When it comes to beachy vacations, I can be hard to impress. It’s not my fault, really. I grew up on the water, spent summers working as a lifeguard, and am lucky enough to live in the “Ocean State”, with the ability to go swimming, boating and kayaking whenever I want.  I’ve been all over the Caribbean, Mexico, and Florida and the thought of just chilling on a beach on vacation really doesn’t excite me anymore. While I send lots of clients to tropical destinations every year, my own personal vacations have tended to be in Europe.

For these (misguided) reasons, and because of the long flights from the East Coast, I had never visited Hawaii. Fortunately, that changed last month, when I was invited to attend the Hawaii Travel Exchange.  Along with about 70 other hand-picked travel agents from across the country, I was invited to come to Maui and Kauai, to tour hotels, meet with local hospitality professionals, and – most importantly – sample the tours and activities that bring travelers back to these islands year after year.

Hawaii beach

I stayed in some gorgeous hotels, I ate some amazing meals, I snorkeled with sea turtles, I sailed along the untamed Napali Coast, I kayaked down a river where they filmed “Indiana Jones” movies, I took in the jaw-dropping beauty of Waimea Canyon,  I learned to make a mean Mai Tai, I drove a golf cart through a rain shower and under a rainbow, I watched an albatross guard his nest, I photographed a monk seal catching her breath on a beach of lava rocks, I sampled Hawaiian shave ice for the first time, I saw dolphins and whales, and the one thing I did NOT do, was to lay in a lounge chair on a beach.  After a week in Hawaii, all I can say is that I am hooked. I can’t wait to go back!

Hawaii sailing

Yes, the flights are very long. And, yes, the time difference knocked me out for the first day. But for three very important reasons, Hawaii has cemented a place at the top of my favorites list.

Natural beauty – It’s hard to compete with the manicured beauty of Maui, with its golf courses, beachfront promenades and views over Molokai, but the unspoiled scenery in Kauai is even more impressive. Soaring mountains, lush green rainforest, tumbling waterfalls, and private little stretches of beach. I loved both islands, but now I really need to see the crashing waves on the north shore of Oahu and the volcanic landscapes on Hawaii Island.

Hawaii Princeville

Aloha spirit – Every person we encountered, from the bus driver who lulled us with folk stories about the Menehune and the Hawaiian goddess Pele, to the musician who taught us a mini-lesson on how to play the ukulele, absolutely loved his/her island. They wanted nothing more than to share that love with us, and to teach us about their culture. You can’t help but enjoy a place where the people are so genuinely glad to host visitors. (Are you listening, Parisians?)

Courtyard Coconut Beach sunrise

Ease – Maybe I’m getting old, but I feel like I’ve done my share of navigating strange countries, figuring out foreign money, and deciphering signs in Spanish, French, Italian or Icelandic (try that some time!)  Hawaii is the good old USA. No passport needed. No worries about driving on the wrong side of the road. And no need to convert money (or electricity). The islands feel familiar, and yet exotic at the same time, and it’s a combination that really works.

Sunrise

I’m generally not a person who wants to re-visit the same places more than once (with the exception of Italy, but I think that’s totally justifiable) – so it definitely says something that I’m already struggling with how and when to get back to Hawaii. Should I take my college-aged kids this summer, and let them enjoy adrenaline-fueled activities like ziplining, surfing, and helicopter tours? Or should I hold off for another year or two and go back with just my husband, for a romantic 25th anniversary “escape”?

Maybe both!

Hawaii selfie