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Hawaii, Feb. '94, '95, '96, and '99.

Duration: about 9 days each year

Our coed Ultimate team, Red Fish Blue Fish, frequently attends the "Kaimana Klassik" tournament on Oahu. My girlfriend and I have attended five of these tournaments, and have taken a week or so afterwards to visit one of the other islands. You can read about my experience at the 2002 Kaimana Klassic.

Before our first trip, we had a pretty bad impression of Hawaii, expecting it all to be crowded beaches, condos, and golf courses. In fact, there are some parts of the islands that are like that, but the islands also have plenty of things that we really like.

All of the islands have a dry side (the west) and a wet side (east or southeast), since the moist winds dump their rain as they climb the slopes of the volcanoes at the center of each island. Almost always, the dry side has the condos, hotels, and golf courses. These are usually located in the VERY dry areas, where it almost NEVER rains. We prefer to stay away from these arid areas, and take a risk of occasional rain.

Our least favorite island. Honolulu and Waikiki embody what we thought the islands would be like: crowded, tourist/condo hell whose natural beauty is overshadowed by the masses of tasteless humanity. The North Shore has some nice scenery and good surfing, but if the surfing isn't your reason for going then skip Oahu for one of the other islands.
A big step up from Oahu, Maui has several special things to offer. One of them is the stunning Haleakela Crater, rising well above the clouds. The crater itself is as stark as the surface of the moon, and stunning...and huge. Hike in for an hour or so to get an idea of the incredible scale. Don't miss it. There are several day hikes and camping trips that you can do in the crater (including one all the way down to the sea at Hana). On the lower slopes, there's a park with a nice nature hike, too. Avoid the "bike down a volcano" ride, in which you simply coast downhill for miles at moderate speed.
The relatively less-traveled wet side of the island, near Hana, is another great place to visit. There's a terrific day hike just south of Hana (ask, or check your guidebook) that takes you, in just a few hours, along a dramatic gorge, past a huge banyan tree, through a giant bamboo forest, into an area of rainforest, and finally to a very high waterfall coming down from a high, vertical cliff (see photo...that's me, wearing a blue shirt, at the bottom of the waterfall...of which only the lower half is shown).
Contrary to what the guidebooks say, the rough road south of Hana is passable to your rental car. It has some nice scenery, and it's fascinating how the climate changes (as you pass into the "rain shadow" of the volcano) and how the soil changes (as you pass from ancient ground onto relatively new lava).
The west side of the island, the dry side, is less interesting---this is where most of the hotels, condos, and golf courses are. Of course, many people like that sort of thing (indeed, it is obvious that we are anomolous for not liking it), so if you just want to lie around on the beach or play golf, then this part of the island might be for you. But it's not for us...except that some places have good snorkeling (you might consider a boat trip to the hugely popular/overcrowded island of Molokini, which has lots of tropical fish). Also, there are whalewatching trips out of Lahaina, a former whaling port. Each winter, dozens of humpbacks come to Hawaii to mate and give birth, and they favor the calm waters off Maui, which becomes a giant bathtub/playpen for whales. Easily visible from shore, a boat will get you close.
The central part of the island is almost all sugar cane fields.
The northernmost (and oldest) of the major islands, Kauai has unique landforms, with fingers of sharp cliffs and deep gorges running to the sea. The Na Pali coast is especially dramatic...and accessible only by foot (pretty tough hiking along a well-traveled trail) or by boat. There's good snorkeling right at the starting point of the Na Pali coast hike, but watch out for the perilous currents---if you get sucked out to where the water breaks over the reef, you could easily die (several people do every year).
For hiking, snorkeling, and sheer scenic beauty, Kauai gets the nod over Maui. It's also less developed. However, there are fewer whales, and even the incredible natural sights didn't impress me as much as the Haleakela Crater on Maui.
Having visited both (at different times), I must say that I preferred Kauai...however, I must also admit that I can't say exactly why.
Hawaii (the Big Island)
My personal favorite. But realize, the big island is big---about twice as large as the others combined. If you have fewer than 5 or 6 days, go to Kauai or Maui and see a little bit of everything. If you have a week or more, consider the big island but don't try to do it all. There's only one main road around the island, and it's only one lane each way, so travel is fairly slow. Don't look at a map and think "Great, we'll spend the morning at Kealekekua bay, drive down the the volcanoes for the afternoon, and then head up to Hilo".
The big island has:
Active volcanoes:
If you're lucky, Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, will be spilling lava while you're there. Sometimes the lava flows all the way to the sea, where it adds several hundred acres a year (and sometimes overruns a few houses).
Volcanoes National Monument has some great hikes, including a short but interesting one through a giant lava tube, and a 2-hour hike over the hard lava crust (with some gas vents) of a small crater near the active one.
Petroglyphs: There are several hikes where you can see petroglyphs---rock carvings---one of the few existing physical remnants of ancient Hawaiian culture.
Kealakekua Bay:
The Captain Cook monument on Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook was killed (remnants of the Hawaiian village there are still visible) is the best snorkeling spot I've ever seen. If you saw it on TV, you would think it was fake---surely there can't really be over fifty species of fish visible at the same time from a single spot, and all these different kinds of coral, and moray eels, and so on, and so on. Really fantastic.
Part of the reason the snorkeling is so good is that, though there are always some people around, it doesn't get really heavy use. That's because it's reachable only by a long, hot hike (45 minutes in, 80 minutes out), by chartered boat out of the big town of Kona-Kailua, or (the most popular choice) by a 1- or 1 1/4-mile sea kayak paddle across the bay. You can rent sea kayaks from Kona Boys Kayaks, a big house a few dozen yards from the launching area---if there seems to be nobody around, just call "Yo, Kona Boys" and someone will come out. Or, of course, you can swim for it---we've done that, about 50 minutes each way.
Also, the bay is a wildlife refuge---no fishing, and no harassing of sea mammals.
The bay is a popular spot for a pod of spinner dolphins---on our first trip to the area, they swam about 50 yards from our kayak, and occasionally launched themselves into the air...somewhat comically, truth be told: they don't shoot out and plunge back in like spears, or like the trained bottlenosed dolphins on TV; instead, they flip out, spinning madly, and splat back in at random angles.
On our visit in 1999, the dolphins weren't around, but a mother humpback and calf were. In fact, they came within about 30 yards of our kayak! Much later, after we were ashore, the mother breached, and shortly thereafter it looked like the calf tried to breach too, though he didn't get very high and may have just been trying to do a maneuver called a "spy hop".
Unfortunately, we saw both powerboats and kayakers trying to approach the whales. This disturbs them, which (a) may be bad for them, (b) makes them leave, and (c) is illegal, though apparently that isn't enforced. If you go, please don't bother the whales or dolphins! The rule is, you can't approach within closer 200 yards. If you get closer than 200 yards, just stop paddling---if they approach you after that, that's fine, you don't have to paddle away!
Place of Refuge
Just a few miles south of Kealekekua is the "Place of Refuge," a Hawaiian cultural site dating from around 1500. Priests who lived here could purify those who broke "kapu" (taboo) rules...e.g., you could be killed for looking at the king or even stepping where he had just walked. But if you could make it to a place of refuge without being killed by the king's soldiers, the priests would perform a ceremony and you could return to society.
The small site has several interesting displays, including ancient fish-ponds and a rather impressive lava wall, plus some reconstructed buildings, canoes, etc. Well worth a visit.
There's also good snorkeling right outside the park (ask at the gate)---we saw a sea turtle there (see photo, taken with a cheapo underwater camera).
Waipio Valley
We've actually never been to Waipio Valley, but it's supposed to be a great spot if you're up for a vigorous hike. Sparsely inhabited, beautiful...watch out for mosquitoes and feral pigs.
Saddle road/Mauna Loa/Mauna Kea
With adequate gear, preparation, training, and hut reservations, it's possible to do a supposedly amazing hike up the slope of Mauna Kea, one of the two giant, ancient volcanoes. We've never done that. However, it's possible to drive up the mountain from the other side, connecting from the "saddle road" across the middle of the mountain. (You can also go the other way, up 14000-foot Mauna Kea, though the top of the mountain, with its observatories, is off limits). Like the road south of Hana on Maui, the saddle road is theoretically off-limits to rental cars, but it's not clear why: a few potholes are about the only danger.
Scuba diving
We did two dive trips (of two dives each) through Jack's Diving Locker in Kailua-Kona. Both had one average dive and one exceptional one: we particularly liked a dive at "turtle heaven", where several sea turtles hung out on the bottom, coming up occasionally for air, and a night-time "manta ray dive" in which two giant manta rays came swooping in just over our heads (sometimes bumping us) to feed on plankton that collected in our dive lights. This latter dive is not a solitary experience, by any means: about 30 or 40 divers from different dive boats collect in a group for this experience. But wow, what an experience it is!
Typical tourist stuff
The areas near Hilo and Kona-Kailua have plenty of golf courses, big hotels, nice beaches, etc., if that's what you're looking for.