by: AARON KEEFER - Editor Lindsay Keefer, her husband and her parents visited three islands in Hawaii last month. This photo was taken at sunrise from the place they stayed on the east coast of Kauai.The holiday season is a nightmare if you work in retail. That’s why my husband, who’s a store manager, tries to take vacation as soon as he’s able. That translates into a visit to Hawaii in January for us.

We have been to the islands before, but this time we stayed for nearly six days (a record for us!) and had the added perk of traveling with my parents, who live in Southern California, so I don’t see them too often. My dad is a pastor for our church and serves remote members, including a small group in Hawaii, so we met them on Oahu.

Oahu is by far the most populated island, with the sprawling city of Honolulu. Like most cities, there are scenes of incredible wealth but also of immense poverty: graffiti-covered shacks, run-down buildings and homeless camping on the beach. Driving through these neighborhoods to our hotel certainly gives one a reality check that, even in paradise, people fall on hard times.

Once we arrived at our hotel room, a suite on the 13th floor with a deck overlooking the ocean, it was easy to forget the reality of the nearby neighborhood. We lost count of the enormous sea turtles floating in the surf below and squinted to catch a glimpse of humpback whales and dolphins dancing in the waves along the horizon. Being on the west side of the island, the sunsets were magnificent. That first night, a Friday, my husband cooked for us and we ate on our deck while watching the sunset and listening to the roar of the AARON KEEFER - Even though Oahu is the most populated island, mostly-isolated beaches like this one can provide for peaceful moments of wading and whale watching.

Fortunately, we didn’t experience the wrath of the lightning storm we saw on the horizon when we woke up before dawn Sunday morning. We saw the beautiful bursts of light headed toward Kauai, which was also our destination that day, but we fortunately didn’t catch up to it.

Kauai is called the Garden Isle, and for good reason. It’s filled with jungles mixed with a volcanic red soil, making it a colorful place.

We hiked trails along the beaches, including the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail along Poipu Beach in the south and the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast to the north, which became a sweltering jungle of mud and slippery rocks after we were greeted with a downpour halfway through our trek. We didn’t traverse either trail in its entirety, but were able to take in lovely scenes and a little glimpse of local life. At Poipu, we passed a group of teens jumping of Shipwreck Rock into the ocean below, a popular local pastime. Even though we only hiked two miles into the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, it took a good chunk of the day, as we huffed and puffed up and down steep hills. But locals would pass us, walking barefoot with surfboards in tow to the two-mile mark (also our destination), where there’s a gorgeous beach.

Kauai, even though it’s a small island, has so much to do. There’s the largest coffee plantation in the U.S. that is free and offers free samples of different coffee roasts. There’s the Red Dirt Company, which is not only a clothing company with products made on U.S. soil but also with U.S. soil: the red volcanic dirt is mixed with white shirts to produce a unique, earthy style. We also visited Koloa Rum Company, a new company that took over when the island’s last sugar cane plantation was shutting down. We got a free 20-minute rum tasting, where they showed us how to make mai tais and gave us samples of rum cake.

If hikes and retail venues aren’t your thing, relaxing on the beach is very easy to do in Kauai as well. The place we stayed in Kauai was on the eastern shore, and it wasn’t very difficult to get up at sunrise, especially when you’re still on Pacific Standard Time, to greet the sun. Another morning, we headed to Anini Beach on the north shore. Anini Beach is your typical beach park, and its gentle waves make it ideal for snorkeling. What makes it unique, however, is that one section of the beach is the only place other than Ni’ihau, a privately owned island just west of Kauai, where you can find rare Ni’ihau shells. I guess you can’t technically call them Ni’ihau shells unless they wash up on Ni’ihau, but the real names of these tiny, rare shells are much harder to say: kahelelani, momi and laiki kamoa. We spent a large part of our last morning on Kauai hunting for these shells, collecting them in a bottle. Most of the ones we found probably weren’t of that rare kind, but we had fun and could still make a nice bracelet with the ones we found.

by: AARON KEEFER - A Maui beach overlooks the neighboring island of Molokai.Our return flight to Portland was out of Kahalui, Maui, so we flew to Maui Tuesday night. We watched the sunset from Lahaina, a cute, touristy town with shops, art galleries and an enormous 140-year-old banyan tree. We stayed the night in a rental house further inland and up the mountain. That helped as it took less time to reach the top of said mountain, Haleakala, where we watched the sun rise over the rest of the world. Hawaii is unique in that it has giant mountains where you can experience freezing temperatures, even in the middle of paradise.

From the whale watching to the local cuisine (two words: fish tacos) to simply sinking toes in the sand, Maui also gives weary travelers a sense of tranquility.

After visiting Hawaii, you are never the same. It’s never easy to just pick up where you left off. And what made it extra special this time? I completely forgot my smart phone at home. It was a bit frustrating when I wanted to take a picture or look at a map, but it also made me just forget about the outside world and live in the moment. So my suggestion to you for your next vacation, wherever you go: Leave the world behind, soak up the sun and live in the beauty of the moment.

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