Second homes: You'll have a swell time living on this isle

— -- The first hotel on Waikiki Beach was built in 1901, and for more than a century, Waikiki, as well as surrounding Honolulu and the entire island of Oahu, have been what people think of when they visualize Hawaii.

Though each island in the 50th state has a distinct personality (and there are good arguments for visiting and owning vacation homes on any of them), Oahu is by far the most popular. The island is home to 75% of the state's nearly 1.3 million inhabitants, and Honolulu, with about 25% of the state's citizens, is nearly 10 times the size of the next largest city, Hilo.

What this gives Oahu is a combination of big-city and tropical-isle assets, from Broadway shows to world-class restaurants, along with the myriad charms generally associated with Hawaii: endless beaches, towering volcanic peaks and, of course, some of the planet's best surfing.

And have we mentioned the weather?

"The obvious attraction to second-home owners is the tropical climate and beaches," says Nancee Jenko Crispin, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Honolulu. "It's like living in a big country club, and all the best things are free. You can play tennis 24/7, 365 (days) on free, lighted courts, the mountains are full of great hiking trails, and no one lives more than 15 minutes from the beach. And it feels very exotic but is on U.S. soil."

Honolulu also has experienced a renaissance, in large part because of $2 billion in upgrades, including the $650 million Waikiki Beach Walk development.

Hawaii is a fairly resilient real estate market and has had the least foreclosures of any state, Crispin says. Among reasons: Land is limited, and little new construction prevents a glut of inventory.

Many properties date to the mid-20th century, and in most cases, the location is more important than the house's features.

Says Crispin, "In Hawaii, the view is more of a draw than the place itself."

A look at three Oahu neighborhoods:

•Gold Coast. This prime location sits on the coast between Waikiki Beach, with all its restaurants, shopping and activities, and Diamond Head, the famous natural landmark just north of Honolulu. "It is a group of condo buildings built in the 1950s and '60s," says RE/MAX realtor Nancee Jenko Crispin, "and every building is very individual, so there is a lot of variety. You come out your back door, and you are on the beach; your front door, and you are in Kapiolani Park. You can walk to Waikiki. The lifestyle just doesn't get any better." All this charm comes at a price: Two-bedroom apartments start at $1 million and go to about $5.5 million.

• Lani Kai. While the vast majority of second-home offerings are condos, this enclave of free-standing houses is in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood north of Honolulu. Crispin describes it as "20 minutes from the city but a world away." Prices start at about $1.5 million and go to more than $12 million.

•Waikiki. With arguably the world's best-known beach on one side and apartments, shops and restaurants on the other, this stretch is to Hawaii what the Strip is to Las Vegas. For some, it is the reason to come; for others, it is too brash, touristy and busy. Two-bedroom condos start at $400,000; most are below $1.5 million.