After this third trip there, however, I think I'm ready to admit to myself - and the world - that while Maui is a truly beautiful place in the world, and it will always hold a special place in my heart, it's not my favorite of the Hawaiian islands.
Right now it's a toss up between Kauai and the Big Island, with Kauai maybe in the lead. Funny too because the first time we went to Kauai, I'm sad to admit we didn't have a great time.
No one had told us that it rains - a lot - in February in Kauai. We had maybe 2 days of sunshine in the full week we were there and we spent a lot of time in the car driving to parts of the island that were supposed to be sunny and dry. Apparently, contrary to many blogs and travel books, it does rain in Poipu (although maybe that's only when we're there and I'm ready to cry). On that trip we also stayed in an outdated condo that was advertised as having a lot more amenities than it had in reality. Adding to this, our particular condo overlooked a parking lot that backed up to a dirt field which was bad enough in and of itself. This problem was exacerbated when we found out that the dirt field doubled as a motorcycle race track for locals several times a week. Racing started at 7 a.m. and went until after sunset, so not only was our view terrible, but we had nowhere we could really just relax since we were constantly hearing engines whirring by, while racers screamed at/for each other. And the roosters? Oh my god the roosters. When people say that Kauai is overrun with them they are not kidding. Consider yourselves warned. When we got home I said I was done with Kauai.
A few years later - 2008, actually - I decided to give the island another shot, this time visiting at the end of summer. Our experience was like night and day. Our condo was located on a beautiful property with a view of the pool and ocean, the onsite restaurant served a fantastic dinner our first night there, and the weather was near perfection every single day. Yes, the roosters were still there but suddenly they didn't seem so terrible. We had such a fantastic time that trip that we returned in May 2010, this time staying up on the north shore in Princeville. Our condo didn't have quite as lovely a view as the previous one, but the location was perfect for exploring all of the wonderful sights located up north, including Tunnels Beach, Anini Beach, Ke'e Beach, Secret Beach, and Hanalei Bay - one of my favorite beaches in all of the islands. Princeville doesn't have the lush, wild & rugged look the rest of the north shore has because it's an upscale golf community, but that also means that it has great access to food and groceries. We went shopping so many times at the local Foodland so that we could grill dinner overlooking the ocean and the sunset from the property's cliff top location. Kauai has become one of my favorite islands and one that I'm definitely looking forward to visiting again and again throughout the coming years.
The Big Island is another of our favorites, and I think a lot of that has to do with the wide range of activities available for visitors, paired with the accommodations we've stayed in each time. We first visited in 2002 following our wedding in Maui away from our friends & family for a four-day honeymoon. On that trip we drove to Waimea Valley, cruised over to Hilo for a helicopter tour of the volcano (it wasn't spewing during that particular time), and spent the day at the resort's pool. It was a very quick trip that left us with an interest in wanting to visit again, but for whatever reason we didn't make it back there until 2009, when we traded our timeshare for a condo for five nights down in Keauhou. We had an absolutely fabulous time on this trip - aside from my abscess tooth and emergency root canal upon returning - and it left us definitely wanting to return someday soon. We stayed at the Holua Resort at Mauna Loa Village which is pretty much the last condo complex (not a resort as the name would imply) down in this area. I was really impressed by how lush the landscaping was, and while it was somewhat removed from all of "the action" it was still a very convenient location for exploring the Kona and Kohala coasts. We also liked that with the exception of the last day, most of the guests were adult couples.
The Big Island is a hard one for people to grasp at first glance. You have the large city of Hilo, which isn't really a vacation destination itself. There is the volcano area, which you can stay if you choose, but is more of a long day trip for travelers as most people choose to stay on the other side of the island around the major resort areas. Kona is a cute little touristy town that has a lot of oceanside condo complexes. Each time we've been there it's been quite green and lush, and a little further south up in the hills is where all the coffee plantations are located.. The Kohala Coast is where all the major resort areas are, and it is DRY. In fact, you have to drive through miles upon miles of barren lava fields to reach the resorts, but once you do you're in for a beautiful location. We stayed in a condo up there we rented via VRBO last March for our 9th wedding anniversary. While in Hawaii, we've swam with manta rays, hiked the Kilaua Iki trail, snorkeled with more fish & turtles than you can imagine, kayaked the Kohala Ditch trail, an area most tourists don't take time to visit, sampled fresh Kona coffee, watched the sunset from atop the 13,000 foot Mauna Kea mountain, and experienced an actual tsunami.
We've also visited Oahu a few times and I'm torn. I think the fact of the matter is I don't much like Waikiki, but I really love the rest of the island. Unfortunately, there aren't many condos you can trade into on the rest of the island so we end up using Waikiki as our home base and take many day trips to other parts. This would be fine, I think, but I don't really love the actual condo complex that is part of our timeshare group as it's actually a pretty far walk from the best part of Waikiki. We first stayed here with my sister and her husband when she was pregnant with Nora, and we returned to Honolulu back in August 2007 for my 30th birthday, cashing in points to get a free flight to the island and using Hotwire to stay at a hotel near our condo. The hotel wasn't great either (especially as we felt it pretty much was tailored only to Japanese tourists) although all of the rooms do have a spectacular view of the marina, and I thought the location on Hotwire was incredibly misleading, which put a bit of a damper on the trip because I probably would have picked a different place closer to the core of Waikiki, but what's done is long done.
With my sister and brother-in-law we went snorkeling (unsuccessfully) at Hanauma Bay, spent a wonderful afternoon at my other favorite beach in Hawaii, Lanikai Beach, and visited the worst luau known to man at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It was so bad - from the size, to the entertainment, to the food, that we actually left early. I felt so bad for having subjected Jenny and Sean to that after we'd had such a lovely time at the Old Lahaina Luau for our wedding just a five years earlier.
When we visited again in 2007, we were extremely surprised to find that the North Shore beaches were incredibly lovely in the summer. In case you don't know, during the winter, that area of the island is world famous for its giant swells and major waves, and Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay are major surf capitals of the world at that time of year. It's funny - looking at my pictures of all of our Hawaii trips I usually have about 150 per album, but our last trip to Oahu only has 80 pictures in total. While I tend to use my Flickr albums to measure how active (or good) a trip is, my memories of that trip are much better than the photographic evidence would suggest. While there we "hiked" to the LOST waterfall where we spent an hour or so swimming, swam in Waimea Bay, circled the island by car, stopped at Lanikai again, went ATV riding on a ranch where a lot of movies and TV shows are filmed, and on our last day we spent an afternoon at Waikiki Beach where Alan first learned to surf.
I'm in the process of trying to figure out where to go for our end-of-summer vacation and am leaning heavily toward either Kauai or Oahu. Where we can use our timeshare is going to be a big factor in this decision, but I think we would have a great time at either one. And our trip to Maui, staying at the Kea Lani, reinforced for me that for us, when it comes to a great time in Hawaii, it's not necessarily about luxury accommodations or resort amenities. Our best trips have been when we have comfortable lodgings with full kitchen facilities, and the ability to explore and wander the island, without having to worry about whether or not we're dressed well enough to not look shabby next to the rest of the guests. Because really, I think I'm happiest in Hawaii after a long day snorkeling, my hair a mess of sand and saltwater from various ocean adventures, capped off by a drive in the car with the top down, finishing the night cooking fresh fish on the grill while we drink local beer. That's the good life.