Artists thrive among a community of freethinking peers, whereas nature creates its most flamboyant work in isolation. There are few finer examples than the Hawaiian Islands, a North Pacific archipelago so remote that species endemism thrived — a quarter of the fish here are found nowhere else. The coloring of many of these beauties seems inspired by acid flashbacks: The Potter’s angelfish, with electric-blue ribbons across a tangerine-colored body, is just one example.
As for the sites themselves, again, expect diversity. Perhaps Maui’s most famous site, Molokini Crater Preserve off the island’s southwest coast, delivers reliably awesome visibility. The exposed part of this caldera three miles offshore is rock, so there’s no dirt or sand to cloud the water clarity. Instead, it’s a picture-perfect backdrop for encounters with sleeping whitetip reef sharks and fields of wiggling garden eels.
Separated by the Auau Channel, Lanai and Molokai are known as “the Magic Isles,” and offer easily accessible diving. Lanai offers the stunning Cathedrals sites, and off Molokai’s east end, you’re nearly guaranteed hammerhead encounters.
Maui excels at bridging the gap between nature’s pristine rainforest and modern tourists’ demand for room service, spas and night life. Get dirty with an afternoon hike to waterfalls and towering bamboo forests, then return for pampering at your digs, be it a beachside villa or high-rise hotel. Name it and Maui’s got it: surfing, shopping, golf, beaches, biking, parasailing and, from December to April, spectacular whale-watching.
Wake around 3:30 a.m. for a sunrise hike of Haleakala Crater, an inactive volcano with a moonscapelike setting. Watching light sweep across the island from 10,000 feet up is surreal. Late risers can try a bike or horseback tour; or combine the two and start a bike tour at dawn from the summit. Haleakala Bike Company lets riders choose their own pace for the 20-mile descent, so they can stop at fruit and souvenir stands along the way.