These heavenly islands send a siren call across the Pacific Ocean to visitors around the world. Trade winds blow the rain away year-round and the volcanic mountains covered in lush vegetation create varied microclimates; many-vowelled place names trip up the tongues of mainlanders; outdoor living is the norm; and the sunsets are what clichés are made of.

There is, of course, a modern Hawaii to discover beyond the hibiscus and mai tais, one with modern problems, but the natural beauty and out-of-this-world locations are what pull millions of visitors a year to these beautiful isles.

What is it known for?
Leis and luaus, primordial film sets for Jurassic Park and Lost, fair winds and fair weather, Hawaii wears its "paradise found" label proudly. The current American president, Barack Obama, spends his holidays here, as the first president to come from the 50th state in the union. His multicultural and bi-racial background is a common story in Hawaii, where the Polynesian, Asian, European and American waves of settlement have created a singular culture. "I wouldn't want to raise my kids anywhere else," said Sheree Stewart, a real estate attorney who lives on Oahu with her husband and two children. "You can never tell what race anyone is, and people are from all over, so you grow up learning about everyone's culture and ethnicity."

So many things here are of the superlative sort: the best surfing, the best hiking, the best volcano peeking, the best whale watching. The islands all have different personalities, each with its own soul, from the black sand beaches of the Big Island to the limpid Pool of Oheo on Maui.

Where do you want to live?
The first step of any vacation or second-home buyer is to choose the island that is right for you. "Each island offers such different lifestyles," explained Jeffrey M Fox, broker-owner of Kahala Associates in Oahu. "Oahu means 'the gathering place' and is the core of Hawaii." In fact the other islands used to be called the "outer islands", but are now known as the "neighbouring islands". Honolulu is the urban core with the culture, restaurants, shopping and so on. Nearby Waikiki, on the south side of Honolulu, is the number one resort area with many condos, beaches, hotels and restaurants. "I tell my buyers Waikiki is the best investment because all three types of buyers come here: the owner-occupant, second-home buyer and investor who wants to rent," said Fox.

Kailua is more upscale (and where President Obama stays), especially on the windward side of the island, where oceanfront homes start at around $3.5 million. Buyer beware: "oceanfront" is not the same as "beachfront". Diamond Head and Kahala are the Beverly Hills and Brentwood of Hawaii, and are especially in demand from second-home buyers from the west coast and California. Oceanfront starts at $7.5 million and goes into the double digits. "There are three vacant lots on Kahala Avenue currently on sale for $45 million," said Fox. However, the flat land and lack of trade winds mean it gets much hotter than more established, older neighbourhoods like Manoa.

The other two islands that are the most popular for second-home buyers are Maui and Kauai. Maui is especially popular with Californians and sales there mirror southern California in volume and prices. "Maui is different because you can see the other islands from there," said Tobi Fisher, director of sales for Hawaii Life Real Estate in Maui. Many look to Wailea on the south shore where the Four Seasons is and where many celebrities own. Entry level is about $1.7 million for a single-family, oceanfront house in a gated community.

On the west side of the island Kanapali and the town of Lahaina is the most popular spot to buy, as well as one of the most popular vacation spots because of the harbour, great snorkeling and nightlife along Front Street in the old whaling village of Lahaina. "A two-bed oceanfront unit can go from $235,000 in Lahaina to $450,000 for a one bed in Kaanapali," explained Fisher.

Kauai is the westernmost island and has a more remote feel to it. Buyers who want to rent out their house when they are not there look in the Princeville resort area and Poipu Beach, where houses can start at $500,000. Those who want their houses to themselves may look in resort areas as well, but also in secluded areas north of Hanalei Bay and near Kilauea in the island's north where estates can go for upwards of $10 million.

The Big Island has more development because it is the largest, so houses are more affordable there. Kona is the high-end spot, where billionaires flock to bake on the beach (and where Michael Dell, the CEO of Dell computers, just bought a triple lot). Lanai, which is actually part of Maui county, has two markets: high-end by the Four Seasons Manele Bay, and affordable up near the Four Seasons lodge, where a 900-sq-foot plantation house goes for $250,000, although reportedly sales are slow all over. Molokai is small and has a stagnant economy - the Sheraton on the island closed a few years ago.

Side trips
On Oahu, many people rent a house or go to the hotel for weekends on the North Shore, what Honolulu residents call "the country". "All the original shaved ice places are out there and the great burger and Mexican joints with long lines of people waiting out front," said Stewart. For a long weekend, people head to Kona on the Big Island or to Maui. You can hike anywhere, but real enthusiasts go to Kauai where the best and the most famous trails are.

Flights from Honolulu International Airport take roughly the same amount of time to go to Los Angeles as to Tokyo, about five and a half hours. Nonstop flights to New York are about 11 to 13 hours.

Practical info
The overall market in Hawaii is stable and on the rise. Oahu has suffered less than the other islands from the housing market freefall in the US, although there was a 10 to 15% drop in sale prices. Unlike the 1990s when the Japanese recession brought doom to the Hawaiian housing market, now there is a diversity in the buyer profile: mainly Canadians, Chinese and Californians.

Oahu has some built-in insulation, being the capital and business centre, so it has not seen the same foreclosures and short sales as the other islands. "The neighbour islands are truly for the second-, third-, and fourth-home buyer," explained Fox. "So they are the first to fall off in terms of sale prices and volume."

On Kauai, the economic downturn has had an effect. "Properties are priced a lot lower than they were in 2006 and 2007 at the height of the market," said Forman. On Maui, the market is up overall, pushed by the strong surge by Canadians this past winter. "Usually they don't go into debt, but come with cash and bargain," said Fisher. "But now I'm seeing them coming in with loans." There have also been a lot of enquiries from Chinese buyers.

Before you buy on any island, be sure to talk to your agent and get a feel for which island would fit your lifestyle. Do you want amenities? Culture? Just to lay on a white-sand beach? Or to hike and snorkel all day long? Wherever you land, you are sure to feel like most islanders do. "It's just such a privilege to live in a place like this," said Stewart.

Further reading
Honolulu Magazine: Features and reviews covering all the islands
Hawaii Luxury: The good life on Hawaii
Hawaiirama: Blog about goings on and going out
Honolulu Weekly: For the local scene, listings and events