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Welcome to paradise for that is what the word 'Hawaii' means; and with a warm, sub-tropical climate, friendly outgoing people, some of the world's most wondrous scenery and those famous beautiful beaches, who are we to argue? The islands of Hawaii each have their own unique characteristics and the four main islands offer a world of contrasts.

Hawaii (The Big Island)
Twice as large as all the other islands combined, Hawaii covers over 4,000 square miles, which makes it roughly half the size of Wales. Often called the Big Island, it's also the most geographically diverse, with 11 of the earth's 13 different climates. There are black lava desert plains, waterfalls, rainforest, the world's most active volcano, and even snow-capped mountains.

The western side of the island is the driest in the region, with fantastic beaches and watersports. To the east, the coast becomes rugged, the seas are rougher and tropical rainforest, ravines and waterfalls dot the landscape.

Kona on the west coast and Hilo in the east - the largest city on the island - are the main tourism centres and have plenty of hotels and restaurants. Big Island is the legendary home of Pele, the volcano goddess who created the archipelago, and Kilauea volcano in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the must see sites. It has been erupting since 1983, spewing lava down a 4,000ft slope to the sea so the island just keeps on growing. You can walk or drive through the park, past the landscape of hardened rivers of lava, steaming calderas and lush jungle, and there are good camping facilities.

Other natural attractions include the coastal Waipio Valley, the most spectacular of a series of amphitheatre valleys, enclosed by almost vertical 2,000ft cliffs and accessible only by a narrow track. The breathtaking Akaka Falls in the north-east tumble 420ft into Kolekole Stream, while the unique triple-tier Umauma Falls bubble nearby. The stars are also a big attraction - all is revealed on a Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure, which can be arranged locally.

When it comes to beaches, Big Island is up there with the best, especially around the north Kohala Coast where there are uncrowded, white sandy stretches. Clear waters also make it one of the world's top dive destinations, especially good for beginners.

For bustling, fast paced city life combined with some of the world's most beautiful beaches and breathtaking scenery, head to Oahu. The most culturally diverse of the islands, Oahu is home to the majority of the population of Hawaii and it's the first stop for more than 80% of visitors. It also offers a huge amount to see and do, whether it's designer shopping, surfing, snorkelling, visiting museums, nightclubbing or simply lounging on sugar soft sandy beaches.

Oahu has more than 125 beaches, ranging from deserted coves to thriving resorts. Waikiki, one of the world's most famous beaches, is known for its surf and lively atmosphere and has a host of busy seafront hotels, while gentle, rolling waves make Waimanalo Beach Park a family favourite.

Kailua and Lanikai Beaches, side by side on the eastern Windward coast with the Ko'Olau mountains as a backdrop, are great for swimming, kayaking and windsurfing. On the north coast Hale'iwa and Waimea are top surfing beaches - the world's greatest surfing competitions take place along north shore, where waves reach a challenging 30ft in winter.

Hawaii's capital, Honolulu, lies on the south coast and is home to a vibrant Chinatown, particularly during February's Chinese New Year celebrations, but the Bishop Museum and the 'Iolani Palace, home to the last reigning monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, are worth a visit. At the USS Arizona Memorial Museum at Pearl Harbour, and on board the USS Bowfin submarine, visitors can learn about the Japanese attack that propelled America into World War 2. The memorial sits above the spot where the battleship was sunk on 7th December 1941. On the USS Missouri, known as Mighty Mo, visitors can see where the peace treaty that ended the war in the Pacific was signed.

Luxury resorts, the world's largest extinct volcano and whale-watching make Maui a favourite. The second largest of the Hawaiian islands, Maui is also the second most popular with tourists and a favourite honeymoon haunt - and it's easy to see why. Known as the 'Magic Island', there's a bewitching aura of romance and glamour that delights all visitors.

Famous for its spectacular sunsets and sunrises, Maui is skirted by 33 miles of beautiful beaches with Haleakala, the world's largest extinct volcano, as a backdrop. Seeing dawn break from the crater summit is a holiday highlight, or take a helicopter tour and soar to 10,000ft for unforgettable views.

Along the slopes of Haleakala - meaning the House of the Sun - you discover everything from tropical rainforest to desert, and the island's geographic diversity means there is a surprise around every corner. Mountains melt into central plains, strange lava formations change into rolling meadows and the coast jumps from dramatic sea cliffs to gently sloping sandy coves.

Several sites in the historic whaling town of Lahaina have been restored, including the Old Prison and Seaman's Hospital, but it retains a timeless charm despite its dozens of shops and restaurants and thriving nightlife. The island's main towns of Wailuku and Kahului also offer plenty of choice for shopping and after dark fun too.

The tourist infrastructure is well developed in Maui. The luxurious resorts of Wailea and Makena are in the south while the popular Ka'anapali and Kapalua resorts are in the west, all boasting activities galore. Conditions are perfect for windsurfing (try Ho'okipa beach), snorkelling, surfing or just plain swimming. As most of the island is an untouched wilderness, there is also great hiking, biking or riding through tropical jungles, lava deserts, bamboo forests and picturesque mountain ranges, and there are more than 10 championship courses along Maui's famed 'Golf Coast'.

You may recognise Kauai even if you have never visited. The spectacular verdant scenery has appeared in South Pacific, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Arc and more than 60 other films. Formed by the eruption of the now dormant Mt Waialeale, there's a definite pre-historic feel about the wild, impenetrable interior and rugged coast.

Here you'll find Hawaii's only navigable rivers, winding down through mountain jungle - great for kayaking - and the incredible 3,500ft deep, rust coloured Waimea Canyon, named the 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific' by Mark Twain, with its miles of trails for hiking or horse riding. Along the majestic Napali Coast in the north-west, cliffs plunge 3,000ft into the sea from a mostly inaccessible 14-mile stretch. If you only take one helicopter ride in your life, this is the place to do it, and you can pre-book.

The sunniest and most-visited areas are the south and east coasts. In the main town of Lihue, there are dozens of shops and restaurants to visit, or call in at Kilohana, a plantation estate with lush gardens and a working farm. The resort of Poipu to the south is a good base for windsurfing, surfing or snorkelling, while nearby Kalapaki is a lively tourist centre. The Royal Coconut Coast, 10 miles north of Lihue, has most of the accommodation, shops and historical sites on the island.

On the north shore, Princeville and Hanalei Bay are surrounded by verdant mountains overlooking beautiful beaches stretching more than 10 miles. Across the island, the atmosphere is laid back and rural. In the small towns and villages around the coast, life centres on the plantation and the missionary church, as it has done for centuries. Known as the 'Garden Island' for its lush, green unspoiled landscape - there are four botanical gardens - Kauai is perfect for those looking to relax as well as the more adventurous.

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