The Hawaiian Islands lie some 2,400 miles off the coast of California, making them the most geographically isolated population center on Earth. The most heavily populated islands are Hawaii, Oahu, Kauai, and Maui, though 137 isles compose the state. West Coast dwellers vacation here for the islands' distinct personalities―from the worldly streets of Honolulu, Oahu, to the rugged roads of Hana, Maui. Yet each island shares a common theme: heart-stopping land- and seascapes.
Just south of the borders of Texas and California, Mexico offers a warm-weather retreat. The country's west coast features lauded resort towns such as Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Zihuatanejo. Baja California Sur, the southern half of the Mexican peninsula extending south from California, enjoys Pacific beaches on the west and the Gulf of California on the east. Cabo San Lucas, on Baja's southern tip, remains a popular place, but smaller seaside villages such as Todos Santos and East Cape have recently received favorable attention. The Caribbean side of Mexico claims spring break hot spot Cancun, though more desirable destinations, such as Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Akumal, sit farther south on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Caribbean islands arc around the Caribbean Sea. The Bahamas, an independent member of the British Commonwealth, hover in the Atlantic southeast of Florida, while the Cayman Islands and Jamaica lie south of Cuba. International destinations such as the Netherlands Antilles, British Virgin Islands, and French West Indies draw cosmopolitan crowds; the U.S. Virgin Islands appeal to those for whom U.S. soil is a prerequisite. The Grenadines remain a private playground for the rich and famous.
The tropics inspire adventure, from surfing the waves that stroke the Hawaiian islands to snorkeling the Caribbean's spectacular coral reefs.
Among the Hawaiian islands, nightlife and five-star restaurants keep city lovers happy on Oahu. Those seeking solitude may be better suited for the west side of Kauai, in Waimea. The Big Island claims some of Hawaii's most scenic, wide-open spaces, along with many charming communities, while Maui, popular with world travelers, also boasts livable, if expensive, seaside towns such as Lahaina and Kapalua.
Mexico welcomes snowbirds during winter months―the height of the Mexican travel season. Aside from the steamy days of summer, temperatures stay around 80 degrees and sunshine reigns. Though the west coast's surf can be a bit rough for swimming, the Caribbean shores welcome water lovers. Baja is home to deserts, mountains, semitropical and tropical regions, and miles of untouched coastline.
The Caribbean islands match every personality, from jet-setters who romp around Mustique to the Jimmy Buffett-loving crowd drinking piña coladas in the Caymans. Jamaica offers a variety of dining, shopping, and nightlife options, while Anguilla's serenity appeals to those who'll pay top dollar for privacy. Common to all the islands is the beauty of the beaches. Whether deep-sea fishing off St. Lucia or wind-surfing off Aruba, you'll find the waters hypnotizing.
Accessibility can be a problem. Small aircraft serve many islands, and flights tend to be expensive. Some islands are accessible only via ferry or private boat.
Transplants to Hawaii often confess to "rock fever," a homesickness for the mainland. Tsunamis are a threat, as are hurricanes, whose season lasts June through November.
Strict coastal land purchase restrictions and language barriers make property in Mexico―while often more affordable than property in Hawaii and the Caribbean―more of a challenge to buy.
The Caribbean islands are favorite stomping grounds for tropical storms and hurricanes. High building costs steer many people in the direction of previously owned homes or condos.
Architecturally, structures differ from Hawaii (where the hot buy is a historic plantation cottage) and the Caribbean islands (where utilitarian condominiums remain popular and affordable) to Mexico (where stucco-walled villas are all the rage). Purchasing land is an expensive option. Prices tend to be lower in less-developed areas. Buying a home in any tropical location is pricey, but it involves less hassle than construction. Developments throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii are becoming more popular with those who like the look of new, homogenous, gated communities. Resort developments attract the pamper-me set.
What It Costs:
Basic Hawaiian condominiums away from the water begin at around $250,000; oceanfront condos sometimes cost upward of $1 million. Single-family dwellings away from the water begin at $200,000 for small fixer-uppers and reach $20 million for top-shape real estate. Americans get a lot of bang for their buck in Mexico, where the dollar performs well against the peso and labor is less expensive. Condos range from $120,000 (Acapulco) to $400,000 (Cabo San Lucas or Cancun). In Baja's Todos Santos, oceanfront lots average $200,000, while property in Akumal, a resort community on the east coast, sells for closer to $300,000.
The cost of Caribbean apartments and condominiums varies island to island. In the Dominican Republic, they start at around $75,000. In more developed, or more exclusive, islands (say, Turks and Caicos), they begin at $200,000. Nice homes begin at $300,000 (for the Bahamas) and climb into the multimillion-dollar range, some topping $15 million.
Your Next-door Neighbors:
In Hawaii, you'll be in good company―perhaps Glenn Frey (of Eagles fame), Bette Midler, or a less famous surfer, quilter, masseuse, waiter, or painter.
Join the growing list of Hollywood celebrities who've headed south of the border and built dream homes. Their new Mexican neighbors range from politicians and teachers to those who keep the tourist trade alive.
The Caribbean's quirky cast of characters includes genial locals and those lucky enough to relocate here: doctors, writers, designers, singers, hotel managers, golfers. You might bump into Mick Jagger in Mustique, or reggae master Bankie Banx in Anguilla.
How You'd Spend Your Free Time:
People move to the tropics to soak up the sun, wade in the water, play golf, and sip frozen drinks. Whether you're snorkeling in the Caribbean, celebrating fiestas with fresh-picked limes for your margaritas in Mexico, or enjoying authentic Hawaiian luaus, you'll have no shortage of activities.