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For gay travelers, Hawaii is America's queerest state

HONOLULU -- Hawaiians boast a proud history, a line of mighty monarchs (some of whom openly had aikane or same-sex favorites), and an unshakable belief in the heartwarming concept of aloha, which signifies hello or goodbye but which also connotes love, peace, and compassion (among many other meanings).

The United States illegally overthrew and annexed the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii by the early 1900s. By 1959, Hawaii became our 50th state. Despite the historically tumultuous relationship between the islands and the mainland, Hawaii offers unconditional aloha to residents of the other 49 states, welcoming visitors year-round, according an especially warm special welcome to LGBT travelers who'll find gay and gay-friendly accommodations, restaurants, attractions and events dotting the eight primary islands of the group.

There are a lot of ways to enjoy Hawaii from the urbane (Honolulu has almost a million inhabitants) with a wide range of lodging options, a restaurant scene finally embracing the farm-to-table movement, and shopping rivaling Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive; to the adventurous and sporty (stand-up paddleboard, anyone?); to the remote, with off-the-grid slices of paradise just begging to be explored.

For a gay visitor we recommend spending a weekend in Honolulu, which has the only developed gay nightlife in the state, followed by a few days detoxing on the other side of Oahu or on one of the other major islands, like Kauai, Maui or the Big Island. A recent visit paired Oahu with Kauai.

Hawaii is the state of aloha

With the welcoming concept of aloha animating interactions, it's hard to find a hotel that isn't friendly to gays and lesbians.

That said, there are properties that are particularly accommodating to LGBT travelers. Among them the three Marriotts on Oahu and the one on Kauai have extended a sincere invitation to same-sex loving travelers, and you'll find plenty of us at every address.

The hip, upscale Aqua Hotels and Resorts with properties throughout the islands, also actively market to the LGBT travel segment, and you'll find other gay and lesbian guests at just about every one.

Oahu is the main destination

The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort is a particularly good choice not only for its airy rooms (most of which have great views of Diamond Head or the sea) and lanais (balconies), great restaurant and bar overlooking the beach, but for its stumbling-distance proximity to Hula's Bar as well as Queen's Surf, the official and appropriate name for the gay beach.

A more wallet-friendly choice is the surprisingly stylish Courtyard by Marriott, with its groovy lobby, vibrant and social pool area, chill room (with free massage chairs), and “honor” snack area.

Also in Waikiki, Hotel Renew hasn't specifically marketed to the LGBT segment, but it's a great option for travelers who like boutique hotels. Its luxurious version of hip style can be a tad pricey.

At the western end of the island, the JW Marriott Ihilani is a great choice for couples who want to escape but don’t feel like island hopping and a nice place to relax after a few nocturnal gay outings in Waikiki. The views, especially at sunset, are stunning. The hotel's Ushio-Tei restaurant offers delicious Japanese cuisine buffet style. The hotel's breakfast is one of the best on the island. Try warm coconut syrup on your macadamia and banana pancakes. Heaven!

The hotel's convenient to several attractions like Pearl Harbor, with the recently renovated battleship Missouri, site of the signing of the documents signifying the end of hostilities with Japan during World War II and the moving Arizona memorial atop the sunken eponymous battleship. Across the harbor, you can also spot the eerie pirate ship set used in the filming of “Pirates of the Caribbean IV.”

Hawaii is as beautiful beneath the waves as it is on land and at sea. Take full advantage of the warm waters with a snorkel tour. AquaZone Honu Snorkel Tour takes you out on a catamaran to visit the "cleaning stations" of the honu (giant green sea turtles), whose shells are picked clean by gorgeous and voracious purple and gold fish. Conveniently the honu are located just off shore, affording you stunning views of Waikiki and Diamond Head. Your $69-per-person excursion includes lunch, transportation, snorkeling equipment and a brief lesson.

Another option with a gay twist is the LGBT catamaran tour offered by Hula’s Bar on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Participants gather at Hula's, 134 Kapahulu Ave. in Honolulu, then walk together to the catamaran, creating an impromptu Gay Pride march every weekend. Nude sunbathing is permitted onboard, and inexpensive cocktails, wine, beer and soft drinks are served. All this for $20 per person. Call Hula's for more information at (808) 923-0669.

On the western shore, Ko Olina Cat Morning Snorkel, Sail and Dolphin Watch guarantees you'll see dolphins in addition to honu, the coral reef, and multihued tropical fish. If you don't spot dolphins, you'll receive a free voucher for another excursion within the next two years. The cost is $110 per person; a tasty continental breakfast is served; and alcoholic (and other) beverages are available for a nominal fee.

Hop onboard Hawaiian Airlines for the 35-minute flight to Kauai. Fear not: The flights are short, but the planes are big jets, not small puddle jumpers.

Kauai gets lush landscape from all the rain

It's so beautiful, quiet and lush, that even Hawaiians go to Kauai for their vacations. The "Garden Island" is over 550 square miles with only 64,000 inhabitants.

Its Mount Waialeale gets over 440 inches of rainfall per year, making it the world's wettest place. There are nearly 40 sand beaches, the most of any island in the state. The island's few highways can be crowded but there are many secluded spots, overgrown jungles and torrential waterfalls to be discovered.

You'll find many of these attractions during a visit to the Allerton Estate, once a retreat of Hawaii's Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV in the 1870s. She loved the deep-purple bougainvillea cascading down the cliffs of the Lawai Valley.

Speaking of queens, in the 1930s Robert Allerton and his lover John Gregg Allergon began to transform this 100-acre estate, spending 20 years transforming it into the lush paradise it is today. Visitors love the "Jurassic Park" trees (Moreton Bay figs), along with the rippling pools and huge range of tropical flora.

Next door, the National Tropical Botanical Gardens is one of the premier botanical gardens in the country, incorporating gardens and pools, as well as lovely statuary.

The Kauai Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach is where we made our base. It's super convenient to the airport, with a free hotel shuttle that takes about 10 minutes to make the one-way trip. The hotel, which underwent an extensive $50 million renovation recently, stretches along a beautiful inlet with beautiful homes dotting the surrounding cliffs, swaying palm trees framing every postcard view, and mist-shrouded mountains in the distance. There are nice options for dining on property, including Duke's, boasting gorgeous beach views and a waterfall feature in the restaurant.

Off property you may also check out 22 North, a restaurant offering gourmet takes on traditional Hawaiian fare, and proudly offering farm-to-table cuisine. Expect lots of fresh, flavorful ingredients. It's located in the Kilohana Plantation, formerly a private mansion, now a multi-use center with shops, restaurants, a scenic train ride, a luau and a fantastic new rum tasting room and company store.

Skip the ambling train (which straddles the boundary between informational and infomercial) and head to Koloa Rum, featuring award-winning rums, jams, cakes, and Mai Tai mixes, with an explanation of the proper way to drink Mai Tais. Hint: Toss that straw.

You must try at least one luau during your visit. Luckily, the Kilohana Plantation offers just that. The Luau Kalamaku is incredibly interesting, sensual and educational, complete with gorgeous female and male hula dancers (performing traditional and contemporary interpretations) telling the history of Hawaii through movement and music.

While the volcano goddess Pele reigns over the Big Island, you will be mesmerized by god-like men dancing with fire at this show. You can also watch the luau cooks dig up the (wrapped) pig that has been roasting emu style (with hot coals beneath the sand). Unfortunately, the buffet-style food isn't that tasty, so plan on dinner at 22 North and the show. Luaus are held Tuesdays and Fridays.

Hawaii is far from home but worth it

Hawaii is pretty amazing any time of the year. If you don't have children, it's best to avoid summers and school vacations when crowds are generally smaller, prices a bit lower, and well, there are fewer kids.

From the West Coast, visitors have many direct options on Hawaiian Airlines, including frequent service from San Diego.

From the East Coast or other points, with a few exceptions, you'll have to change planes somewhere. Recently, we flew JetBlue from its spiffy new terminal at JFK to Los Angeles, where we hopped on a convenient flight to Oahu on Hawaiian.

Still, from the East Coast, that's a lot of flying, with at least 11 hours in the air. Be sure to pack snacks, drink plenty of water and keep moving around. There is up to a six-hour time difference between Hawaii and the East Coast, so if you're trying to sneak in a little work, make sure you get up early enough to catch your colleagues back home. Best to just forget all that and immerse yourself in the most interesting state in the United States.

Scholars spend their lives studying the history, religion, unique sexual mores and architecture of the local people along with their prowess in navigation (they sailed from Tahiti to Hawaii in hand-dug canoes -- more than 1,000 miles -- a millennium before the invention of GPS), farming and fishing. One visit, and guaranteed you'll be hooked.

Marriott.com/gaytravel is designed to offer Marriott LGBT customers a changing variety of promotions and other offers to many gay-welcoming destinations and properties around the world.

Ed Salvato has been called “the world’s foremost expert in gay travel.” You might remember him as editor in chief of OUT & ABOUT and The Out Traveler. He also oversaw travel as senior online editor for Gay.com, PlanetOut.com and Advocate.com. He has logged over a million miles visiting countless destinations on six continents. Antarctica is next on his list. Reach him at Ed@EdSalvato.com.