- Variety of beaches, all public -- including some of the most beautiful in the world
- Rich native culture incorporated into tourism experience: impressive hospitality (aka "aloha spirit"), floral-lei greetings, traditional hula, slack-key guitar and ukulele music, luaus, torch-lighting ceremonies, unique local cuisine
- Well-organized tourism infrastructure -- shuttles, trolleys, taxi transfers, tour desks, etc.
- Fun surfing tradition; Oahu is considered the birthplace of the sport.
- Outstanding water-based activities: snorkeling, scuba, surfing, canoeing, kayaking
- Visitors can hike one of the world's most active volcanoes.
- Offers both city action (Waikiki, Honolulu) and low-impact country living (most everywhere else)
- Beautiful sunrises and sunsets
- Lots of high-end designer retail stores
- No smoking in restaurants; smoking at hotels confined to removed, designated areas
- Multilingual -- many signs are in English and Japanese; concierges often speak both; no language barriers for English speakers
- Spam is everywhere.
- Long, usually expensive, flight; at least five hours from the U.S. mainland
- Food and other basics (like milk) are expensive.
- Public transit virtually nonexistent outside Waikiki; most people will want to rent a car.
- Low speed limits; winding roads, traffic, and poor signage make it hard to get around.
- Strict antismoking laws; strict adherence to drinking age limits
- Frequent rain in some areas
- Few urban attractions; limited nightlife
- No true all-inclusive resorts
- Few mainland bank cash machines -- ATM surcharges are common
- Spam is everywhere.
Islands of Hawaii
- Kauai: Lush, ruggedly beautiful, and relatively undeveloped
- Maui: Upscale resorts, almost perfect weather, and many miles of swimmable beachfront
- Oahu: Packed hotels and beaches in Waikiki; popular destination for budget and family travel
- Big Island: The largest of all the islands; encompassing nearly every climactic zone.
What It's Like
Offering some of the world's most beautiful beaches and most stunning natural wonders, virtually endless recreational opportunities, year-round temperatures that hover around 80 degrees, and a well-organized tourism infrastructure that creates a mostly seamless vacation experience, Hawaii attracts some seven million tourists each year. What's more, the best of Hawaii -- its natural attractions -- can be enjoyed at little cost.
A cultural focus on hospitality -- known as the "aloha spirit" -- translates to mostly friendly, welcoming service. A rich indigenous culture, meanwhile, with unique dance (hula), music (slack-key guitar and ukulele), and customs (the bestowing of floral leis, or necklaces), sets it apart from other beach destinations in the Caribbean. The casual, laid-back style -- flip-flops work for most situations -- means you won't see many jackets and ties. Plus, for Americans, there's the added benefit of no passport requirements and, for English speakers, no language barriers.
Of course, getting to Hawaii, situated as it is in the middle of the Pacific, involves a fairly long and expensive flight. (Even from the West Coast of the U.S., it takes upwards of five hours.) But the diversity of experiences within this one destination means many types of travelers -- from honeymooners, to families, to golfers, to water-sports enthusiasts, to shopaholics, to foodies -- find it well worth the effort and expense.
Each of Hawaii's six major islands -- the Big Island, Kauai, Lanai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu -- has a distinct appeal. Quick interisland flights make it easy to sample more than one during a single vacation.
Oahu, the most populated island, offers the world's most famous urban beach -- Waikiki -- plus tons of upscale designer retail stores, a range of cuisines fusing Asian, Hawaiian, and Pacific Rim traditions, and a nightlife and arts-and-culture scene in downtown Honolulu. On Oahu's North Shore, the world's best surfers tackle waves that can reach up to 40 feet in wintertime.
For more self-contained resort choices, including a handful of luxury properties that stack up against the best in the world, and for beaches that offer world-class windsurfing, snorkeling, diving, and surfing, many head to Maui. Lahaina, the bustling, historic harborfront town of on the island's northwest coast, offers the most vibrant nightlife in Hawaii outside Honolulu; the nearby, oceanfront Kaanapali feauture mega-resorts, chain hotels, and golf courses; the charming Upcountry town of Makawao in the island's center keeps the spirit of Hawaiian cowboys alive; and the world's largest dormant volcano, Haleakala in south Maui, draws early birds to its summit for gorgeous sunrises.
The smaller island of Kauai is even more lush (it's known as the Garden Isle) and has its own signature natural attraction: Waimea Canyon, the Pacific's largest canyon. It has a good share of mega-resorts, condo properties, and B&Bs, mostly in the south coast Poipu area, though fewer than what's offered on Maui. There's not much nightlife anywhere on Kauai, however, and it has a quiet, small-town feel.
Oyster has yet to cover hotels on the other islands, but they certainly deserve a brief introduction anyway. The Big Island's standout feature is its active volcano, Kilauea; guests can hike near its smoldering rims or watch its bubbling orange lava from above in guided helicopter tours. It also features lots of open space, black-sand beaches, a landscape of black lava rocks along the mega-resort-heavy Kohala Coast, and a stargazer's paradise atop Mauna Kea. Molokai and Lanai, meanwhile, offer a taste of Hawaii like it used to be. They have little development of any kind and only a few lodging options; Lanai, once entirely a pineapple plantation, features two Four Seasons properties and a small inn.
Where to Stay
Hawaii has a great range of choices when it comes to hotel lodging, with the best deals usually found in the spring and fall. Peak season, which is especially pronounced at family-friendly resorts, occurs during the summer, holiday periods, and school breaks.
Though Oahu has a few high-end luxury hotels (Kahala, Halekulani), it offers significantly more midrange and budget offerings than the other Hawaiian islands, most within walking distance of Waikiki Beach. Waikiki hotels also have the virtue of being just minutes from Honolulu's international airport -- vacationers can disembark and be sitting on the beach in the span of an hour.
If more space, less traffic, and a more self-contained resort are what you're looking for, it's generally best to head to Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. On those islands, large mega-resorts and condo developments tend to reign supreme. Maui's lineup includes a string of luxury resorts in both Wailea, a manicured, planned development that lines two spectacular beach-dotted miles on Maui's southwestern shore, and in Kaanapali, on the island's northwest coast near the historic harborfront town of Lahaina. Maui also has Hawaii's only Ritz-Carlton, in Kapalua, on the southwest coast. The budget-minded and do-it-yourselfers congregate in Kihei, near Wailea, where condo-style options are gathered a few blocks of the beach. Upcountry Maui, running through the middle of the island, offers lovely bed-and-breakfasts, and for a remote, unplugged experience, there's the Hotel Hana-Maui -- if you can bear the twisting, turning, several-hour drive to Hana in the southeast.
The smaller island of Kauai naturally has fewer lodging choices, and a bit more condo-style development, best exemplified by Whalers Cove near Poipu on the south coast. The handful of traditional resorts -- such as the Grand Hyatt -- are primarily in the Poipu area as well.
Hawaii can get crowded and at times it feels like paradise will be impossible to find, but at these hotels the beds are plush, the service is thorough, and the beaches are glistening.
Budget travelers who don't think Hawaii is in their price range should think again. It's exotic, sure, but it's accessible for every budget -- especially in places like Waikiki, where competition between mega-resorts to fill their many rooms results in refreshingly low rates.
A kid-friendly resort in Hawaii is usually one of two things: A large, amenity-packed mega-resort with kid activities and dining options galore, or a do-it-yourself, kitchen-equipped condo for longer (albeit no-frills) stays. We found standouts of both types.
Picturesque beaches and warm sunsets make Hawaii an obvious choice for a romantic getaway, but with packed beaches and screaming toddlers landing on the right hotel isn't always a no-brainer.
Spa-lovers and stressed-out parents looking for extreme relaxation needn't worry: These islands are home to a number of top-notch spas.
Hawaii's just a quick skip from L.A., and the hot island sand and turquoise surf are crawling with celebrities in need of a quick escape.