The Lahaina harbor in Maui.

I can’t stop thinking about Hawaii. I love visiting faraway islands on the other side of the globe, but there’s something to be said for America’s chunk of tropical paradise in the Pacific. Not only does everyone speak English, but you don’t have to change money and you can still go there even if you’ve forgotten to renew your passport.

As a guest of Destination Residences Hawaii, I recently stayed at their rentals on the island of Kauai and then moved to Maui for a couple days more. Normally, If I’m making my own travel arrangements, I just book a hotel on hotels.com and try to find the coolest place I can for a reasonable price. However, instead of my normal routine, I got to check out two Destination Residences properties and had completely different experiences than I’ve ever had.

The Lodge at Kukui’ ula.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

One of the reasons these vacation rentals are so popular is that there are a lot more options than you have with a hotel. Rather than being just an overnight guest, you become part of the community and have access to amenities like golf courses, spas, bicycle rentals, water sports, and other facilities. You're also likely to have a kitchen, dishwasher, and a washer and dryer, so you can feel like you’re right at home. Many guests are owners and spend a great portion of their time living at the property. It’s a great way to get that living like a local feeling. Each property is unique and there are all price levels so you can go full-on luxury or opt for someplace more economical.

My first couple of days found me at the upscale Lodge at Kukui’ ula located on the southern end of Kauai. There’s good reason Kauai is often called The Garden Island of Hawaii. It’s got drop-dead gorgeous views and is one of Hollywood’s favorite tropical filming locations. Kukui’ ula wasn’t anything like a hotel. It was a home. My place had a distinct island style with two large bedrooms, a great kitchen, generous common areas and a detached guest house. The retro claw bathtubs were cool. The showers were massive. But the best part? Outdoor shower areas with Hawaiian lava stones and total privacy.

The golf course was impossibly green and the cute little neighborhood looked like Leave it to Beaver meets Magnum PI. The lodge itself is a complex of restaurants, bar, pool, and public space with a gorgeous view of the sea and palm trees. The little snack nook had an endless supply of ice cream, candy, and other treats that seemed to be magically restocked every time I’d visit.

Making leis at Kukui’ Ula Shopping Center.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I’ve visited a lot of spas, but the one at Kukui’ ula was quite unusual. An assistant guided me through the experience as I alternated between hot showers, wet saunas, dry saunas, hot tubs, and every other permutation of water and steam. Nothing was left to chance as every toiletry item you could imagine was available. Blow dryers, cologne, lotions, hot towels and toothbrushes were meticulously arranged. Yes, I could get used to this place.

A few miles down the road is the Kukui’ ula shopping center, a project from the same development company, but the nucleus of the locals gathering to sell fresh fruits, leis, and listen to live music at any of the half-dozen bars and restaurants lined along the shopping area. I’ve never seen such a relaxed pace at any mall I’ve visited. It was as cool and calm as a Jack Johnson song. When I got back to the lodge, I had a tropical drink and watched the sunset. Life was good. Maybe I’d sleep in the other bedroom and change things up.

The amazing balcony view at Lahaina Shores Beach Resort.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

After a couple of days of being pampered, my next stop was Maui, where I checked into Lahaina Shores Beach Resort, the resort with a million-dollar view. Located right on the beach with the island of Lanai right outside my balcony window and a cruise ship moored in between, I couldn’t ask for better. The price tag was considerably lower than my Kauia resort (prices start around $200) but it still had a kitchen, a full-size fridge and everything else I needed if I'd planned on staying a while. Besides a great view, the location was right in Lahaina, where you can get anything from a steak at Mick Fleetwood’s restaurant to a cheeseburger from Jimmy Buffet.

drove around the entire island of Maui the next day. It was my first time to experience this beautiful island. I’ve heard so much about it, I expected there to be mobs of tourists. Although there’s usually more visitors than residents at any given time, I saw none of the crowds I was expecting. Hawaii has its own unique culture and laid-back vibe and even famous Front Street seemed relatively chill for such a popular destination. You can go whale watching (in season), parasailing, sport fishing, or take a ride in the Atlantis submarine.

I’ve visited the most beautiful places on the planet: Bora Bora, Bali, Seychelles, Maldives, and Rio. I must admit, I was halfway expecting to be disappointed with our 50th state. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I fell in love with Hawaii. It was everything I wanted it to be and more.

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