* Special Feature by Olga Levitsky *
Forget all the excuses about how long the flights are and how intimidating it could be to feel stranded on seemingly tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific ... Hawai'i will make it up to ya!
Having moved to the "melting pot" that is Washington DC from the homogeneous Soviet Moscow, you'd think that I would be prepared for diversity. I thought I was, until I spent a few days on the Big Island. The youngest (and largest) of the nearly 180 islands that make up Hawai'i, the Big Island greets you with miles and miles of sprawling lava rock and practically no vegetation, that is, if you fly into Kona on the East side of the island.
If you fly into Hilo on the West, on the other hand, you'll be greeted with a luscious rain forest. Finally, you can feel like you control the weather -- depending on your mood, drive to the East for non-stop sunshine (they get 10 inches of rainfall per year) or to the West for a cool drizzle (they average 150 inches per year).
The hotel industry has, of course, caught on to this fact, which is why you'll find all of the nice resorts around Kona. They've planted the grass, trees, exotic flowers, and even recruited some sea turtles to lay on the warm lava rocks around the beach areas. If you don't mind splurging a bit, definitely stay at the Four Season's Hualalai -- they are known for intutive service and creating a dreamy ambiance -- whether you find yourself listening to the gentle waterfall while relaxing in a hot tub, pampering your hands with a lava mud manicure at the spa, lounging in a hammock by the beach with a magazine and a cup of homegrown Kona coffee, or hitting a round of golf -- you're sure to be greeted with a friendly "Aloha" everywhere you turn.
Bored of lounging? Go for a drive! You can visit Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park for a history lesson in Hawaiian law, hop on a helicopter ride over an erupting volcano, stop by the botanical gardens to see some exotic flora and fauna, have lunch comprised of the juiciest lechee, pineapple and guava while overlooking the ocean on one side and a 100 foot waterfall on the other, or go to a luau to hear the story of the fire Goddess Pele told through hula dancing and fire throwing!
On to Maui, a much older and thus far more "civilized" island. This is where you'll find your Louis Vuitton and Gucci, art galleries galore (be sure to stop by Seargent's Fine Art in Lahaina, the former capital of Hawai'i), and lots more people. The Wailea area is the place to stay, it's centrally located to shops, restaurants and all Maui activities.
Be sure to check out the snorkeling -- there are boat cruises that take you out to an-almost-entirely underwater crater and untouched coral reefs near the beaches of some adjacent islands. If you go Dec-March, you're likely to spot whales on your ride back. Maui itself is also home to a few real gems -- the craters in Mt. Haleakala National Park make you feel like you are on Mars, the curvy Road to Hana beckons you to start your own little homemade coconut ice cream business amid the waterfalls and bamboo forests, and then, of course, there are the beaches -- take your pick: white sand, black sand, green sand or red sand. Oh, the possibilities!
Or you can just lay in your cabana with a Mai Thai, and, while enjoying the puzzlingly constant 80 degree sunshiny weather, ponder deep philosophical questions like why the Hawaiian goose is called a nene and a fish named Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. Aloha!