GETTING THERE: It's hard to find air bargains to Hawaii this time of year. The best we found in mid-December was $735 round trip on American Airlines from BWI to Kahului, Maui, via Dallas. If you're trying to use frequent-flier miles, book as far in advance as possible, as award seats to Hawaii are among the hardest to bag. If you're making a side trip from another island, we found fares in the $180 round-trip range from the Big Island or Oahu to Maui on Hawaiian or Aloha Airlines.
WHERE TO STAY: There are three "wilderness" cabins on the crater floor of Haleakala National Park: Holua Cabin under the western rim; Kapaloa Cabin in the middle of the basin; and Paliku Cabin toward the eastern side. Each sleeps 12 in padded bunks and has a wood stove for heating (with wood provided), a nearby latrine and cistern water that must be purified before drinking.
It's not easy to bag one of these nifty little places in their unforgettable settings. The National Park Service awards reservations (with a two-night maximum) by way of a tightly scheduled monthly mail lottery. No phone calls, faxes or e-mail, just stamps and the mailbox. Send your requested dates and preferred cabin along with your name, address and phone number to Haleakala National Park, P.O. Box 369, Makawao, Hawaii 96768, Attn: Cabins. The park must receive your request two months before the first day of the month in which you want to reserve. In other words, to request any dates in May, your request must be received before March 1. Only one entry per party is accepted. If your request can be filled, you get a provisional reservation and will be notified by mail. The cost is $75 a night and there is a two-night maximum. The park will only rent to one group at a time.
Feeling lucky? You can check on last-minute cancellations by calling 808-572-4459 between 1 and 3 p.m. Hawaiian time. If you score, the overnight rate is $60. You'll need a credit card.
You can also camp in the crater. There are two wilderness campsites, one near Holua Cabin and other near Paliku Cabin, each with access to pit latrines and water (which must be filtered). Camping is free but requires a permit available on a first-come basis at any of the visitor's centers. And there are two car campgrounds on the rim, one at each end of the park. Car camping is free and on a first-come, first-served basis. Details: Haleakala National Park, 808-572-4400, www.nps.gov/hale.
WHERE TO EAT: You'll need to pack in all your food if you're staying in the crater. The cabins are equipped with propane stoves and plenty of mismatched pots and pans, dishes and cutlery. For that all-important apres-trail meal, Maui's full of good options. The whaling village/tourist town of Lahaina is chockablock with rum drinks and burger joints. There are open-air balcony bars where your filthy self can decompress with a view of the ocean; we liked the Hula Grill (2435 Kaanapali Pkwy.), where a Baja fish taco will run you $8.50. And after you've showered, there are upscale places, such as the well-reviewed David Paul's Lahaina Grill (127 Lahainaluna Rd.), with a $37 sauteed mahi-mahi.
INFO: Maui Visitors Bureau, 800-525-6284, www.visitmaui.com.
-- Steve Hendrix