of the island, and that Kris Kristofferson still does. And I know that the town's aflutter over Oprah's recent purchase of more than a hundred acres of undeveloped Hana coast. But somehow the celebrity density only heightens my astonishment that on Maui, of all places, with its Gold Coast resorts and almost hourly jumbo jets, I can drift down a one-lane country road, past white egrets loitering in overgrown pastures among grazing Holsteins, and into a dazed state of tropical rapture.

I awoke yesterday morning in the baroque splendor of the Fairmont Kea Lani—65 miles away on the south shore, among Fantasy Island villas and talk of the Maui film festival and how it had drawn Adrien Brody and Greg Kinnear and Angela Bassett. Then I was whisked by helicopter along the slopes of 10,023-foot Haleakala to watch a 2,000-foot waterfall gush only yards beyond the windshield. I hiked 15 miles and 5,000 feet up into the famed Kaupo Gap, from prickly pear desert through sodden forest and alpine tundra beyond, then into the volcanic moonscape of the giant upper crater, an unearthly world of red ash and cinder cones, bizarre silversword plants, and solidified rivers of black magma.

Cresting a high ridge, I looked down the long, sweeping slopes to funky Paia town, where I'd dawn-patrolled clean-point surf the day before and watched gorgeous, half-naked fitness fanatics drink wheatgrass juice outside Mana Foods, chatting about their late-morning wave sail at windsurfing's sweetest spot on earth, Hookipa. And those alpha dogs I saw at Anthony's Coffee Shop? That was Laird Hamilton himself, with his pal Dave Kalama, who together had pioneered tow-in big-wave surfing on the 50-footers right down the road at Jaws—and who were among the first to launch kiteboarding as a sport, at the nearby strand known today as Kite Beach.

And now, not 24 hours later, I'm killing the engine at a red-sand beach with only three surfers in the warm water—two tanned adolescent boys and a teenage girl in a red bikini. Island kids, done with school for the day and frolicking in the world as they know it. There are finer pleasures to come—the full-body spirulina-and-kava spa treatment I've scheduled at the hotel and the nine-course tasting menu with wine pairings—but it's right now, wading out for a sunset surf, that I realize why Maui is the only Hawaiian island named for a demigod. And not just any god, either: Maui was the greatest trickster in Polynesian culture, a sort of South Pacific Paul Bunyan/Odysseus hybrid who fished the Hawaiian islands up from the ocean floor, lifted the sky so people could walk upright, and lengthened the day by climbing to the top of Haleakala and lassoing the sun god.

There's a genuine delight in this island and in the fact that—among all the high-dollar tourism and great yoga studios and world-famous surfing and movie-star real estate—there exists the paradoxical sense that you've finally found the place you've always dreamed about, the one beyond the end of the road, where you can leave it all behind and just stay.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Set amid a 23,000-acre working pineapple plantation on Maui's northwest shore is the 548-room Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, on white-sand D.T. Fleming Beach, near Honolua Bay, one of the world's best right-hand surf breaks. Doubles from $365; 800-241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/kapalua » The Fairmont Kea Lani, on the sunny south side of the island, offers big-resort glam (suites are at least 840 square feet), exceptionally calm water, and a secluded beach. Doubles from $465; 800-257-7544, www.fairmont.com/kealani » Hotel Hana-Maui—47 cottages and 22 bungalow rooms overlooking the ocean—is the only hotel on the remote east coast. Doubles from $395; 800-321-4262, www.hotelhanamaui.com

Dine: The Paia Fish Market restaurant, in the heart of Paia, has your postworkout grilled mahi-mahi, fresh from the sea—just like you. 808-579-8030 » On the western edge of Lahaina and right on the water, Mala offers fresh and organic tapas—like mahi-mahi chermoula and crunchy calamari with aioli. 808-667-9394

Get Out: Latatudes and Attitudes does an all-day heli-hike, starting with whirlybird sightseeing over Haleakala and ending with a 15-mile catered hike from Kaupo Gap through the volcano's crater (from $2,500). They also offer a four-hour guided waterfall hike in the West Maui Mountains ($75). 877-661-7720, www.ecomaui.com » Visit Hana's secluded Koki Beach for surfing and relaxing. » Sample Maui's unrivaled watersports by ogling windsurfers at Hookipa, just beyond Kahalui's airport, and tow-in surfers riding the monster waves at Jaws, 15 minutes east of Paia (turn left after the cemetery). Or learn to surf with the Nancy Emerson School of Surfing at the beginner-friendly Breakwall in Lahaina. $75 for two hours; 808-244-7873, www.mauisurfclinics.com » The road to Hana—600 curves and 54 one-lane bridges on about 30 miles of cliff- and jungle-edged road—is so unpopulated, you'll find it hard to believe it's on glitzy, golfer-inundated Maui. Gas up and take the long way back, along Haleakala's leeward slope.

Shop: Drop by Hana's Hasegawa General Store, for a Coke in a glass bottle—and trip out on a bygone world. 808-248-8231

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