At the height of winter on the snowy mainland, the sunny, green images of Hawaii appear similar from one island to the next.
It's not until you visit the islands of Hawaii that you realize the differences in each island's ecology and atmosphere. Perhaps the only consistent, the four largest islands remain a golfer's paradise for residents and vacationers alike.
Chances are, you can't visit each island on your Hawaii golf vacation, so here's a guide to the four main islands to determine which slice of paradise is right for you:
If you're after excitement on your Hawaii golf trip, Oahu is the easy choice. Not only does this most populous island include more golf courses than any other Hawaiian island with nearly 40, it's also home to a bustling, diverse city and one of the world's greatest beaches, Waikiki. Honolulu offers a nightlife scene that can't be matched elsewhere in Hawaii, where late-night options are often limited.
Oahu golf is more affordable than at the resorts and golf courses of the other islands, with a number of quality municipal and daily fee facilities.
One of many examples of above-average public golf on the island is Ko Olina Golf Club. Royal Kunia Golf Club includes a lot of fun holes, plus great views of Pearl Harbor and Honolulu. Ewa Beach Golf Club is a championship test that offers some of the most lush conditions in the world. And Hawaii Prince Golf Club, tied into the Hawaii Prince Resort near Waikiki Beach, features 27 holes of windswept fun.
The island also includes several good military golf courses, notably the outstanding Navy-Marine Course. Players must display a military ID or come as a guest of a serviceman.
Oahu has good resort golf, too. Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore ranks with the best. The resort itself is set against one of the great surfing spots in the world, where giant winter waves beckon the sport's best.
Kauai includes the fewest golf courses of Hawaii's four most trafficked islands. But pound for pound, no island does it better.
Five of Golf Magazine's top 20 golf courses in Hawaii are on Kauai, thanks, in part, to the jungle and lush setting on most spots on the Garden Isle.
Kauai's golf courses have turned proactive in the past few years with renovations and upgrades. Poipu Bay, the former host of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, reopened with paspalum greens in December 2010. Kauai Lagoons closed nine of its 36 holes but is working to improve the existing Jack Nicklaus-designed 27-hole product. The most dramatic improvement is at the oceanfront Makai Golf Club at St. Regis Princeville, which closed the golf course for more than a year to completely reseed and enhance the design, now placing it in the conversation among Hawaii's best.
Even accompanying resorts like the Marriott Kauai Lagoons and Grand Hyatt have stepped up their games. The Princeville Resort underwent the biggest overhaul, opening in 2009 as a St. Regis property, the most luxurious of the Starwood brands. Perched atop the Garden Isle, it overlooks Bali Hai.
Maui does resort golf like no other Hawaiian Island. It's also the island that welcomes the pro legends more than any other. Maui hosts the PGA Tour's Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, as well as the Wendy's Champions Skins Game, which brings in the game's greats of past generations each winter.
Maui is a little larger and more populated than Kauai, though you're always within a drive of an hour of just about every golf course on the island, from Ka'anapali to the west or Wailea in the south. It's easy to get around, with abundant dining and lodging options.
The island boasts picture-perfect, wonderfully conditioned resort options on the south and west coasts. Some spots, like three-golf course Wailea Golf Club in south Maui, are known as the calmest among the islands. And mere minutes from the more exposed Kapalua sit Ka'anapali's two sunny, picturesque layouts that overlook the nearby island of Lanai.
Hawaii's most high-profile play may be Kapalua's Plantation course in the northwest. But one of Hawaii's most exclusive golf experiences can be had with member-for-a-day offer at King Kamehameha golf Club. It's an exclusive service- and amenity-oriented club with one of golf's most remarkable clubhouses, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Off-course activities on Maui come as fast or slow paced as you wish. Snorkel coral reefs or surf a wave. And the Mt. Haleakala Sunrise Bike Tour is a must for any vacationer.
The newest of the chain of Hawaiian islands, the Big Island is the most striking of all of the golf settings, too, as active volcanoes spew lava into the sea, creating new land.
The Big Island features 11 of the world's 13 climate zones, making it an ecologist's dream. Mauna Kea, at 14,000 feet, is even snow-capped in the winter. This new and changing environment produces black lava fields set against the deep, blue Pacific Ocean and the vibrant green grass of golf courses.
In all, some 20 golf courses reside on the Big Island, with the majority on the Kohala Coast, the drier side of the island that gets just a few inches of rain each yea. By comparison, Hilo receives more than 300 inches annually.
The island's top resorts wind along the sea along the Kohala Coast, featuring a mix of seaside and mountain golf courses like Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani and Waikoloa Beach. Kona Country Club even offers a choice between ocean and mountain layouts.
Chances are, you've seen pictures of a hole from the Big Island. Perhaps it's Mauna Kea's signature, par-3, 272-yard 3rd hole -- or the par-3 15th at Mauna Lani, both playing over black rocks and crashing waves.
Spectacular as they may appear, images do no justice to the feeling of standing at the tee.
Mike Bailey contributed to this article.
January 10, 2011