Aloha low-down

KATRINA LOBLEY
Last updated 09:08 23/07/2013
Hawaii_Landscape

ALOHA STATE: Waimea Bay on Oahu's North Shore Island.

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Hawaii's a place for celebrating life's big stuff: marriage (and divorce), babies, an empty nest.

Baby boomers and retirees go to this most Polynesian of US states to spend the kids' inheritance, backpackers go to slurp $3 Mai Tais, parents bring the kids for an idyllic beach break, fitness fanatics go to do a marathon, triathlon or ocean swim, and friends go to cheer them on.

The Aloha State's intergenerational pull is so strong that even with the sliding dollar, tourism officials aren't worried about the gloss going off Hawaii any time soon.

"Hawaii still offers amazing value; we're not concerned about it yet,'' says Hawaii Tourism Oceania's country manager, Helen Williams, a Sydney-based Kiwi whose first overseas trip at 19 was to Hawaii. ''I remember the smell of aviation fuel and frangipani mixed together.''

How times change. Hawaii's also developed a serious food scene that highlights its produce in East-West fusion dishes (although Hawaiians still love their Spam, which even features on McDonald's and Burger King menus).

Williams' confidence in her destination also comes from knowing that once travellers try Hawaii, they like to return.

If you haven't experienced Hawaii's pleasures yet, here's a guide - based on my nearly fortnight-long journey around the islands - especially for first-timers.

START HERE

Ease into your Hawaiian break by connecting from Honolulu through to one of the more peaceful neighbour islands. I start my 12 days in Hawaii by doing just that and flying straight on to Oprah Winfrey's favourite, Maui.

My first stop is the charming town of Lahaina on the island's sunny leeward western side. Each Hawaiian island has a drier leeward side (favoured by beach resorts) and a wetter windward side (cool and lush with waterfalls and jungle).

Quaint Lahaina is action central. The town is home to a fleet of sport-fishing boats and the ferry to Molokai Island. It also has what's said to be the world's second-largest banyan tree (for the curious, the largest is in India) and a restaurant with rock-star connections (Mick Fleetwood owns Fleetwood's on Front Street).

A seriously hip dining alternative is tucked away in an industrial area. Foodies from all over have heard of Star Noodle, so you'll have to arrive early or be prepared to wait in the car park a long time before enjoying massive share plates (leave room for the malasadas - round doughnuts you roll in melted chocolate, butterscotch and peanuts).

SO, WHERE NEXT?

Your second Maui destination is Wailea, a 600-hectare manicured beach resort 45 kilometres south-east of Lahaina and packed with posh hotels. Day-trippers can use a public beachside car park with a hard-to-find access road.

Despite its upmarket reputation, the resort includes a reasonably priced destination restaurant. Monkeypod Kitchen (monkeypod trees are common in Hawaii) showcases ''Hawaiian regional cuisine''.

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The inventive menu incorporating local ingredients includes smoked taro hummus, lots of fish, and fusion dishes such as pork tacos with kimchi that acknowledge Hawaii's multiculturalism. Beer aficionados can tackle 36 craft brews.

Maui's two unmissable activities show off its extreme geography. Watching sunrise from Haleakala's 3055-metre summit isn't for the faint of heart, with a 2am hotel departure and freezing temperatures at altitude.

Yet the sleep deprivation and goosebumps (or ''chicken skin'' to use American parlance) are worth it.

For sheer beauty, it just beats the Road to Hana, a full-day, 200-kilometre trip winding around the island's lush windward coastline, past countless waterfalls and over pretty stone bridges.

Towards day's end, the road dwindles into a one-lane dirt track falling away to cliffs below.

PREPARE TO ISLAND HOP

From Maui head to Hawaii Island, landing at Kona airport. If you do just one thing here, make it the night snorkel with manta rays off the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa.

The graceful creatures, with wingspans reaching several metres, come within centimetres of snorkellers as they somersault through plankton-rich waters.

Returning to busy Honolulu from the neighbour islands can be a shock. Grab a rental car and scoot on out of the traffic up to Oahu's fabled surf mecca of the North Shore.

Laid-back Haleiwa is renowned for shave ice (snow cones); Aoki's and Matsumoto will both have long queues. Matsumoto, which counts Tom Hanks among its customers, features flavours such as sour apple, fairy floss, green tea and pickled mango.

At Laniakea, the first beach east of Haleiwa, basking sea turtles cause traffic jams year-round. At Sunset beach, pull over at Ted's Bakery to try a wedge of chocolate haupia (coconut pudding) cream pie or continue on to Kahuku to find shrimp trucks such as Giovanni's that do a roaring trade selling trays of sizzling-hot garlic or spicy shrimp.

Along the east coast is Kualoa Ranch, which has been a film set for Hawaii Five-O, Lost and Jurassic Park. Gape at its scenic valley on a movie tour that includes a stop at a World War II bunker containing movie memorabilia.

TIME FOR AN URBAN FIX

Honolulu really does have something for everyone. Art lovers can drool over one of Monet's waterlily paintings and Georgia O'Keeffe's trio of striking Hawaiian landscapes at the low-key Honolulu Museum of Art.

Learn more about island culture at the Bishop Museum or military history at Pearl Harbour.

Those craving exercise can hike the Diamond Head crater at dawn or sign up for a surfing or stand-up paddleboard lesson.

And everybody should set aside an afternoon to stroll the length of Waikiki, where the revered father of international surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, learnt his craft.

One of Waikiki's most charming spots for a cocktail is the historic 1901 Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa that resembles an antebellum mansion with its high ceilings and rocking chairs on the porch.

Head to the banyan-shaded beachfront bar to slurp a Mai Tai, Pina Colada or Lava Flow - in which strawberry puree impersonates red-hot lava - as another day in paradise fades to black.

STOP AND SHOP

Ala Moana, billed as the world's largest outdoor shopping centre with 290 stores, stands on what was once a marshy taro patch next to Waikiki. Window-shop at high-end outlets such as Chanel, Tiffany & Co and Harry Winston or browse the sales racks at Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom department stores.

I meet up with stylist Malie Moran from Hawaii RED Magazine who points me towards the Reyn Spooner store for a modern, muted take on the aloha shirt. The same prints are used for cute kids' outfits, womenswear and tote bags.

A cutting-edge Chinatown designer, Roberta Oaks (robertaoaks.com), does a line in fitted women's aloha shirts, Moran says. ''Teamed with a pencil skirt, they are so flattering and cute,'' she says.

To reach Ala Moana, take a trolley from Waikiki for US$2 ($2.5), or walk five minutes further west from the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Domestic divas who want to sew their own Hawaiian-inspired outfits can poke around rolls of bright prints at Fabric Mart on Kalakaua Avenue near the Convention Centre.

If you have wheels, head to beachside Kailua, a half-hour drive north-east of Honolulu, to check out Muumuu Heaven, where Australian Deb Mascia is repurposing old-fashioned Hawaiian muumuus into something so stylish she counts Cameron Diaz and the Obama clan among her customers.

At Haleiwa on Oahu's north shore, Kai Ku Hale sells quirky homewares. I'm still kicking myself I didn't buy that hula-girl tea towel for US$9 ($11.3).

The writer travelled courtesy of Holiday Specialists, Hawaiian Airlines and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION holidayspecialists.com.au/hawaii; gohawaii.com.au

GETTING THERE Hawaiian Airlines flies daily from New Zealand to Hawaii. See hawaiianairlines.co.nz. Kiwis must apply for US travel authorisation before departure, https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

STAYING THERE Holiday Specialists can tailor Hawaii accommodation, flights, tours and car rental. Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu's North Shore features a surfing point break and an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.

Honolulu's 3386-room Hilton Hawaiian Village boasts the widest stretch of Waikiki sand.

Maui's beachside Royal Lahaina Resort is perfect for honeymooners.

Hotel Wailea's self-contained suites are set within serene, Japanese-style grounds filled with mango trees and koi ponds.

FIVE MORE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW

FEASTING
Many larger hotels offer a luau, which is a Hawaiian buffet with light-hearted entertainment. Honolulu's Hilton Hawaiian Village stages its luau, complete with traditional dances and songs from across the Pacific, on a rooftop.

Dishes include poi (a purple paste made of pounded taro), kalua pig (fall-apart pork cooked in an underground oven), poke (raw fish marinated in sesame oil, sea salt and soy) and lomi-lomi salmon (a salad of salted salmon, fresh tomato and onions).

And remember, if you want to compliment anyone's cooking in Hawaii, tell them it's ono (delicious).

DRIVING
It's liberating to have your own wheels in Hawaii, especially when there are so many stunning beaches to enjoy.

In the US, apart from driving on the right-hand side of the road, remember you can turn right on a red light, and at a four-way stop it's the driver who arrives first who goes first.

A GPS helps with navigating less-populated islands but, on Oahu, one is essential: the freeways, particularly at peak hour, are tricky to negotiate.

TIPPING
No other American custom stresses us out as much as tipping; namely, when to do it and how much.

Basically, anyone providing a service - from the bellboy to the taxi driver, hotel maid, bartender, tour guide, tattooist and hairdresser - should be tipped (if you're unsure how much, ask an American). In restaurants, tip 15 per cent to 18 per cent of the bill.

SAVING
Serious retail therapists should join shopping centre VIP clubs and investigate their coupon deals to take full advantage of special discounts.

Duty-free alcohol is often markedly cheaper in the US than at home. Jot down duty-free prices before flying out of to compare them with those in Honolulu. My tip is you'll buy your bottle of rum there.

PLAYING
It might sound obvious, but remember to slip, slop, slap before venturing outdoors; the Hawaiian sunshine is ferocious.

As other red-skinned holidaymakers can attest, nothing ruins a tropical break faster than a case of painful sunburn or sunstroke.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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