Gentle waves lap at the powdery white sand surrounding your lounge chair. Just beyond the dark patches of reef, a hundred yards off shore, a pod of dolphins passes unhurried and a humpback whale breaches, sending a mist of crystalline tropical water skyward with its breath. A waiter in a linen shirt and sunglasses hands […]

Gentle waves lap at the powdery white sand surrounding your lounge chair. Just beyond the dark patches of reef, a hundred yards off shore, a pod of dolphins passes unhurried and a humpback whale breaches, sending a mist of crystalline tropical water skyward with its breath. A waiter in a linen shirt and sunglasses hands you a coconut with the top chopped off. It has slices of citrus, cherries and an umbrella marinating in a blend of fresh fruit juice and rum. You take a pull off your drink and breathe out the last bit of stress from your perfectly tanned body. In the background, Don Ho sings over the sensuous weeping of a pedal steel guitar. But wait … that’s not a steel guitar; it’s your alarm clock. And that’s definitely not Don Ho, it’s your spouse warning that you’ll be late. It’s time to get up in the dark, freeze your butt off while your cranky car warms up in creeping traffic, and sit under fluorescent lights drinking stale coffee until you can head back home and shovel. But there’s hope. That place in your dream, it’s called Maui, and you can go there.

It’s not the shortest flight (about 10 hours), and it’s a long way to go to still be in the United States. And truth be told, Maui is only slightly more exotic, culturally speaking, than, say, Peoria. The whole aloha, hula and flower necklace thing feels a little packaged these days, and certainly less sincere than it was a hundred years ago. But few places on earth are as naturally magnificent as this 728-square-mile masterpiece of volcanic activity. And for that reason Maui is well worth the trip. Oh yeah, and its average winter daytime temperature is around 80 degrees.

Lodging choices are numerous around Maui, but you can’t go wrong with one of the resorts in Wailea. The area features six high-end hotels perched on five separate crescent white-sand beaches. Wailea is sheltered by Mount Haleakala, so the winds are typically tame and rain is infrequent. During winter, migrating humpback whales can be seen from Wailea’s beaches, so no need to hop a crowded whale-viewing tourist boat or even put down your umbrella drink to take in these magnificent creatures. Indeed, it’s hard to not just let the days pass by on a Wailea beach. But there are plenty of amazing experiences to be had around the island.

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If you can handle getting up early on vacation, and we’re talking like 3 a.m., viewing the sunrise from atop the 10,023-foot Haleakala volcano (Maui’s highest point) is said to be one of the most beautiful experiences you can have with your clothes on. And lots of clothes are recommended, as it gets Wisconsin-cold up there. Clouds tend to form around the summit during the day, potentially dropping visibility to hand-in-front-of-face levels, so your best shot at a panoramic view of the island and Haleakala National Park’s Mars-like terrain is dawn. The park is also an amazing place to hike. Choose from a short quarter-mile summit hike, several longer day-trails, or spend a couple of days hiking between wilderness cabins. For a thrilling descent, take a 38-mile bike tour from the summit down to the base (mauidownhill.com).

For lunch or dinner on your way back from Haleakala, don’t miss the award-winning Hali’imaile General Store. Besides serving some of the best food on the island, this little high-country gem also mixes a mean mai tai. The menu brilliantly combines regional American cuisine (particularly Southwestern) with Asian flourishes.

Another excursion that’s well worth ungluing your grass-skirted behind from your lounge chair is driving the road to Hana. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful drives, it takes you to a place that’s become synonymous with paradise in countless movies and glossy magazine ads. En route you’ll pass famous surfing spots, hundreds of waterfalls (many with great swimming holes beneath), and idyllic beaches of black, white and red sand. (Clothing is optional at the red beach, so bring plenty of sunscreen in case the mood strikes). Don’t miss Wai’anapanapa State Park, where hardened ancient lava flows have created dramatic formations, including a freshwater cave you can actually swim through.

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Part of Haleakala National Park, known as ’Ohe’o Gulch, also reaches the Hana coast and offers an amazing hike through a bamboo forest to Maui’s highest waterfall: 400-foot Waimoku Falls. Driving the Hana coast without stops will take up most of your day, so if you want to shave time off, elect for a helicopter tour of Hana (several companies run them; just ask your hotel for a list). The best way to go about it, however, is to take your time and let impulse guide you to the area’s many treasures.

Of course, Maui is geographically magnificent, but some of its greatest splendor is underwater. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular, and for good reason. The reefs are teeming with tropical fish, and the Hawaiian waters are home to healthy populations of big pelagic creatures as well: whales, dolphins, sharks and manta rays. Great snorkeling can be found right off Wailea’s beaches, but the best spot for underwater action is a short boat ride away at a half-sunken volcano called Molokini. For a great half-day snorkeling trip, book with Trilogy Excursions, which runs big catamaran sailboats to Molokini. Breakfast and lunch are served on board and the crew will be happy to ice down any beverages of the alcoholic kind if you choose to bring them.

If you’re looking for exotic culture, consider somewhere besides Hawaii for your vacation. But if you want to experience some of the most spectacular and varied land and seascapes in the world, it’s hard to find a more dreamlike place than Maui.

Recommended Wailea Resorts: Grand Wailea Resort Hotel and Spa (800-888-6100; grandwailea.com), Fairmont Kea Lani Resort (800-257-7544; Fairmont.com/kealani), Four Seasons Maui (808-874-8000; fourseasons.com/maui).

 

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