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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am

Forget killer waves on every shore, chain restaurants and overcrowded beaches filled with the rich and beautiful, the islands of Hawaii are amazingly varied; their people are a blend of cultures, races and influences and the scenery can be the stuff of 1950s postcards. While some spots in Hawaii are well known to travellers, there are also great off-the-beaten-track locales to discover and enjoy.

Waikiki, a stone's throw from Oahu's Honolulu, is one of the best-known beaches in the world; synonymous with white sand, tiny bikinis and hordes of tourists. With its condominium blocks, flashy restaurants and idyllic setting, it is a great starting point to any Hawaiian tour.

Study the faces of passers-by as they stroll along the surprisingly uncrowded beachfront and they tell Hawaii's history - Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese and El Salvadorians have all come and settled in these beautiful isles. Rent a beach umbrella, knock back a couple of ice-creams and enjoy a bit of people-watching or get your photo taken with massive, tamed parrots; this is what you do in Waikiki.

A flight with Island Seaplane Tours, a company that does plenty of film work - Tears of the Sun, Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates and, of course, Pearl Harbor were all shot here - gives a good perspective of the island of Oahu. From thousands of feet up, Waikiki comes into view as a white border to a turquoise wonderland. The sea changes colour like a child's painting as the little plane swoops over millionaires' mansions, tourist boats and the odd breaching humpback whale. The island's interior consists of a lush, tropical landscape, interrupted only by cascading waterfalls and the remnants of airfields attacked by the Japanese assault that kick-started the Pacific chapter of the second world war. While coming in to land next to the Pearl Harbor airfield, sleek F-15 fighter jets can be seen screaming across Waikiki as tourists and locals gather for the daily extravaganza: the Oahu sunset.

As the ferry approaches in milky morning mist, Maui calls to mind James A. Michener's Bali Hai. A household name, Maui is famed for its surfing, sunbathing and golf - but without the crowds found in Waikiki. The blue sky is unobstructed by towering apartment buildings in Lahaina, a quaint, friendly town popular with visiting cruise ships. The small marina is always a hive of activity as tourists head out on charters for some whale-spotting.

The air is filled with the smell of bacon and eggs and the rich, local Kona coffee as passengers board a bus that will track the coastline of gentle surf and idyllic beaches on the way south to Wailea, 32km away. Wailea is all about relaxing on the balcony of your condo, traipsing down to tiny beaches, cold beer in hand, and, after the day has ended - sunset is a full-stop everywhere in Hawaii - heading to bars that play slow, romantic, country music, and locals who welcome visitors to the pool table.

Wailea's three world-class golf courses, blessed with a favourable microclimate and stunning views of Molokai island and the occasional passing humpback, draw visitors from around the globe. This is the land of resort golf; tee-off times come at two-minute intervals and 18 holes can be completed before lunch, allowing players to enjoy the rest of the day with their family.

The first thing you notice about Molokai is how undeveloped it is; side roads remain unpaved, clawing their way up into the mountains, and everything has a thick, lush overgrown tropical feel.

In an ancient-looking corral, mules breathe out thick plumes of steam - it's early and they are ready to trek down the sheer cliff faces to the former leper colony at Kalaupapa. The Molokai Mule Ride is a unique experience; a harrowing descent of the planet's highest sea-cliff face, negotiating a steep track with many desperate switchbacks and awe-inspiring views.

For its afflicted, Kalaupapa must have been a desolate place. The colony is situated on the Makanalua Peninsula, a wedge of flat land flanked on three sides by immense cliffs and pounding surf. Even at the top, about 500 metres above the sea, you can hear the crashing of waves onto the only beach in Hawaii where it is illegal to surf - due to the dangerous undertow.

In 1866, this isolated area was chosen by the king as a place to quarantine sufferers of Hansen's disease, otherwise known as leprosy. Patients were given their marching orders in the form of a governmental letter, sometimes with no time to say goodbye to their loved ones, and were dropped into the sea to wade ashore, where they had to fend for themselves. Their numbers had risen to more than 1,800 by 1917 and many died of pneumonia rather than leprosy, due to the squalid conditions and despite the help of a team of carers headed by Belgian priest Father Damien, who would contract and die from the disease. About 30 survivors - including Richard Marks, who runs tours of the tiny township - remain in what is Hawaii's smallest county.

In the tiny museum, black and white photos show the houses, markets and even Japanese and Chinese temples of a bygone era. Outside are the remnants, nearly obscured by tall grass, of a hospital that burned to the ground because there was no fire-fighting equipment with which to save it.

'You should understand this is still a restricted area,' says Marks, as if the massive, official-looking signs on the mule track are not enough to send the weak-kneed home. Driving in a battered bus through the former colony, there is little sign of the other residents, who prefer to remain out of sight indoors.

Back at the mule corral, the sky erupts with deafening thunder. Mist swallows up the township far below and stiff riders retire to the open-air bar at the Hotel Molokai. Sprawled on an ancient deck chair, a cocktail in hand, it's tempting to believe one has experienced the real Hawaii.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies to Los Angeles every day, from where you can connect with a Hawaiian Airlines (www.hawaiianair.com) flight to Honolulu.