Maui

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"Maui no ka oi" is what locals say—it's the best, the most, the top of the heap. To those who know Maui well, there are good reasons for the superlatives. The island's miles of perfect beaches, lush green valleys, historic villages, top-notch windsurfing and diving, stellar restaurants and resorts, and variety of cultural activities have made it an international favorite.

Maui is more than sandy beaches and palm trees: The natural bounty of this place is impressive. Puu Kukui, the 5,788-foot interior of the West Maui Mountains, also known as Mauna Kahalawai, is one of Earth's wettest spots—annual rainfall of 400 inches has sculpted the land into impassable gorges and razor-sharp ridges. On the opposite side of the island, the blistering lava fields at Ahihi-Kinau receive scant rain. Just above this desertlike landscape, paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) herd cattle on rolling, fertile ranchlands reminiscent of northern California. On the island's rugged east side is the lush, tropical Hawaii of travel posters.

Nature isn't all Maui has to offer: it's also home to a rich culture and stunning ethnic diversity. In small towns like Paia and Hana you can see remnants of the past mingling with modern-day life. Ancient heiau (Hawaiian stone platforms once used as places of worship) line busy roadways. Old coral and brick missionary homes now house broadcasting networks. The antique smokestacks of sugar mills tower above communities where the children blend English, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino, and more into one colourful language. Hawaii is a melting pot like no other. Visiting an eclectic mom-and-pop shop—such as Upcountry Makawao's Komoda Store & Bakery—can feel like stepping into another country, or back in time. The more you look here, the more you find.

At 729 square miles, Maui is the second-largest Hawaiian Island, but offers more miles of swimmable beaches than any of its neighbors. Despite rapid growth over the past few decades, the local population still totals only 155,000.