HONOLULU, HAWAII — Even people who have never been blessed with a trip to Hawaii are convinced they know it well.
It lives in our subconscious, a collage of movie images, music and the promise of pineapple more fresh and waves more magnificent than any other spot on Earth. It's a miasma of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, taut-bodied surfers and palm trees keeping time to the cooling breezes.
But there isn't just one Hawaii.
The islands all have their character and charms, their own pace and self-definition. A drive around Kaua'i can't be compared to three hours wandering Honolulu. You can't say lunch off a shrimp truck is better or worse than a meal at a luxury hotel. They're different, and that where the discovery begins.
Most tourists think of Honolulu when they consider a trip to the island chain. In many ways, it's the Vegas of Hawaii. Anything you could want to buy is available. High-priced luxury stores line the main road, interspersed with the ubiquitous ABC chain that will sell you expensive sunblock, souvenir towels and any key chain you could want.
This is the Hawaii featured on Hawaii Five-O, where tourists and locals fill the beaches. Young, impossibly fit surfers spend hours on the waves. Visitors snap their pictures. This is part of the backstory of Hawaii, a cliché come to life. It isn't any less magical because it's anticipated. At night, sun-soaked tourists gather to watch the sun melt into the ocean.
For a good night's sleep that won't break the bank, try Hotel Renew (www.hotelrenew.com). It's a couple of easy blocks from the main strip, a casual retrofitted old building with a quiet breakfast nook.
When you're ready to leave the bustle, book a trip with a local outfitter. Twogood Kayaks (www.twogoodkayaks.com) offers guided tours. These are not for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. If you're fit, it's a great way to get some exercise. If you're not, you'll quickly understand the shame in having to be towed behind the guide.
Trust me: it was embarrassing.
For a classic outing, climb Diamond Head trail. You'll need a couple of hours and plenty of water. This is not an activity if you're after solitude as half the mainland is clambering up the volcano at any given point.
For more soft adventure (and possible humiliation) try stand-up paddle surfing (see sidebar). Instructor Joanne Howard has been working on Waikiki beach for seven years and is resolutely patient.
It would be a stretch to call outrigger canoe surfing (www.waikikibeachservices.com) physical activity but it's fun. Four fit men paddle you out past where the surfs breaks, turn you around and paddle back in. Yes, you are a tourist.
Another soft adventure is a wildlife cruise (www.sailhawaii.com) with the chance to slip on a snorkel and check out the action under the sea.
For a complete change of pace, visit Kaua'i, the oldest and arguably the most beautiful of the island chain. Its nickname is the Garden Island and the emerald of the rainforest and surrounding vegetation are breathtaking. You'll need a car and a sense of adventure. Just drive for a couple of hours, stop in small towns and feel the pressures of life wash away.
For an absolutely exceptional view of the island, book onto a half-day sail and snorkel tour (www.kauaiseatour.com). The catamaran cuts through the waves, pausing when sea turtles circle the boat or dolphins jump and flirt. This is antithesis of tourist as consumer. There are no dolphin key chains, just the rugged shore, the caress of warm water and skies that stretch on forever. If you're prone to seasickness, pack Gravol. The majority of people on-board were fine.
The Sheraton Kaua'i (www.sheraton-kauai.com) is a lovely, large resort. It's all very managed, with any minor problems immediately corrected.
Next up is the Big Island of Hawaii, an aptly named land mass that will appeal to travellers who want space, natural beauty and awe-inspiring vistas. You can fly into either Hilo or Kona, north of Kailua-Kona. Unless you want to park yourself at a resort for your entire stay, a car is essential.
Pack solid shoes and walking shorts for this island. You'll be spending a great deal of your time hiking and adventuring. In Hilo, begin with a twilight volcano adventure (www.hawaii-forest.com). They cater to guests with varied athletic abilities. If you're a plodder, you won't be left behind. It includes a driving tour of Volcanoes National Park, where the solid waves of lava look like overcooked brownies. You can walk around, carefully, because volcanic rock can shred flesh.
Star-gazing is huge on Hawaii so this is the natural location for the Imiloa Astronomy Center (www.imiloahawaii.org). The planetarium is attempting to bring back the Hawaiian culture and language, honouring the traditional Hawaiian navigators.
Perhaps the best experience in Hilo is the farmer's market (see sidebar). If happiness has an address it is here.
On the Kona side, things are even more relaxed. Kailua Village is a great mix of history, bars, restaurants and, yes, ABC stores. Sam's Hideaway is a dark smoke-filled smelly place with three TVs showing sporting events. It's a good place for a quiet beer.
For a more traditional tourist experience, book onto Atlantis Submarines (www.atalantisadventures.com).
The highlight of Kona is the manta ray snorkel (see sidebar).
There weren't any hula dancers, luaus or leis on this trip. There could have been. Hawaiians are happy to fulfil your stereotypes. But they're happier still to share the beauty and the bounty of their islands.