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From volcanoes to beaches, Maui is the ultimate escape

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If you've been to one of the Hawaiian islands and think you've seen it all, think again.

After I spent a week touring the Big Island in a red convertible, exploring every nook and cranny from its volcano park to Kona, I was humbled by a passing visitor.

"You've only scratched the surface," he said. "You have to see Maui, it's like another country."

The gentleman was correct. Maui is home to pristine beaches, the largest dormant volcano and the second highest waterfall in the United States. With a year of guaranteed 80-degree days, gentle breezes and deep blue water, Maui is heaven on earth.

If you were ever to splurge, this is the place to do it.

Maui's volcanoes

are natural wonders

If you want to appreciate Maui, the best place to start is with its rugged volcanoes. The Haleakala National Park is a natural wonder to behold. Put on your hiking shoes - the park has 27 miles of trails.

Hikers don't have to negotiate the full length of trails in one visit, though. There are several shorter path options. The Kuloa Point trail is a short loop that provides expansive vistas of the island without putting too much stress on your feet. This is a good trail to set up a picnic.

For a more extensive tour and gradual descent, take on the nine-mile Halemauu trail. You will be amazed as you hike down 1,400 feet to the valley floor. The Sliding Sands trail is basically the same, but its distance is four miles and the return trip is tough, with a steep ascent.

The most difficult hike is the four-mile Papwai trail, which winds its way through the rainforest up to base of the 400-foot Waimoku Falls. All of these hikes require preparation. There is no food, supplies or gas available in the Haleakala National Park.

Take it easy in Maui

After exploring Maui's natural geography, a great place to unwind is Wailea, on Maui's southwestern coast. The area is known for its many resorts. From the elegant Grand Wailea Resort to the Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort, you are guaranteed to be pampered the moment you check in.

The standout in the crowd is the Four Seasons Resort Maui. Its spa was recently named "Top Destination Spa" in the United States by Zagat Guide's 2007 survey of U.S. hotels, resorts and spas. The resort boasts 13 treatment rooms and suites, a Healing Garden and a vast fitness center.

Another unique spa offering is the resort's tapas-style spa treatment menu. At the pool, guests can order smaller sized versions of the spa's full treatments, including 20- to 40-minute head, neck, shoulder, scalp and foot massages. Each treatment includes cool, sliced cucumbers and chilled towels to cover the eyes.

Full spa treatments require advanced booking, while guests can sign up for tapas-style treatments on the spot.

Plentiful recreation

in Wailea

As in many Hawaiian resort areas, the usual recreational suspects can be found in Wailea, including golf. Three resort courses offer challenging terrain and stunning scenery.

The Wailea Gold Course is a par-72 course designed by Robert Trent Jones II. The 7,000-yard course is known as a "thinking player's" course. The Emerald Course features panoramic views of the island's mountains and clear waters.

At the lowest slopes of Mount Haleakala is the Wailea Blue Course. With wide fairways, the course snakes its way through much of Wailea. Nothing beats time on a golf course coupled with views of volcanic formations.

Adventurous recreation is available, for additional fees, through the Four Seasons resort. Snorkeling, surfing lessons, horseback riding, waterfall hikes, downhill biking and even helicopter tours are offered through the concierge desk.

More info

•Maui

www.visitmaui.com

•Haleakala National Park

www.haleakala.national-park.com

•Four Seasons Resort Maui

www.fourseasons.com/maui

Did you know?

•About 3,000 whales spend the winter in Maui waters. There are only 7,000 to 8000 humpback whales surviving today.

•Haleakala, originally part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was redesignated as a separate entity in 1961.

•Haleakala National Park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.

•The island's West Maui Mountains contain an extinct volcano. In the East Maui Mountains, a 10,023-foot dormant volcano is crowned by a landscape of lava rock.

•Some of Hawaii's most acclaimed restaurants - Ferraro's Bar e Ristorante, Spago Maui and Pacific Grill - are located in the Four Seasons Resort.

Sources: Visit Maui, Haleakala National Park, Four Season Resort Maui