The eight major islands that make up the State of Hawaii lie smack in the middle of the Pacific, 2,500 miles south-west of the rest of the United States, and part of a 122-island archipelago strung in a 1,500-mile arc across the Pacific.
The islands are the tips of a chain of giant volcanoes that began forming along a split in the earth's crust 25 million years ago. Most are extinct, but the youngest islands are still growing (Kilauea on the Big Island has been erupting for the last 14 years) and there is even a new island growing 30 miles south-east of Kilauea, although Loihi is still 10,000 feet below the sea.
Of the eight isles, Kauai, Maui, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai and the Big Island (Hawaii) are open for business to visitors. The privately owned island of Niihau off the west coast of Kauai is a Hawaiian reserve closed to outsiders. And Kahoolawe, a little island off Maui, has been undergoing restoration since the US military handed it back to the State of Hawaii in 1994 after using it for target practice for 50 years.
What's the weather like?
It's a long way to go to sit on a beach but every year thousands of Britons make the 7,000-mile journey to the Hawaiian Islands to enjoy the balmy year-round climate.
Temperatures along the coast generally hover between 70 to 80F (21 to 25C), although whether you will see rain or shine depends where you are on the islands. Trade winds blow in from the north-east for most of the year leaving the south-west - or leeward - side of each island with a dry and sunny climate. The rain that falls on the windward side has left it lush and green. The town of Hilo on the big island gets an annual average of 128 inches.
How do I get there?
There are no longer any direct flights from the UK to anywhere in the State of Hawaii, but there are plenty of connecting services via the mainland US to Honolulu, the main airport for the state, on the island of Oahu. From here, there are frequent inter-island flights (see below).
For travel in January, you can expect to pay around pounds 400 for a return from London to Honolulu through a discount agent such as Flightbookers (0171-757 3000). This price applies to Delta and Northwest - other airlines are more expensive.
Honolulu is also easily incorporated as part of a round-the-world itinerary, eg on Qantas and its partners in the one-world consortium, or Air New Zealand and the Star Alliance. The author travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299).
How do I get around once I arrive?
A comprehensive schedule of inter-island flights buzz between the islands all day. The two main operators are Hawaiian Airlines (01753 664406) and Aloha Airlines (0171-707 4584). Standard one-way fares on all inter-island flights are pounds 56 with Hawaiian and pounds 44 with Aloha. These are cheaper through discount travel agents, although Hawaiian also currently offers one-way tickets for pounds 37 by credit card from Bank of Hawaii ATM machines. But perhaps the best option is to buy a book of six flight coupons (pounds 225 with Hawaiian and pounds 201, with Aloha), or an inter-island pass (pounds 188, with Hawaiian and pounds 205, with Aloha). Oahu is the only island with a good bus service. It is slow, but you can trundle all over the island for $1 per one-way journey (even if you have to change buses). On the other islands, rental cars are an inevitability. Despite fierce competition, expect to pay around $65 (pounds 44) a day with all the big firms, and around $40 (pounds 26) with local firms - and older cars. Petrol is cheap, at around $1.70 (pounds 1.08) a gallon.
Where should I start?
Because of the flight patterns, Oahu is likely to be your first taste of Hawaii. About 30 minutes by bus or car from the airport, you pass through the state capital, Honolulu and reach the famous beach resort of Waikiki on Oahu's heavily developed south coast. While Waikiki seems to have everything that many tourists want - shopping, nightlife, a huge choice of restaurants, plush hotels and a slither of white sand - this first taste can be a bitter one.
A stroll along Waikiki's seafront at sunset is to pick your way along a crowded walkway between the beach and the high-rise hotels where Polynesian- themed shows entertain tourists as they queue up at huge al-fresco buffets.
Hawaii seems too far to come to for this kind of holiday. But you don't have to go far to realise the tropical idyll. For all mass tourism's sins, it has made it very easy and affordable to travel around the islands and see what they really have to offer. With so much to see and do, you should include at least two or three of the islands in your trip.
But if you just want to relax on the islands' beautiful beaches, or if you've only got a couple of days' stopover en route to New Zealand or the other Polynesian Islands, there is one absolute must-see - the volcanos on the Big Island.
A day spent hiking trails in and around steaming craters - and, if you are lucky, witnessing the raw forces of nature in action - is unforgettable.
Give me a quick tour, then
Aside from the beaches, here are a few of the highlights: Oahu: catch a professional surf competition on the island's legendary North Shore or visit Honolulu's Bishop Museum and the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbour
Maui: go windsurfing at Hookipa Beach Park or take in superb snorkelling at the Molokini marine reserve. During the winter months, you will also be able to watch the giant humpback whales who migrate here.
Kauai: known for its natural beauty. Explore the spectacular Na Pali coast trail and Waimea Canyon.
Lanai: if your budget will stretch to five-star prices, book a short stay at one of the two very exclusive resorts that now almost wholly own this quiet, secluded island.
Molokai: for an unusual but enlightening trip, ride out to Father Damien's church by mule and carry on to the old leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.
Big Island: go diving, or hike across the world's most active volcano and down into the stunning Waipio Valley.
Is it really wise to wander across an active volcano?
Only a handful of people this century have died at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Among them was a photographer who tried too hard to get that perfect shot and a visitor who failed to heed the advice of park rangers and strayed too close to flowing lava. But while certain parts of the park can be an unpredictable and eerie place to visit, when there is a fresh eruption, people generally don't head for safety, they come flocking to see the lava flows.
The park's two active volcanoes, Mauna Loa (Long Mountain) and Kilauea (Much spewing), are shield volcanoes. Rather than erupting with violent explosions, the lava seeps out through vents in rift zones, gradually building in layers to create a deceptively large, low-profile mountain.
Mauna Loa is actually the most massive mountain on earth - but you can only see the top 13,000 feet of this giant that rises 56,000 feet from the ocean floor - and Kilauea is known as the "drive-in volcano" since you can literally turn up and follow the Crater Rim Drive on an 11-mile loop around the sights of the Kilauea Caldera.
The best way to explore the volcanoes is to put on walking boots and head along the network of trails that criss-cross the park. Across the 377 square miles you will find some of the most diverse and awesome landscapes - vast steaming, sunken craters, cinder cones, cavernous lava tubes, solidified lava rivers and, where new life has taken hold again, lush rain forests and fern groves. But you will need four wheels to make the 50-mile round- trip down the Chain of Craters Road to the coast. From the end of this road you can reach the eruption sites in the east rift zone.
After the road ends, it is difficult to predict what you will see and how far you have to walk to reach the lava flow. It is a truly unique experience to venture out across a landscape of burnt meringue with huge Pacific swells crashing against the black coast on one side and a steaming, very active hole in the earth's crust just up the slope on the other. Fortunately, there is a ranger station (on wheels, for obvious reasons) to point you in the right direction and advise on safety.
What about tropical, lush Hawaii?
All the islands have stunning mountain scenery but, of them all, Kauai is recognised as the greenest and most scenic. The island's central, cloud- hidden volcanic peak, Mount Waialeale, is allegedly the wettest place on earth and it is no surprise that film-makers chose Kauai to shoot scenes for South Pacific, Jurassic Park, King Kong and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Although you can drive around the island, stopping at designated look- out points, it's much more satisfying to abandon the hire car and hit the trails. If you've got time, there are some superb overnight trails with simple campsites along the way.
Consistently rated as Hawaii's most spectacular, the Kalalau Trail clings to the huge, deeply furrowed cliffs along a 13-mile stretch of the Na Pali coast. There are also excellent hiking and cycling excursions into the Waimea Canyon, a kind of baby Grand Canyon.
If you aren't equipped to camp, there are also some fantastic day hikes spidering out from the Kokee State Park Headquarters that will take you down to the Na Pali coast. Although quite strenuous and with some alarming drops, your efforts are rewarded with stunning views.
It is real edge-of-the-world stuff, spoilt only by the relentless clattering whine of helicopter tours buzzing in and around the cliffs.
What about those beaches?
Most of us don't want to spend our entire holiday hiking, camping or indeed charging around the sights and, unsurprisingly, the islands cater well for those who just want to relax on the sand.
Most of the major hotel chains are here, along with vast resorts, blocks of condos and a network of hostels. More homely options include a good selection of B&Bs (mainly inland). You can find an excellent directory of accommodation at www.accommodations.gohawaii.com which has an online database where you tailor your search to fit your requirements.
There is also a growing number of an array of self-catering properties for rent, including some fantastic oceanfront houses. Although they seem pricey at first glance, they can work out to be good value if you are travelling with a family or group of friends. You can find private and rental agencies and get a good view of properties on the Internet (try: www.hawaii-vacation-homes.com/accommodations).
If you would rather travel as part of a package, Air New Zealand (0181- 741 2299) has a "Pacific Islands Go As You Please" brochure that includes Oahu from pounds 23 per person, per night, but many of the major tour operators also offer multi-island packages. Page & Moy (0870 010 6456), for example, has 14-night, three-island deals from pounds 1,279, and Kuoni (01306 742888) offers a 14-night, four-island Hawaiian Explorer package from pounds 1,318.
For written information about accommodation in Hawaii, contact the Hawaii Visitors' and Convention Bureau in London (0181-941 4009): Alternatively, visit: www.gohawaii.com.
Who's this Duke fellow?
If Hawaii has a national hero, it is Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer. Born in Honolulu in 1894, Duke earned his name not from lineage but because his birth coincided with the day of the ceremonial visit to Hawaii by Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, then Duke of Edinburgh.
Duke Kahanamoku was a supreme waterman, breaking three swimming world records at the age of 17 and enjoyed athletic success right up to the age of 42, when he won a water polo bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Always a devoted surfer, Duke used his sporting achievements and growing fame to travel and to introduce the world to the ancient Hawaiian art of surfing - before returning home to become Honolulu's county sheriff and later Hawaii's official "Ambassador of Aloha", welcoming celebrity visitors to the islands.
Today, Duke is remembered fondly and not just by the surfing fraternity, although he still holds the record for the longest ride in surfing history (estimated to be more than a mile, from the outer breaks at Waikiki all the way to the shore). Everyone stops at his statue as they walk along the seafront at Waikiki beach. His supremely fit figure is dressed only in board shorts and fresh leis, his arms outstretched in a welcome gesture.
Curiously, though, his back is turned to the water, out of which, he said: "I am nothing."
I want to have a go too
Because the Hawaiian Islands are the tops of submerged mountains, they have no continental shelf. With no gently shelving seabed to slow incoming ocean swells, the great Pacific swells arrive as massive, fast-moving mounds. As they hit the offshore reefs they rise into huge walls of water and crash mercilessly into the shore.
During the winter months, when waves can reach near-unbelievable heights, this natural phenomenon is a fantastic sight. If the surf is up, spend a few days hanging out on Oahu's North Shore watching the surfers at the legendary breaks, Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach.
But they are not places for aspiring wannabees. If you do fancy a go, the easy breaks off Waikiki beach are more suitable for beginners. Lessons and board hire (for around pounds 20 per hour) are available at many beaches around the islands.
It is essential to seek advice on local conditions - the surf beaches often have fearsome shore breaks and dangerous currents.
THE STATE FLAG PAYS HOMAGE TO BRITAIN'S PLACE IN HAWAII'S HISTORY
HAWAII'S STATE flag, a unique combination of America's Stars and Bars and the Union Jack, always raises an eyebrow among British visitors. The British navigator George Vancouver presented the Union Jack to the Hawaiian warrior chief Kamehameha in 1794 and it subsequently flew over the islands until, in 1810, Hawaii became an independent kingdom and Kamehameha designed a flag to incorporate the Union Jack and eight red, white and blue stripes (to represent the eight islands).
For those curious about Hawaii's fascinating past, a morning at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, learning a little of Hawaii's anthropological and natural history, is time well spent. Find out about the lives of the Polynesian settlers who first colonised the islands around 600 AD. Of Captain Cook's hallowed arrival and eventual murder at Kealakekau Bay on the Big Island. Of the rise and fall of the Hawaiian monarchy and the growth of the islands' whaling and sugar industries and of the influx of immigrant workers which led to the islands' modern-day diverse ethnic identity.
Disappointingly, there is little on America's shameful annexation of the islands, but you will find plenty of information on the Hawaiian sovereignty movement in the museum's excellent bookshop.