The south coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is a wasteland of fresh black lava, but here and there red-ash cinder cones created by older eruptions stand out from the hillsides.
I climbed to the top of one known as Pu'u Huluhulu, to be confronted by a real-life lost world. It was filled by a dense, lush rainforest, inaccessible to humans but alive with darting birds. In the middle distance, a plume of smoke swirled above the fiery core of a new cinder cone, being created by the latest eruption of Kilauea volcano.
Most memorable meeting
I was shown around the "leprosarium" at Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai, by one of its few remaining patients, Jimmy Brady. His life story made incredible listening. At the age of seven, in 1941, a health visitor at his school in Honolulu noticed a slight blemish on his skin, and suspected that he might have contracted leprosy (now known as Hansen's disease).
Without his parents even being informed, he was immediately placed in an isolation ward. He never went home again. After a year in hospital in Pearl Harbor - yes, he was there the morning of the Japanese attack - and despite the fact that the diagnosis was never confirmed, he was shipped into lifelong exile on Molokai.
Modern improvements in the treatment of Hansen's disease mean that isolation is no longer necessary. But most of Kalaupapa's surviving residents have chosen to live out their lives on Molokai.
Hawaii has hotels to suit all budgets, but if I could go back anywhere at all, it would have to be the Hyatt Regency on Kauai.
It stands on a low bluff above the Pacific, so all the rooms have magnificent ocean views, and the landscaped, palm-filled slope below holds the best swimming-pool I have ever dipped a toe in. You can even swim all the way down to the sea via a complex network of artificial lagoons and water- slides.
Over several visits to Hawaii, I grew to love the music of the islands' most popular entertainer, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, but never saw him in concert.
"Iz" was a giant of a man, with a stunningly powerful voice that was capable of the utmost delicacy, but he was plagued by the health problems caused by his phenomenal weight, which topped 50 stone.
At the start of my last trip, graffiti on a warehouse wall - "So long Bruddah Iz, we will miss you" - told me I never would see him. He died in 1997 at the age of 38, and was given a state funeral.
When I first visited Hawaii, the food was a real let-down - standard American diner grub, all the worse for having been shipped 2,000 miles across the ocean. In the past 10 years, however, gourmet "Pacific Rim" restaurants have opened throughout the state - and there is nowhere better to try this food than Jean-Marie Josselin's A Pacific Cafe, on Kauai. His "deep-fried tiger-eye sushi" is by far the most delicious thing I have tasted anywhere, and the Hawaiian moon-fish from the wood-burning grill is succulent almost beyond belief.
Trying to save a little money, I booked the cheapest possible flight from Honolulu to Molokai. I had no complaints about the price - a mere $25 - and it did not even bother me that the airline's only plane turned out to be a four-seater, meaning that I had to squeeze in next to the pilot.
What spoiled things was that, in the absence of air-conditioning, he asked me to hold the door open during take-off, just until we reached cruising altitude.
Although Kauai is barely 20 miles across, it has to be the most amazing hiking destination on the planet. There are trails leading right into the heart of extinct volcanoes, or along the magnificent shoreline to hidden waterfalls.
My absolute favourite, though, must be the Awaawapuhi Trail, on top of the island, which requires you to teeter along a knife-edge of bare, crumbling red rock with a terrifying 3,000ft drop to either side. Not that I would ever do it again, of course.
Three airlines fly non-stop from London to the US West Coast then on to Hawaii. United Airlines (tel: 0845 844 4777) flies daily to Los Angeles and San Francisco, with connections to Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. Both American Airlines (tel: 0345 789789) and Air New Zealand (tel: 0181-741 2299) fly to Los Angeles and Honolulu only. In winter you should be able to find a ticket for around pounds 450, in summer it will be more like pounds 750. A flight from one island to another costs around $75 (pounds 45), and car rental is essential, at around pounds 100 per week.
What to experience
The Hyatt Regency Kauai is at 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa HI 96756 (tel: 808 742 1234). Rooms from $300 per night.
A Pacific Cafe is at 4831 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, on Kauai (tel: 808 822 0013), with other branches at 1200 Ala Moana Blvd, Honololu, on Oahu (tel: 808 593 0035), and 1279 S Kihei Road, Kihei, on Maui (tel: 808 879 0069). Starters from $8, main courses cost around $25.Reuse content