Travel Special: HAWAII WHERE THE GODs COME TO PLAY

Would you like to hire an island for a week? Do you know where to find the perfect tropical isle? We do. And so will you, after reading our special report on island hideaways world-wide, from the northerly Hebrides to Tasmania and Tobago, plus the ultimate guide to island-hopping by Jill Crawshaw. We also reveal the islands cornering the Millennium party market, and there's a chance to win a holiday. First, however, we start with the adventures of David Usborne in Hawaii; he revels in tourist tackines...

Chuck, I am guessing, has come to Hawaii for a wicked time. Who knows where Chuck is from; perhaps some corn town in Iowa or a draughty suburb of Chicago? But, as he emerges from the aluminium tube that has borne him across multiple time-zones to the cluster of volcanic rocks that is America's 50th state - the same tube that I am shortly to board for my flight home - Chuck looks primed for sun, sand and sin. He is already sporting the de rigueur uniform of loud floral shirt and shorts, and has the gait of someone who, while aloft, has generously partaken of the awful ersatz version of the mai-tai - the delicious Hawaiian rum-and-juice cocktail - that some of the airlines that fly here offer.

I know Chuck's name only because of the welcoming party that has been lying in wait for him on the way to the baggage hall. It consists of two perma-smile gentlemen wielding a pair of giant placards, reading "Aloha Chuck" and - just in case he hasn't got "Aloha" yet, the all-purpose Hawaiian greeting - "Chuck, Welcome to Paradise". They are also ready with a droopy-looking lei. These are the necklaces of petals and leaves that Hawaiians drape around each other on special occasions and which, depending on your level of cynicism, are either a touching reminder of Hawaii's Polynesian past or one of the more tacky trademarks of its well-oiled tourist machine.

So which paradise is it, I wonder, that Chuck is looking for in Hawaii? Each year, seven million tourists visit this state, a collection of 132 islands and atolls slap in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. Of those islands, six are populated and open to tourism. While warm weather and warm waters are part of the draw for most of its visitors, Hawaii is also a palette of quite surprising diversity. To be sure, there are the throbbing sands and sidewalks of Waikiki, the manicured golf courses and the overblown luxury hotels, but there are also places of rare solitude and scenery as wild and savage as you will find anywhere. As well as sugar and pineapple plantations, there are cowboy ranches and dairy farms. In winter, you can even ski (and I mean on snow, not water).

My guess, however, is that Chuck's sojourn in Hawaii will be limited to the island of Oahu, where 70 per cent of Hawaii's 1.1 million residents live, and, specifically, to the two-and-a-half-mile strip of seaside that is the Honolulu suburb of Waikiki. In Waikiki and Honolulu, you will find anything you desire, from questionable massages, to gallons of bad beer and, if you look hard, glimpses of a more relaxed past.

My three days in Waikiki, I confess, were not spent in one of the myriad semi-affordable hotels that are set several blocks back from the beach itself and which, at midnight, tremble from the combined cacophony of impatient traffic, disco joints bursting with young and not-so-young bodies, and, of course, the ubiquitous karaoke bars. My home here was a 15th-floor, ocean-view room in the Halekulani Hotel, a fantastically comfortable mini-resort heavily patronised by Japanese visitors.

The temptation to skip Oahu altogether and take a connecting flight to one of the other islands is strong. This would be a pity. Even at its Elvis-kitschiest worst, Waikiki is nothing if not a giggle. Instead of the Halekulani, you might stay at the budget Waikikian Hotel, a low-rise, wood and bamboo miracle of survival that squats defiantly under the high towers of the neighbouring Hilton Hawaiian Village. It has no lifts and abundant insect life. But it is cheap and full of Fifties atmosphere.

And there are scores of other alternatives on Oahu to mai-tais and music. A drive to the North Shore, famous for its winter surfing, reveals mountain scenery and beaches as dramatic as any on the Hawaiian chain.

Given where you are, you might also follow a fishy theme that, hopefully, will extend beyond sampling fish-burgers at McDonalds or shrimps at Red Lobster, another American food franchise that seems oddly out of place on the islands. For curious but novice snorklers, take the H1 highway east beyond Diamond Head to Hanauma Bay and rent equipment to explore its sheltered but reef-ridden waters. Used to being fed by their human visitors and therefore almost tame, there are tropical fish here in swarms. Another fishy place is the warehouse of the United Fishing Agency in Honolulu. Get here about 6am, and you will witness in full swing one of only four genuine fish auctions still operating in the US.

Herewith, however, my favourite moment of all on Oahu: standing barefoot on Waikiki beach in front of the ludicrous pink facade of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, listening to a live rendition of Come Fly with Me and waiting to take my $5 ride on a plexi-glass outrigger canoe. Hawaii may not be cheap, but this was value. For 20 minutes, I and the remaining crew of four children, all under 10, happily obeyed the orders of our Hawaiian skipper, repeatedly paddling out into the ocean to catch any wave available and riding it triumphantly back to the beach. For a little more money, go for a sail on board one of the giant catamarans that regularly set off from the beach.

Most visitors to Hawaii with more than just a few days will probably choose one of the other islands to visit in combination with Oahu. All are within a short jet-service flight from Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines or Aloha Airlines. The most popular are Maui, with a long tradition of accommodating tourists, the Big Island, which rises almost to 14,000 feet (this is the spot for tropical skiing), or Kauai, the first of the islands to be inhabited and geologically the oldest. While you may have surrendered yourself to the siren charms of Honolulu and Waikiki, with the island of Kauai you are likely to be properly smitten. Four days in its company and I concluded I could tie the knot with it for a good long time.

One in love with Kauai is Micco Godinez, a Cuban native, who, like so many others, first came to Hawaii to surf. Now, 15 years on and enslaved by the Kauai landscape, he is still unable to leave. With his brother Chino, Micco runs Kayak Kauai Outbound. This is the place to go for anyone in search of a rugged antidote to a stay in Waikiki. The shop, which will set you on your way canoeing, trekking or whatever, is based on the north coast in Hanalei, where all the drama of the island's scenery seems to converge. On a wide bay, Hanalei is at the eastern end of the Na Pali Coast State Park. Created by millennia of erosion by sea and wind of the giant volcanoes from which Kauai first sprang, these 15 miles of coastline are as dramatic as any you will find on Earth. Enrobed in subtropical green, they rise and fall with breathtaking drama; steep cliffs giving way to sea caves, to slivers of white beaches and to giant valleys, like the Kalalau, that are forged back far into the island's heart.

There are numerous ways to enjoy this spectacle. The adventurous can walk the Kalalau Trail, an often vertiginous path that hugs the coastline for 11 miles. For about $75, you can spend half a day bouncing down the Na Pali, as if on a crazed bucking bronco, on one of the inflatable rafts operated by companies such as Captain Zodiac. This is hard on the spine, but terrific fun and, if the crew will throttle back for you, excellent for picture-taking. The luxury option, for $150 or more, is an hour-long chopper ride around all of Kauai with one of the many helicopter companies based in Lihue, the island's capital. To corkscrew down into the craters of once mighty volcanoes and to dart like a gnat about the mighty crevices of the Na Pali is indeed awe-inspiring.

Or, if you are lucky, as I was one very wet morning, you might fall into the hands of Micco. His zany idea: a six-hour trek through the Alakai Swamp. Swamp? In the pouring rain? In Hawaii? Yes, yes and yes. To reach the Alakai - at over 4,200 feet, one of the highest swamps in the world - you must first drive along the western edge of the Waimea Canyon. With some tentative clearing of the weather, I began to see what Mark Twain meant when he called this the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". At the road's end and back in the murk, we parked Micco's beaten-up Ford and prepared for the walk. Donning "shoes" he calls tabis - mitten-like socks, a cleft to separate his big toe and thin rubber bottoms - we set off.

The reward at the trail's end was thrilling. The spot is the Kilohana Lookout at the crest of the Wainiha Ridge. At the instant of our arrival - caked with muck to our waists - the clouds magically lifted, the sun shone through and before us lay a view all the way down to the Na Pali and, in the far distance, to Hanalei itself.

I, just for that short moment, felt a tug from this land called Hawaii. It did not come from the cliche we know from the Presley movies or the postcards - the hula girls or the surf bums on the beach - nor from anywhere that seemed remotely part of Chuck's America. It came instead from a place of legends and of ancient gods and, as displayed then before me, of overwhelming natural wonders.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Trailfinders (0171 937 5400) has return flights from London to Hawaii via Los Angeles with American Airlines for pounds 459 return, plus pounds 24 airport tax. STA Travel (0171 361 6262) has student and under-26 tickets for pounds 449.

STAYING THERE: Trailfinders can book you into a three-star hotel for pounds 45 a night, per room. Two nights accommodation in Waikiki with STA costs pounds 49 per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION: British passport holders do not require a visa to holiday in Hawaii. No innoculations are required.

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