California has been enamored of Hawaii since the 1860s, when a Sacramento reporter named Mark Twain rhapsodized about the Sandwich Islands’ “balmy airs.” The romance remains hot. California sends more tourists to Hawaii than any state or country. No wonder. Airfare is (relatively) cheap and the time difference means you can depart the West Coast in the morning and arrive in time for nearly a full day of sightseeing.
If you like a side of city life with your tropical paradise, Waikiki is the complete meal. Along with a (newly restored) beach, bathtub-warm water and a climbable volcano, you get luxury hotels, high-end shopping and lively nightlife. But put all this in your rear-view mirror and a laid-back rural Oahu emerges. On the wind-swept North Shore — where big-wave surfing was born in the 1950s —huge, glassy waves pound the beach November to December. In historic Haleiwa Town, grab a shave ice at Matsumoto’s. For a cinematic Instagram, grab your sweetie’s hand, clamber down the volcanic rock at Halona Blowhole, and re-create the wet-and-wild love scene in “From Here to Eternity.” The rocks are slippery, so make sure you don’t wind up re-creating a scene from “Falling Into the Sea with a Pair of Broken Legs,” instead.
Hawaii's second most-visited island is an intriguing mix of cowboy culture, fancy hotels and patches of sand that regularly show up on lists of the world's best beaches. At famous Kaanapali, each day ends with a splash as the famous black-rock cliff divers crash into the water. As these divers know, much of Maui's natural beauty lies underwater. Off the south coast, snorkelers can see a kaleidoscope of coral and more than 250 species of tropical fish. Back on terra firma, the twisty road to Hana is one of the world's great auto adventures. For an unforgettable sunrise, rise early for the drive up dormant Haleakala.
The Big Island
Hawaii Island (the "Big Island") is so large that all others could fit on it twice over. But beaches are remarkably uncrowded; on some, sea turtles outnumber tourists. The hottest attraction is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea has spattered, spewed and hissed since 1983. Rivers of glowing-red lava and explosive smoke plumes at ocean's entry are awesome sights. Bright green fairways glisten at luxury resorts on the sunny Kohala Coast near Kailua-Kona, while coffee trees brighten the cooler upland slopes with crimson fruit and white flowers known as "Kona snow." On the wet windward side, the town of Hilo retains the flavor of old Hawaii. It's the jumping-off point for the spectacular Hamakua Coast drive.
This westernmost island is Hollywood’s tropical back lot. “Avatar,” “The Descendants,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “King Kong,” “Blue Hawaii” and many other films have taken advantage of its natural wonders. First among those wonders is the rugged Napali Coast, where emerald-green pinnacles drop dramatically into the ocean. Land access here is restricted to the challenging 11-mile Kalalau trail. Many visitors happily settle for the two-mile trek to Hanakapiai Beach. On the west side of Kauai, deep gorges and endless vistas at Waimea Canyon – the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” – are not to be missed.
Molokai and Lanai
You won't find a stoplight or high-rise on either of these islands, but that's just how the locals like it. Molokai and Lanai receive few visitors, but both are easily reachable from Maui via daily interisland ferry. Molokai's arid west end has beautiful beaches, while the sheltered waters off the south coast are ideal for novice kayakers. On the north coast's cool uplands, a guided mule ride takes you down high sea cliffs to a defunct leprosy hospital. Look for green sea turtles and humpback whales off Polihua Beach on Lanai's north shore.