Since the Polynesians ventured across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 years ago, these floating jewels have continued to call visitors from around the globe.

Located in one of the most remote and isolated places on the planet, the islands bask in the warm waters of the Pacific, where they are blessed by a tropical sun and cooled by gentle year-round trade winds -- creating what might be the most ideal climate imaginable. Centuries of the indigenous Hawaiian culture have given the people of the islands the "spirit of aloha," a warm, welcoming attitude that invites visitors to come and share this exotic paradise. Mother Nature has carved out verdant valleys, hung brilliant rainbows in the sky, and trimmed the islands with sandy beaches in a spectrum of colors, from white to black to even green and red.

Visitors are drawn to Hawaii not only for its incredible beauty, but also for its opportunities for adventure: bicycling down a 10,000-foot dormant volcano, swimming in a sea of rainbow-colored fish, hiking into a rainforest, or watching whales leap out of the ocean as you tee off on one of the country's top golf courses. Others come to rest and relax in a land where the pace of life moves at a slower rate and the sun's rays soothe and allow both body and mind to regenerate and recharge.

Venturing to Hawaii is not your run-of-the-mill vacation, but rather an experience in the senses that will remain with you, locked into your memory, long after your tan fades. Years later, a sweet smell, the warmth of the sun on your body, or the sound of the wind through the trees will take you back to the time you spent in the Hawaiian Islands.

The Welcoming Lei

Nothing makes you feel more welcome than a lei. The tropical beauty of the delicate garland, the deliciously sweet fragrance of the blossoms, the sensual way the flowers curl softly around your neck -- there's no doubt about it: Getting "lei'd" in Hawaii is a sensuous experience.

Leis are much more than just a decorative necklace of flowers -- they're also one of the nicest ways to say "hello," "goodbye," "congratulations," "I salute you," "my sympathies are with you," or "I love you."

During ancient times, leis given to alii (royalty) were accompanied by a bow, since it was kapu (forbidden) for a commoner to raise his arms higher than the king's head. The presentation of a kiss with a lei didn't come about until World War II; it's generally attributed to an entertainer who kissed an officer on a dare and then quickly presented him with her lei, saying it was an old Hawaiian custom. It wasn't then, but it sure caught on fast.

Lei-making is a tropical art form. All leis are fashioned by hand in a variety of traditional patterns; some are sewn with hundreds of tiny blooms or shells, or bits of ferns and leaves. Some are twisted, some braided, some strung. Every island has its own special flower lei -- the lei of the land, so to speak. On Oahu, the choice is ilima, a small orange flower. Big Islanders prefer the lehua, a large, delicate red puff. On Maui, it's the lokelani, a small rose; on Kauai, it's the mokihana, a fragrant green vine and berry; on Molokai, it's the kukui, the white blossom of a candlenut tree; and on Lanai, it's the kaunaoa, a bright yellow moss. Residents of Niihau use the island's abundant seashells to make leis that were once prized by royalty and are now worth a small fortune.

Leis are available at all of the islands' airports, from florists, and even at supermarkets. You can find wonderful inexpensive leis at the half-dozen lei shops on Maunakea Street in Honolulu's Chinatown, and at Castillo Orchids tel. 808/329-6070; 73-4310 Laui St., off Kaimiminani Drive in the Kona Palisades subdivision, across from the Kona Airport on the Big Island. If you plan ahead, you can also arrange to have a lei-greeter meet you as you deplane; Greeters of Hawaii (; tel. 800/366-8559 or 808/836-3246) serves the Honolulu (Oahu), Kona (Big Island), Kahului (Maui), and Lihue (Kauai) airports.

Leis are the perfect symbol for the islands: They're given in the moment, and their fragrance and beauty are enjoyed in the moment, but even after they fade, their spirit of aloha lives on. Welcome to Hawaii!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.