When Waikiki bartender Harry Yee concocted a sinfully delightful libation known as the Tropical Itch in 1957, little did he imagine his recipe for cheer would create such a perennial stir. Half a century later, quaffing this colorful beverage has become a ritual among travelers hitting Hawaii to scratch their own tropical itch.
I can attest to Hawaii's subliminal manner of slipping under your skin. It begins with a warming of the heart and an elevated sense of excitement. Then there's a ravenous hunger for more, which intensifies with each new discovery. At any time, however, you may feel prone to simply relax on the beach and surrender to euphoria.
While sun, sand and surf are illustrious headliners, aloha spirit, rich history and diverse recreation will also steal the show. Linking the celebrated storylines are cultural festivals, world-class sporting competitions and culinary events drawing visitors year-round.
Those into surfing can catch Oahu's Vans Triple Crown in late November and early December. Marathoners make a run for it on Maui and Oahu, with 2009 seeing an inaugural 26.2-miler on Kauai. The NFL Pro Bowl kicks off on Oahu each February. And then there's golf: Etched within dramatic island landscapes are more than 80 courses, showcasing championship layouts designed and played by legends of the game.
Food enthusiasts relish a robust roster of temptations like the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, the Maui Onion Festival, Oahu's Seafood Festival, A Taste of Kauai and the Waikiki Spam Jam - an annual affair showcasing the canned oddity that's become a Hawaiian staple. You'll also find a festival honoring every ethnic group comprising Hawaii's melting pot, a rich diversity created by the sugar and pineapple industries.
No wonder this American paradise refuses to rest on its laurels. Hawaii continues to laud its storied past while embracing a vibrant present, and its future brims with as much promise as its beaches brim with grains of gorgeous sand.
Eclectic and lively, Oahu sets Hawaii's rhythm with a bit of each island in a single serving. On one hand, you'll find a chic urban resort thriving with new-wave cuisine, trendy nightlife and luxe accommodations. On the other, it's a nostalgic charmer with time-warp towns, lush rainforests, stellar surf beaches and rural roads lined with homegrown produce stands.
Aside from being the birthplace of President-elect Barack Obama, Oahu's big hoopla these days is the dramatic renaissance of Waikiki. Fatigued venues have been replaced with open-air, pedestrian-friendly plazas that seamlessly merge modern amenities with legendary icons.
Nothing exemplifies the revitalization more than the upbeat Waikiki Beach Walk(www.waikikibeachwalk.com), an ambitious $535 million transformation of a worn, congested area into a festive entertainment district. In addition to dozens of specialty retail and dining options, it's home to the refreshed Outrigger Reef on the Beach, OHANA Islander Waikiki, Embassy Suites, Wyndham Vacation Ownership and the Trump International Hotel & Tower (www.trumpwaikikihotel.co.jp) that's slated to open in August.
Also making waves is the Royal Hawaiian Center (www.royalhawaiiancenter.com), with a $115 million rejuvenation converting its former concrete courtyard into one of the largest green spaces in Waikiki. The center's lush Royal Grove is briskly becoming a centerpiece for gatherings, performances and complimentary enrichment classes.
Not to be eclipsed, hotels are on the same enhancement track. Paramount is the venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel, reopening this month as part of Starwood's Luxury Collection. The restoration has redefined The Pink Palace as a premier lu xury property with its Abhasa Spa and Tower within a Tower concept.
Other Waikiki hotels seeing revitalizations include Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Sheraton Waikiki, Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa, OHANA Waikiki Beachcomber and Halekulani Hotel. Spas are also generating quite a buzz, with a pair of newcomers opening at Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort, and Sheraton Waikiki.
Even downtown Honolulu is witnessing a revival with an intriguing collection of museums, galleries, edgy eateries, bustling Chinatown and significant historic landmarks. Cuban cafés and Eurasian hotspots tantalize the taste buds as an intriguing arts and cultural scene enlivens the mind.
While Waikiki presents a generous menu of ocean activities, Oahu's Windward and North shores share aquatic action local style. Accommodations are limited to sprawling Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore and JW Marriott Ihilani at Ko Olina Resort & Spa on the Leeward Coast - both cases where quality overcompensates for quantity.
Looking for adventure? You can safely dive among sharks with North Shore Shark Adventures(www.sharktourshawaii.com), learn to catch a wave from surf master Hans Hedeman(www.hhsurf.com) or snorkel the crystal-clear waters at Hanauma Bay. Paddle a kayak to the Mokulua Islands off happening Kailua Beach with Twogood Kayaks(www.twogoodkayaks.com) or sail with a dolphin escort from Ko Olina Marina(www.koolinamarina.com). On dry land, you can tour tobacco heiress Doris Duke's estate, Shangri La(www.shangrilahawaii.org), or navigate an ATV through scenic valleys atKualoa Ranch (www.kualoa.com).
My personal favorite, however, is motoring up the Windward Coast for lunch at the bright-yellow shrimp truck in Punaluu. I top it off with a shave ice in the quaint surf hamlet ofHaleiwa before heading to Mokuleia's Dillingham Field for a flight with Original Glider Rides (www.honolulusoaring.com). Soaring silently above Oahu's remote northwestern tip in a bubble-topped aircraft, this aerial adventure is packed with wow sensations from take-off to landing.