Politically, this isolated archipelago is as much part of the US as Texas or Tennessee. But physically and psychologically, the "Aloha State" is a long way from the mainland US - its rich Polynesian heritage makes it seem like a different country. Well, that and the palm-fringed lagoons, gorgeous beaches, rainforests, spectacular waterfalls, wild rivers and snow-capped volcanoes. Film-makers looking for lush scenery came to Kauai and Molokai to shoot parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, but don't expect perfection: there are still some depressing tourist traps here.
Hawaii has been part of the US for less than 50 years, but modern Hawaiian history begins on 20 January 1778, when Captain Cook, the first European to visit, made contact with the people of Kauai and Niihau. A white obelisk at Kealakekua Bay marks the spot where, later that year, Cook was killed by the islanders. Despite this, the Hawaiian flag incorporates the Union Flag, representing the friendly relationship with Britain.
Hawaii's last royal ruler was Queen Lili'uokalani, who was finally deposed at the end of the 19th century; Hawaii became a fully-fledged state on 21 August 1959. For the best celebration of Hawaiian culture, try to coincide with the Aloha Week festivals celebrated on all islands between early September and mid-October.
WHERE IS HAWAII?
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The 132 islands and atolls that make up the most remote tourist destination in the world lie 2,400 miles off the coast of California. All but one of the eight main islands are inhabited: Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, the island of Hawaii (more commonly called the Big Island) and Ni'ihau. The odd one out is Kaho'olawe, which you can see from south-west Maui or south-east Lanai. At the outset of the Second World War the US government confiscated it for bombing practice. Kaho'olawe has since been returned to Hawaii, but is unlikely to be rid of unexploded ordnance for the foreseeable future.
The Hawaiian capital, Honolulu, is on the south shore of Oahu. This relatively small island is home to 80 per cent of the state's population and its main airport. Honolulu has a strong Asian and Polynesian influence, and its bustling Chinatown on Maunakea Street is a good place to get a lei - buy a flower garland from the sellers. Visit the Iolani Palace (001 808 522 0832, www.iolani.org), a National Historical Landmark and the only official royal residence in the US; it opens 9am-4pm from Tuesday- Saturday, admission $6 (£3.15). For an insight intoSouth Pacific culture, visit the Polynesian Cultural Center (001 808 293 3333; www.polynesia.com; open 9am-8pm daily except Sundays).
A PACIFIC PARADISE?
Yes, if paradise has rows of tower-block hotels, tacky restaurants and dozens of street vendors. There's no doubt that the Waikiki resort - which stretches south-east from the edge of Honolulu to Diamond Head - is overbuilt and busy, but it's lively and a good base from which to explore Oahu. Away from Honolulu, the island has two diagonal mountain ranges with many beautiful waterfalls. Very close to the capital you can hike to the 760ft rim of the Diamond Head crater (open 6am-6pm daily, admission free). To the east, Hanauma Bay has clear waters alive with fish. The beach is closed every Tuesday as a protective measure.
Oahu's North Shore, where you'll find Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, is the self-styled "surfing capital of the world". In contrast, Lanikai Beach along Oahu's Windward Coast is a mile of golden sand bordering waters that are calm all year round. For somewhere a world away from the high-rises, stay at the Manoa Valley Inn (001 808 947 6019; www.manoavalleyinn.com), built in 1919.
The island's most poignant location is Pearl Harbor. On 7 December 1941, in one of the most unexpected attacks in history, 350 Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor. The US, which had until then been "neutral" in the Second World War, was taken unawares. The attack crippled virtually the entire US Pacific fleet and killed over 2,000 seamen. Visit the harbour today and you can stand on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial (001 808 422 0561; www.nps.gov/usar), the tomb for 1,177 sailors and marines trapped when the ship sank in just nine minutes. The site is open 7.30am-5pm and admission is free; get there as early as possible to avoid the queues.
You can also visit the USS Missouri Memorial (001 808 973 2494; www.ussmissouri.org), a 58,000-ton battleship that is moored close by. The Americans took the Japanese surrender on board on 2 September 1945. The vessel is open 9am-5pm daily, admission $16 (£8.40).
ONCE YOU'VE SEEN ONE ISLAND...
...you've seen one island. The other Hawaiian isles are quite different from Oahu, and from one another. The Big Island, which measures 95 by 75 miles, is nearly twice the size of all the others combined. It is cloaked in macadamia-nut orchards and coffee plantations, yet it also boasts deserts, rainforests and snow-capped volcanoes.
The mountains create a barrier that blocks the trade winds and makes the western side of Hawaii island the driest region in the archipelago. In contrast, the predominantly rugged eastern coast experiences rain on an average of three days out of four - together with pounding surf, tropical rainforests, deep ravines and majestic waterfalls.
Stay on the west coast if you're after a beach holiday, otherwise Hilo is an excellent base for visiting the incredible Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (001 808 985 6000; www.nps.gov/havo). This encompasses two live volcanoes: the world's most active, Kilauea, and the world's largest, Mauna Loa, which soars to 13,677ft. They are set amid an awe-inspiring landscape with cinder cones, pumice pillars and hardened rivers of lava. Tropical Helicopters (00 808 961 6810; www.tropicalhelicopters.com) offers flights over the volcanic activity from Hilo airport, which start at $115 (£60). You could base yourself at the Shipman House (001 800 627 8447; www.hilo-hawaii.com), built in 1899, in Hilo.
You can visit Hawaii's most sacred temple on the Big Island's Kohala Coast: Mookini Heiau is a three-storey stone temple erected in AD480. And don't miss the lush Waipio Valley, which is enclosed by near-vertical cliffs. The only vehicle access is via a narrow 4x4 track, so hiking is the best option.
ANYTHING A LITTLE CALMER?
Kauai is known as "The Garden Island". Its central volcanic peak, Mount Waialeale, is one of the wettest places on earth. Most of the interior comprises mountainous forest reserves with great hiking; the southern and western coasts are dry, sunny and fringed with beautiful beaches.
One of Kuaia's top visitor attractions is Waimea Canyon, dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by Mark Twain. The canyon's colourful gorge is 12 miles long and over 3,000ft deep. You can view it from the road, hike down into it, or swoop through it by helicopter. The best views are in the morning. You should also see the sharply fluted coastal cliffs along the Na Pali Coast, the location of perhaps the most spectacular hiking trail in the US.
I NEED SOME LUXURY
You'll find it on Maui, second largest of the Hawaiian islands, which features a pair of extinct volcanoes divided by a central valley. Maui is the state's "wellness" centre, where native spiritual healing and modern methods are practised. Like the Big Island, Maui offers superb scenery and diverse landscapes. It also has some fine beaches: try Kapalua, a golden crescent that is protected from strong winds and currents by two lava-rock promontories. Kaanapali is the principal resort on the island's sunny western coast.
Old Lahaina has some great bars and restaurants. You might look at combining a beach stay with a couple of nights at a property with a difference, such as the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, (001 808 244 5897; www.mauiinn.com), where the main building is a former plantation manager's home. The drive from the central valley along the north-east coast to the delightful town of Hana is magnificent. In addition to spectacular cliff and sea views you'll pass numerous waterfalls, lookouts and State Parks. It's worth staying in Hana to visit Oheo Gulch (also known as the Seven Sacred Pools), which has some of the most dramatic and accessible waterfalls on the islands. You can stay at Hana Hale Malamalama, (001 808 248 7718; www.hanahale.com) overlooking restored ancient fish ponds. Nearby you'll find the grave of Charles Lindbergh.
If your car-rental firm allows driving on unsealed roads, turn this route into a wonderful circular trip by returning along the island's remote south-east coast. A road leads all the way to the crater of Haleakala, which at 10,023ft is the world's largest dormant volcano. Hundreds of people gather here at sunrise, and for the planet's greatest freewheeling opportunity. Companies such as Haleakala Bike Co (001 808 575 9575; www.bikemaui.com) will drive you to the top for sunrise then give you a bike on which you can cycle the 38 miles back down to sea level: you need to pedal for about 400 of the 70,400 yards.
A good time to be on Maui is for the East Maui Taro Festival in Hana between 1-3 April, celebrating one of Hawaii's most important and versatile plants. For the chance to spot celebrities, head for the Maui Film Festival in Wailea (15 -19 June).
I'VE ONLY GOT A WEEK
Maui is a good island on which to spend most of your time, and it also combines well with Molokai, easily reached by air or ferry. Here the tempo is unhurried and the main town, Kaunakakai, simple (and largely closed on Sundays). Natural wonders include Hawaii's highest waterfall, the world's tallest sea cliffs (over 3,000ft), coral reefs, rainforests and empty beaches. There's great hiking into the remote, dramatic Halawa Valley, where you can swim in plunge pools. Molokai's one must-do is a visit to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. A hike down to (and back up from) a leper colony may not sound inviting, but the three-mile trail has great views, and the colony tour of Kalaupapa National Historic Park (Monday-Saturday only, over 16s only) is fascinating. Hikers must pre-register with Damien Tours (001 808 567 6171) and take a guided tour of the colony, price $32 (£17). If the hike sounds too much, go by mule with Molokai Mule Ride (001 808 567 6088; www.muleride.com). Trips leave at 7.50am, return at 3.15pm and cost $165 (£87).
Lanai is home to just 3,000 people but offers excellent accommodation, great golf, and, on the north shore, the "Garden of the Gods", a rugged place full of volcanic rocks weathered into a variety of shapes and colours. These barren lands can be visited on a 4x4 trip. You could stay at one of two luxury resorts, or Lanai's only budget lodging, the Hotel Lanai (001 800 795 7211; www.hotellanai.com). Trilogy (001 808 661 4743; www.sailtrilogy.com) offers an all-day catamaran trip including a visit to Hulupo'e beach and a minivan tour of the island for $179 (£94). Ni'ihau, west of Kauai, has been closed to outsiders for so long that it has earned the nickname "The Forbidden Island". The island is a native Hawaiian reserve with 230 residents, and it's the only one where Hawaiian is the primary language. It belongs to the Robinson family who run a huge ranch and are highly protective of its isolation. It is accessible by helicopter (001 808 335 3500; www.hawaiian.net) or catamaran (001 808 335 0815; www.holoholocharters.com) from Kauai.
WHAT WILL I EAT?
Spam. The processed and canned meat is a favourite, especially on Maui. But you can also expect vast amounts of fresh fish, plus traditional Hawaiian food typically served at a luau (feast) . This includes poi (mashed taro root), laulau (pork or fish steamed in taro leaves), kalua pig and lomi salmon. Indulgent cakes are also a favourite; try Komoda's Bakery on Maui, Kimura's Saimin Stand on Kauai, or Ono's Hawaiian Food on Oahu.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
Rainfall is slightly higher in December and January, but variations tend to be regional rather than seasonal. The weather is generally best from mid-April to mid-June and from September to early December. Hotel rates are at their highest between Christmas and Easter, the peak time for visitors from the continental US, and again between late June and the end of August.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
At present you will have to change planes in the US or Canada, but First Choice may launch a direct service to Hawaii in two years' time. Los Angeles is the main gateway, but you can also fly to San Francisco, Vancouver and Chicago. From LA there is a wider range of direct services to Kahului on Maui and Hilo on the Big Island - so you don't need to go to Honolulu if you don't want to. Air fares for January departures are currently around £500 return through discount agents, but package deals may be easier and more cost-effective way to travel. Hawaiian Dream (0870 350 7873 www.Hawaiian-Holidays.co.uk), for example, has a one-week cruise for £1,150, including flights and transfers, travelling out at the end of January or throughout February. The company also offers a week on Maui with two nights in San Francisco for £995 between now and mid-March. Alternatively you could visit Oahu and Kauai with a stopover in New York for £1,300. Between the islands you can fly on Hawaiian Airlines (01753 664406; www.hawaiianair.com) or Aloha Airlines (001 800 367 5250; www.alohaairlines.com); standard one-way fares start at $69 (£36). Ferries connect Maui with Molokai (001 866 307 6524; www.molokaiferry.com) and Lanai (001 808 661 3756; www.go-lanai.com).
MUST I DRIVE?
With the exception of Oahu's excellent bus network (001 808 848 5555, www.thebus.org ), with its flat fare of $2 (£1.05), public transport is scarce. If you're happy to spend most of your time at a resort or on organised tours, you can manage without a car. Otherwise rent one through your tour operator or a company such as Budget (0870 153 9170; www.budget.co.uk). Take care if you drive on unsealed roads: such action can invalidate your insurance. Alternatively there are lots of horse-riding trips on offer across the state.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Hawaii Tourism (020-7202 6384; www.hawaii-tourism.co.uk).
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