HNL: Honolulu’s airport done right.

Looking at the picture to the right, you would probably think that it was an image captured off of a tropical island beach or a Zen garden, nestled somewhere deep in the Thai jungle. Or perhaps it’s within the grounds of Shanghai’s old city, where pristine gardens and tailored landscapes roll across ancient architecture and history. But you wouldn’t think that it’s smack dab in the middle of an airport, which is exactly where it is.

The first thing that you notice when you land in Honolulu Airport is the tropical air. This is because most of the airport is open to the weather, with only a roof over many sections. But walking through the terminals, you notice something else distinct from the cruel American airports that you’re used to: it’s actually quite nice.

Though the John Rodgers Terminal was dedicated in 1962, the building doesn’t look like its almost fifty years old. Inside of security, there are a wealth of shopping and dining options — since HNL serves many international destinations, duty free and Hawaiian paraphernalia shops are scattered through the concourse where you can even buy 3-packs of local pineapple to bring along on your flight.

At the center of the compound, a well manicured garden serves as a peaceful interlude from airport madness. Many of the airline lounges are situated around this garden and there are numerous benches and walkways that you can rest on and find peace.

Got a long layover? At only 3 miles from the downtown area, HNL is within easy access via public transportation and numerous city shuttles. While traffic on the expressway can be heavy, well planned commuting is quick — no 2 hour transfers into the city. You can also take a quick public bus northwest, to Pearl Harbor, visit the Arizona (free admission) or wander around the other navy ships on site.

Several rental car companies are stationed nearby, so you can drop off your vehicle and dart to the terminal if you’re in a hurry, or you can take your sweet time and catch a shuttle if you’re at ease.

It’s as if the designer of the airport actually knew what was going on in a travelers head and knew what was most important to a frequent flier. Sounds like it should be easy, but few airports have the space and flexibility to do this.t

Last week I was dreading a 14 hour layover in Honolulu on a return trip from Tokyo. But the combination of amenities and its proximity to the sights made HNL an excellent airport to spend my time at and by the time I was boarding my flight to Los Angeles I had been through the airport garden, business lounge, to Pearl Harbor, Waikiki beach and had eaten a great lunch at the mall downtown. And that’s why HNL gets my vote for the best airport in the nation.