Ideal isle? You're getting hotter

More than 5 million tourists land in the Hawaiian Islands each year, many of them looking for the real Hawaii. And sometimes they all seem to be at your resort. How do you find the real Hawaii? Start on the Big Island, the youngest of the main islands that make up one of the world's most remote archipelagos. Despite a respect for the past, nothing is in stasis — not the culture, not even the land itself, which has grown by more than 500 acres since the most recent volcanic eruption began in 1983. — Sara Benson Lonely Planet

What's so special?

Visitors can delve into Hawaiian ways faster here than on any other island. Everyone may know everyone else, but outsiders are welcomed. Islanders interweave Hawaiian cultural traditions with contemporary lifestyles. You'll see this whether you stay in a sugar plantation town on the Hamakua Coast or at a luxury resort near Kona.

A Western theme

The Big Island's towns are a taste of the Wild West. From Waimea ranches on the slopes of majestic Mauna Kea to the countercultural Puna district, residents share a pioneer spirit.

Getting around

Of course, "big" is a relative term here. You can drive the 67 miles from the county seat of Hilo in the east to the main tourist enclave of Kailua Kona in the west in just a few hours.

Vivacious Kona

It's on the other side of the island from Hilo. A day without a dose of sunshine here is an oddity. Most of the idyllic beaches, which regularly rate among the planet's best, are known by the highway mile markers where you turn off to reach them.

Yo, Hilo

Old Hilo town is laid-back. Spend a day walking among Hilo's historic buildings, museums and waterfront gallery shops. Make time for a picnic on Coconut Island. More than 120 inches of rain annually ensure that almost everything is always in bloom.

Rooms for rent

Renting a condo around Kona will save you money. Farther north on the Gold Coast, Kona Village Resort offers oceanfront thatched hale (houses); doubles from $530; (800) 367-5290, . Shipman House B&B in Hilo has hosted such luminaries as Jack London and Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani; doubles from $170; (800) 627-8447; . More B&Bs are found in southern Kona and Waimea.

The local cuisine

Waimea is a popular "gourmet ghetto," where Merriman's showcases the best of island-grown cuisine; lunch from $7.95; dinner from $18.95; (808) 885-6822. In Kailua Kona, avoid the main drag and head north up the coast to star chef Alan Wong's Hualalai Grille; lunch from $10; dinner from $29; (808) 325-8525. In Hilo, the down-home Seaside Restaurant has tables overlooking the family's aquaculture farm; dinner from $15; (808) 935-8825.

Views from on high

Towering above Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are the peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The main approach to Mauna Kea is by Saddle Road, which snakes between Hilo and Kona. With a four-wheel-drive vehicle or by joining a tour, you can visit the astronomical observatories at the summit (13,796 feet), after first acclimatizing at the educational Onizuka Visitor Information Station (

Snow? Here?

Short detours off Chain of Craters Road take you to an ancient Hawaiian adze quarry and a prehistoric lake. When it snows, local families might make the drive up here for the novelty of a snowball fight, while extreme-sports fanatics snowboard.

Getting there

American and United offer nonstop flights to Kona; Hawaiian Airlines offers connecting flights (stop, change of plane). Round-trip fares from LAX begin at $570. Summer rates, between June 9 and Aug. 28, rise to $680.

If you want more

For information on family activities, golf and the island's history and culture, see the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau site, . Options off the beaten path, with an environmental spin, are listed at the Alternative Hawaii site, . For more details on the Big Island's beaches, see