HAWAII & TAHITI
The Hawaiian Islands have long been America's tropical playground, a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Pacific that is the country's most surprising state. Before they became an American territory, before Captain Cook dubbed them the Sandwich Islands, the Hawaiian Islands were the home of a Polynesian culture whose roots still run deep. In Hawaii's floral-scented valleys and on its black-sand beaches, that legacy lives on in an aloha spirit that promises a welcome as warm as the ocean breezes. Some 4,300 kilometers (2,700 miles) from Hawaii, another legendary archipelago awaits travelers to the Pacific: Tahiti. Here, Polynesian and French cultures meet under blue skies on lush islands ringed by blue lagoons.
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Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Hilo, Hawaii, US
Once a busy fishing and farming area, Hilo blossomed into a commercial center for the sugarcane industry in the 1800s. Today’s town—its waterfront rebuilt since the last destructive tsunami in 1960—flourishes as a hub of galleries, independent shops, farmers markets and homegrown destination restaurants. A world-class astronomy center has joined this mix, underlining the awe unfolding through the telescopes atop Mauna Kea (the world's tallest peak from base to summit, outstripping Everest by 1,363 meters, or 4,472 feet!). Meanwhile, leafy Banyan Drive celebrates more earthbound stars with its arboreal Walk of Fame. Look up, look down: Wherever you glance, Hilo looks good.
Honolulu, Hawaii, US
Sitting pretty on Oahu's south shore, Honolulu is a suitably laid-back Polynesian mash-up of influences and experiences.
Surfing may have been invented along Waikiki long before the high-rise hotels arrived to dominate the shoreline, but the vibe is still mellow and it's still the go-to neighborhood. These days, Honolulu adds dining, shopping and cocktails to its repertoire, all done with a view of the Diamond Head in the distance.
But away from Waikiki, you get the scoop on the "real" Hawaii: brick Victorian buildings, including America's only royal palace; thriving Chinatown nightlife; sacred temple remains; and the wartime memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lahaina, Hawaii, US
Most of Polynesia has stories of the demigod Maui. In Hawaii, he's given credit for fishing up the islands from the ocean floor. But to the rest of the world, the word Maui just means the perfect island paradise, and Lahaina is the gateway to its most photogenic areas. How does a place win the title of paradise of paradises? Well, start with enormous stretches of beautiful beach. Toss in two volcanic craters and a rain forest, with a scenic drive full of twists and turns and waterfalls. At the end of the road, you're rewarded with cool ponds perfect for a soak.
Nawiliwili, Kauai, Hawaii, US
Nawiliwili is a port on the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai, which sits under a steady blast of trade winds that sweep in abundant moisture. Kauai gets more rain but only about a quarter as many visitors per year as Oahu, yet it may be the island we all know best, thanks to its perfect waterfalls and lush mountains. Hollywood can't get enough of this backdrop, from White Heat in 1934, all the way through Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the 1976 remake of King Kong. If you want to star in your own gorgeous tropical idyll, pack for Kauai.
Papeete, French Polynesia
Although all of French Polynesia is sometimes referred to as Tahiti, Tahiti proper is only one island, ringed by a reef that turns the water shades of blue even sapphires can’t come near. Rivers flow down from its high peaks, and every night, the sun goes down behind the neighboring island of Moorea, outlining the mountains like a laser show. Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is a bustling business and government center, with black pearl shops on almost every corner. As you move into the countryside, time starts to slip and it’s just the changeless ocean and the almost unchanged forests.