Hawaii without a huge hole left in your wallet

Plan carefully: And you can cash in on good deals

January 16, 2011 

HONOLULU - While planning a weeklong family trip to Hawaii as an escape from winter, I kept getting suggestions from friends, websites and even my kids for all kinds of "must-see" activities.

Helicopter tours! Dolphin encounters! Luaus! Bike rides down volcanic mountains!

Then I checked out the prices for all these marvels. Helicopter tour, $200. Dolphin encounter, $100. Luau, $100. Bike ride, $100.

Now multiply each fee by four, for me, my spouse and two kids. I’d just added $2,000 to the budget for our trip.

But if we didn’t do any of these things, would we really feel we’d missed out?

I’m happy to report we skipped them all with no regrets. Yet our trip to Hawaii was spectacular. We hiked through rain forests, walked across a volcano floor, stargazed from the world’s tallest mountain and swam in a bay so full of colorful sea life that it was like stepping into an aquarium. We visited Pearl Harbor, climbed Diamond Head, sunbathed on Waikiki and body-surfed at Hanalei Bay. We saw petroglyphs on a remote seaside trail and watched Hawaiian dancers in a park at sunset. We even stopped by the apartment building where Barack Obama was raised (1617 S. Beretania St., Honolulu), because I wanted my city-born kids to see that you don’t have to grow up in a mansion to be president.

The cost for these activities, aside from parking or car entry fees: Zero.

Which is not to say that a vacation to Hawaii can be done on a dime. We pounced on a $550 round-trip airfare, but even that meant $2,200 for a family of four. Because it was our first visit, we hopscotched among three islands – the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai – which meant $60-per-person flights from one island to the next. My husband covered six nights’ lodging for free by saving hotel credit card points for more than a year, but the one hotel night we paid for ran $350. We also paid for rental cars, but that let us skip taxis and tour buses.

We stuffed ourselves at free hotel breakfasts and at places like Me’s BBQ, 151 Uluniu St. in Waikiki on Oahu, where the plate lunch (a mix of choices including chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, rice and macaroni salad) fills you up for under $10. The ubiquitous Hawaiian ABC chain became our second home, as it does for many tourists, offering basics such as sunscreen and postcards as well as fresh fruit, sushi and sandwiches. But most of all, we collected memories from one amazing adventure to the next, without spending a lot of cash. Here are some details:

On Kauai: The Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Napali Coast is 11 miles one way, but the first section – four miles round trip – makes a perfect half-day outing. Parking is free but the limited spots fill up early. The steep trail can be muddy and slippery; wear sturdy footwear. Scenery ranges from lush and jungle-like as you climb the mountain, to dramatic overlooks from high cliffs over the ocean, to roaring waves crashing on a rocky beach. Numerous signs warn against swimming; the surf is known for deadly rip tides. But when you’re done hiking, drive a short distance to the public beach at beautiful Hanalei Bay for a dip. www.kalalautrail.com

On the Big Island: Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain (30,000 feet from its base in the ocean to its summit, which sits 14,000 feet above sea level), is home to many of the world’s largest observatories. Guided tours to the top (including food and transportation) can run $200, but there are two free alternatives.

Free stargazing programs are held nightly at the visitors center, located at 9,000 feet. It was cloudy the night we attended, and while we waited for better weather, we enjoyed hearing about research done on the mountain. When skies cleared, we looked through a telescope at Mars’ polar ice cap and other celestial wonders.

Most rental car companies prohibit driving to Mauna Kea because of road conditions, but one rental company – Harper (www.harpershawaii.com) – rents four-wheel-drive vehicles specifically for Mauna Kea. (Don’t be unduly scared, though; we found the road to be no more challenging than the potholed, swerving highways around New York City.) Four-wheel drive vehicles also can participate in free weekend caravans to the summit, though the public is not permitted to look through the big telescopes at the top. Stargazing events use smaller portable scopes. www.ifa. hawaii.edu/info/vis.

For me, the highlight of our week was a day spent in the astonishing landscapes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, www.nps.gov/havo (car entry fee, $10). We hiked through lush rain forests filled with songbirds and giant ferns, then across the black-cratered floor of the Kilauea volcano, punctuated occasionally by bright red lehua flowers. Elsewhere in the park, the black volcanic rock runs right to the edge of the sea.

The volcano remains active, so depending on volcanic activity during your visit, plumes of white smoke may be visible in daylight, and a bright orange lava glow may be seen at night. Don’t miss the easy hike to the Puuloa site to see thousands of petroglyphs – drawings carved in rocks centuries ago by native Hawaiians.

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