If you're keen on delving into Hawaiian culture and history, you'll do well with the Moon Handbooks' guide to the Big Island (which also includes a chapter on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). Moon offers an amazingly thorough look at this Polynesian island--from the arrival of the first settlers to Captain James Cook's landing, all the way up to Pearl Harbor and statehood in 1959. The body of the book discusses what to do and see, and where to stay and eat in the major tourist areas, including Kona (with its vast coffee plantations and palm-studded beaches), Hilo (with lush botanical gardens), and Puna (rich in lava fields spewed from the still-active Kilauea Volcano). Throughout, you'll find descriptions of Hawaiian hallmarks (hula dances, leis, luaus) as well as a chapter on sports and recreation, including where to hike, canoe, snorkel, surf--even ski (Mauna Kea is snow-capped in winter). The "Flora & Fauna" chapter identifies indigenous animals such as the Hawaiian thrush and the endangered monk seal. There are also plenty of tips to make your trip as seamless as possible, from a list of common Hawaiian words (think lots of vowels) to favorite tropical drinks such as the Chi Chi (vodka with pineapple juice and coconut syrup). --Jill Fergus
"The most complete, most trustworthy, least gushy guide to Hawaii. If you take only one book, take this one." -- Travel & Leisure"