Bet you didn't know that there are actually more than 20 Hawaiian Islands. Or that the Big Island's Mauna Kea, when measured from its submarine base to its peak, is the tallest mountain in the world. Or that the melodic Hawaiian language uses only 13 letters.

That's the wonder of the Hawaiian Islands. No matter how many times you've visited, there is always something new to see or to learn.

Hawaii is a mix of spectacularly divergent topography, ideal for both tourists and homebuyers, snorkelers and mountain climbers, history buffs and lazy bums, parasailers and golfers. On the larger islands, you'll find world-class dining, shopping, nightlife, and accommodations. Let's focus here on the four best-known islands: Hawaii (the Big Island), Oahu, Maui, and Kauai.




THE BIG ISLAND
The Big Island is a favorite of those who seek radical geographical diversity. Kona, with fine beaches nearby, and Hilo, which brims with history, are located on opposite sides of the island. The Big Island's most famous natural landmark is Volcanoes National Park. You can drive around an active volcano here and see and feel the hot steam rising from fissures in the earth. In the evening, molten lava glows through the cracks. The volcano is unpredictable, sometimes shooting lava high in the air, but its activity is closely monitored for safety's sake.

Another site not to be missed is the Puuhonua O Honaunau ("place of refuge") National Historical Park. This is the best place on the island to learn about ancient Hawaii.

The exotic black sand beach of Punaluu is great for spotting sea turtles because they nest here. Don't take home a sample of the lava-based sand—Hawaiian legend says it's bad luck to take it off the island! But do take home a package of coffee grown on one of the island's coffee farms. Rich Kona coffee is famous the world over.

If you're into snorkeling, head for Kahaluu Beach Park, which many believe has the best snorkeling in the entire state of Hawaii. You can see more than 200 species of sea life.

In terms of real estate, the Kohala Coast on the Kailua-Kona side of the Big Island (home to five world-class resorts) is probably the hottest oceanfront market in the entire state these days. Lots here sell for more than $10 million.

OAHU
Oahu is the most populated Hawaiian island and is also home to Honolulu, the state capital, Hawaii's principal port, and its major airport. Honolulu is the state's business and finance center. The city is diverse in its distinct districts, such as teeming, touristy Waikiki and the thriving downtown/Chinatown business district.

The incredible variety of attractions on Oahu has also helped it long maintain its position as the most popular of the islands. People come from all over the world to view such natural wonders as Diamond Head and the North Shore (featuring some of the best waves in the world, according to the world's best surfers) and such historic sites as the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and the Punchbowl National Cemetery. You'll also want to visit Oahu's windward side, where peaceful, tropical towns such as Kailua—on the other side of the mountain from Honolulu—is also a world away from the bustling metropolis.

One of the primary reasons people move to Oahu—or anywhere in the islands—is of course, the weather. Summer varies little from winter, with the average summer high temperature at 87, while in winter it's 80. The ocean temperature is also extraordinarily consistent...between 72 and 76 degrees all through the year.

Oahu is also known for its excellent public schools and universities. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is the flagship campus of the University of Hawaii's 10-campus system. Offering a full spectrum of academic degrees, it's also recognized as one of America's foremost institutions of higher education with an Asia/Pacific focus.

MAUI
Maui is another paradise for visitors and homeowners. Though it's nicknamed the "Valley Isle," Maui actually has some of the Hawaiian Islands' best beaches. One of these is the famous Kaanapali, the shoreline home to many of Maui's most luxurious resorts. If you want to eye the "beautiful people," this beach is the place.

Lahaina, Maui's historic whaling town, is a good place to look for a traditional Hawaiian luau. While in Lahaina, try a tour on a glass bottom boat. And don't miss the Jodo Mission, a Buddhist temple amid traditional symbolic surroundings. The mission is considered by many to be one of the loveliest and most serene sites in Hawaii.

You can hardly miss Haleakala, a dormant volcano. Take the 28-mile drive up to see the crater of Haleakala. At 7.5 miles long, 2.5 miles wide, and 3,000 feet deep, it's larger than the entire island of Manhattan...and looks like Mars!

No trip to Maui is complete without a drive on the infamous Hana Highway, which leads to the funky town of Hana. This trip is not for the faint-of-heart driver. It's narrow and winding, with plenty of hairpin turns, steep cliffs, and the occasional partially blocked passage. But the scenery is absolutely enchanting and includes lots of roadside waterfalls and pools amid a lush coastal rain forest plus glimpses of secluded beaches made up of black and even red volcanic sand.

KAUAI
If you're looking for traditional Hawaii - that truly tropical, rural feel - your best bet is Kauai, the "Garden Isle." Unlike most of the other major Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has been under a sensitive development plan for 20 years. There's a four-story limit on commercial buildings, for example. Because of that—and a devastating hurricane that did major damage in 1992—Kauai is less developed than the others...and less expensive when it comes to buying property. That's rapidly changing, however. Because tourism has picked up in the last couple of years, so has the number of real estate transactions.

Things to do on Kauai? The top attractions revolve around nature and cultural tradition. This island is lush with vegetation, waterfalls, and brilliant tropical plants and flowers. You can kayak on a river, tour a coffee plantation, fly down a mountain on a rented bike, see a hula show to the soft guitars of Hawaiian musicians.

Natural wonders not to miss include Waimea Canyon—the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"—which is 3,600 feet deep and 10 miles long. Also take a gander at the bays of Hanalei and Nawiliwili, Poipu Beach, and the Wailua River. Finally, on Kauai's North Shore, have a look at the famous mountain peak officially named Makena but more popularly known as Bali Hai from the movie "South Pacific."

HOUSE PRICES
Homes have appreciated nicely on all four of these islands. In February 2005, the median price of a single-family home on the entire island of Oahu, for example, was $525,000, up 28.2 percent over the same month in 2004. The median price for an Oahu condo was $235,000 in February 2005, an increase of 25 percent over the median price in the same month of 2004. Of course, homes in luxury areas, such as Diamond Head, have much steeper median prices.

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Gallery
Story by Jacqueline Shannon
Photography by Michael Blassis and Cindy Pelland

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