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Which Hawaiian Island is Right for You?

Each island is different from the next, but what make each Hawaiian is the same: tales of lore and mystery, of a land fiercely fought for, of a culture richly preserved. Here's why Hawaii keeps pulling us back — and which island might be perfect for you.

KAUAI: The Garden Isle Stand Apart Because: It's still so rural. Feral chickens are all over (thousands escaped their coops during Hurricane Iniki in 1992). Kapaa is the most populous town, with 10,699 people. There are seven microclimates, including desert and plains, on a landmass one-third the size of Rhode Island. Why We Rise Early By midmorning the local fishermen have finished their work shift. The display cases at the fish markets (the ones at the back of the island's little grocery stores) are full of poke, or fresh cubed fish. A half-pint of the ahi will be lunch on the go for the drive up to Waimea Canyon. At a lookout halfway up, wild goats can be seen scrambling over sandy ridges and, presumably, down the other side. Even at 2,500 feet, roosters are strutting around the dramatic landscape. Nature is still the only major developer on Kauai. Overlooked Locals on Kauai claim to have Hawaii's best beaches. Polihale (right) and Barking Sands form the state's longest stretch of beach at 17 miles. A four-wheel-drive is needed to reach it at the end of a 5-mile dirt road.Shutterstock
LANAI: The Pineapple Island Stands Apart Because It's privately owned. Oracle's Larry Ellison bought 97 percent of Lanai from billionaire businessman David Murdock in 2012. It was home of the Dole pineapple plantation (the world's largest) until 1992. There are no traffic signals on its 140 square miles. Why We Rise Early It's a land largely without fences. There are 97,000 acres to explore as you please. The only restrictions: your Jeep's clearance and the width of its tires. Head north over the spine of the island, enjoying a rising sun bursting over Maui while driving switchbacks down to sea level where the pavement ends. Pass through ruins of the original settlement and continue to secluded spots like Lopa Beach, where locals go to get away. Overlooked Silky Polihua Beach is worth the long, rocky drive from Lanai City. Even more worthwhile is the view as the track passes through eerie rock formations in the Garden of the Gods. Drive back from the beach just before sunset as orange light spills across the alien orange landscape.Zach Stovall
MAUI: The Valley Isle Stands Apart Because: It offers a never-ending bucket list. There's more swimmable beach here than on any Hawaiian island. The crater of Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano, could hold Manhattan. 10,000 whales winter off Maui. Why We Rise Early By 5 a.m., a pilgrimage from sea level to 10,023 feet is in motion. Haleakala's summit attracts 1.3 million people annually. Most gaze into its crater at sunrise, but few realize there are cabins ($75 per night, fnp.org/wcr). By midmorning, whale-watching tours leave Lahaina and guarantee whales or you go again for free. For lunch, a 21⁄2-mile hike up the Waihee Ridge Trail eads to a picnic table in the clouds. Recover at Launiupoko Beach Park, where surfing is in fact as easy as it looks. Maybe tomorrow. Or not. It's just 4 p.m. ... Overlooked Ask locals what's unsung and they'll likely point offshore to the island of Lanai, part of Maui County and home to 3,100 people. The ferry takes an hour each way. Off Hulopoe Beach, a pod of dolphins welcomes snorkelers.Shutterstock
HAWAII: The Big Island Stands Apart Because: It looks and smells like a science project Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, one of the longest periods of volcanic activity on record. It's the Hawaiian island with two snowy mountains, and the only one with a 100-degree day (in 1931). Waimea, with its mist illuminated by a full moon, is among the few places on Earth where moonbows sometimes appear. Why We Rise Early Prepare for 24 hours of awe. Before dawn, from a boat, is the wild sight of lava running into the ocean near Hilo (seelava .com). The eyes open wider on a hike among steam vents at Volcanoes National Park (the nose senses a hot volcano too). Hard to believe a coat will be needed later near the top of Mauna Kea, where the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. That glow in the distance? It's the morning lava show. Time to wake up. Overlooked Because the island is so active from the inside out, its beaches appear to be from the underworld. There's black sand, white sand, and one, Papakolea on Hawai'i's southern tip, is among the world's rare green beaches.Shutterstock
OAHU: The Gathering Place Stands Apart Because: It's vintage Hawaii. More than 80 percent of the state's population lives on 10 percent of its land (the area around Honolulu and Waikiki). Ka'a'awa Valley has been the backdrop for more movies (such as Jurassic Park) and TV shows (Lost) than any Hawaiian locale. The latitude of the island is farther north than San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Mexico City. Why We Rise Early Before the tour buses start up in Waikiki, locals awaken with snorkel masks among the rock formations in Hanauma Bay. Dry of by 8 a.m. and drive north to the roadside stands near Laie — the only place on the island where ladies mix up otais, Tongan-influenced fruit smoothies — and to the beaches where big-wave surfing started. Overlooked The views up the Pali Highway are nearly as amazing as those on Kauai's Na Pali Coast, but they don't require a helicopter — a rented Volkswagen Beetle will do. Homesteads and claw-shaped cliffs go on and on (right), as if holding on to the Hawaii of the past. In fact, hand-scrawled yard signs say it best: "Keep the Country ... Country!"Shutterstock