Hawaii Feature

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Choosing Your Hawaiian Islands

You've decided to go to Hawaii, but should you stay put and relax on one island or try sampling more than one? If all you have is a week, it is probably best to stick to just one island. You traveled all this way, why spend your precious vacation time at car rental counters, hotel check-in desks, and airports? But, with seven or more nights, a little island hopping is a great way to experience the diversity of sights and experiences that are packed into this small state. Here are some of our favorite island-pairing itineraries for every type of trip.

Family Travel: Oahu and Maui

If you're traveling with children, Oahu and Maui have the most options.

Why Oahu: Oahu is by far the most kid-friendly island. For sea life, visit the Wakiki Aquarium and Sea Life Park or let the little ones get up close and personal with fish at Hanauma Bay. At Pearl Harbor you can visit an aircraft carrier or, if the kids are at least four, a World War II submarine. Then there's the Honolulu Zoo and a slippery slide–filled water park, not to mention some very family-friendly and safe beaches. Plan to spend 4 nights.

Why Maui: Whales! Though you can see whales from any island between November and April, there's no better place than Maui. If your visit doesn't fall during peak whale-watching season, visit the Whalers Village Museum, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary or the Maui Ocean Center (to get an up close look at some of Hawaii's smaller sea creatures). Away from the water, there's the Sugar Cane Train. Plan to spend at least 3 nights.

Romance: Maui and Kauai

If you're getting away for seclusion, romantic walks along the beach, and the pampering at world-class spas, consider Maui and Kauai.

Why Maui: You'll find waterfalls, salt-and-pepper sand beaches, and incredible views as you follow the twisting turning Road to Hana. The luxury resorts in Wailea or Kaanapali provide lots of fine dining and spa treatment options. And for those who want to start their day early, there's the drive up to Haleakala to see the sun rise—or for couples who prefer to sleep in, there's the arguably even more spectacular sunset from the summit. Plan to spend 4 nights.

Why Kauai: The North Shore communities of Hanalei and Princeville provide the opportunity to get away from crowds and indulge in some spectacular beaches, hiking, and helicopter rides. At Princeville you can experience views straight out of South Pacific as well as excellent dining and spas at the St. Regis Hotel, while a drive to Kee Beach at the end of the road provides innumerable options for pulling over and grabbing a beach, all for just the two of you.Plan to spend at least 3 nights.

Golf, Shopping, and Luxury: Maui and the Big Island

For luxurious travel, great shopping, restaurants, and accommodations you can't beat Maui and the Big Island.

Why Maui: The resorts at Wailea and Kaanapali have endless options for dining, shopping, and spa treatments. And, the golf on Maui can't be beat with Kapalua, the Dunes at Maui Lani, and Makena Resort topping the list of spectacular courses. Plan to spend 4 nights.

Why the Big Island: In addition to having incredible natural scenery, the Big Island offers world-class resorts and golfing along the Kohala Coast. The Mauna Kea and Hapuna golf courses rank among the top in state while the courses at Mauna Lani Resort and Waikoloa Village allow the unusual experience of playing in and around lava flows. Gourmet dining and spa treatments are readily available at the top resorts and you'll find shopping opportunities at King's Shops at Waikoloa Village as well as within many of the resorts themselves. Or, travel to Hawi or Waimea (Kamuela) for original island boutiques. Plan to spend at least 3 nights.

Natural Beauty and Pristine Beaches: The Big Island and Kauai

Really want to get away and experience nature at its most primal? The Big Island is the place to start, followed by a trip to Kauai.

Why the Big Island: Home to 11 different climate zones, the Big Island is large enough to contain all the other Hawaiian Islands inside it. There are countless options for those who want to get off the beaten track and get their hands (and feet) dirty—or sandy as the case may be. See lava flowing or steam rising from Kilauea. Visit beaches in your choice of gold, white, green, or black sand. Snorkel or dive just offshore from an ancient Hawaiian settlement. Or, hike through rain forests to hidden waterfalls. The choices are endless on this island. Plan to spend at least 4 nights.

Why Kauai: The Napali Coast is the main draw for those seeking secluded beaches and incredible scenery. If you're interested in hiking to otherwise inaccessible beaches along sheer sea cliffs, this is as good as it gets. Or, head up to Waimea Canyon to see the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Want waterfalls? Opaekaa Falls outside Lihue is one of the state's most breathtaking. And there's no better place for bird-watching than Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Plan to spend at least 3 nights.

Volcanic Views: The Big Island and Maui

For those coming to Hawaii for the volcanoes, there are really only two options: The Big Island and Maui.

Why the Big Island: Start by flying into Hilo and head straight to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kilauea Volcano. Plan to spend at least two days at Kilauea—you'll need time to really explore the caldera, drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road, and have some time for hiking in and around this active volcano. While eruptions are unpredictable, helicopter companies can get you views of otherwise inaccessible lava flows. You can also make a visit up to the summit of Mauna Kea with a tour company. From here you'll see views not only of the observatories (Mauna Kea is one of the best places in the world for astronomy), but also Kilauea and Haleakala volcanoes, which loom in the distance. Plan to spend at least 4 nights.

Why Maui: Though all the islands in Hawaii were built from the same hot spot in Earth's crust, the only other island to have had volcanic activity in recorded history was Maui, at Haleakala. The House of the Sun (as Haleakala is known) has great hiking and camping opportunities. Plan to spend 3 nights.

Adventure Travel: Kauai and the Big Island

All those natural wonders on Kauai and the Big Island make for some adrenaline-pumping activities.

Why Kauai: Kayaking, helicopter tours, and hiking an ancient trail along steep sea cliffs more your speed? Then Kauai is the island for you. Book a kayaking or helicopter tour to one of the most remote and inaccessible spots in the Islands, the Napali Coast. To hike the entirety (22 miles round-trip) of the famous Kalalau Trail, you'd really need to spend about a week on this island alone. On the west side you can hike into the immense Waimea Canyon. Plan to spend at least 4 nights.

Why the Big Island: The Big Island has plenty to offer for those interested in more adventurous travel. Snorkel or dive with manta rays, soak in volcanically heated pools, trek through lava tubes and fern-filled forests, or, if your timing is right, hike out to see the lava oozing down the side of Kilauea. At night, head up to the summit of Mauna Kea for some of the best stargazing in the world. Plan to spend at least 3 nights.

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