Hawaii on a Dime
THE beauty of the Hawaiian islands is hardly subtle. Jungle-smothered volcanic peaks loom around every highway switchback, verdant plants sprout flowers as brilliant and meaty as hallucinations, and surrounding you always is the Pacific Ocean, by turns coral blue, crystalline green or shimmering golden with the light of the setting sun. Hawaii is easy, Hawaii has nothing to hide. Hawaii is, touristically speaking, pornographic in its single-minded baring of its assets.
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Hawaii is also — duh — expensive. According to AAA’s 2007 Annual Vacation Costs Survey, a family of four could expect to spend $650 a day there on food and lodging, making it the least affordable state in the country — and that doesn’t even take into account Hawaii’s gas prices, consistently among the nation’s highest.
But while daunting fuel costs and overpriced villas surprise no one, Hawaii can be ruthlessly surreptitious when it comes to extracting every last dollar from tourists.
Take Kona coffee, the famed beans grown on the Big Island. On the first morning of a weeklong trip that my wife, Jean, and I made in early September, I was eager to taste this local brew, supposedly the only coffee produced in the United States. We were driving around Kailua, on the island’s west side, searching for a nontouristy breakfast place when I spotted Green Flash Coffee, a tiny storefront 〔米〕 店頭, 店の正面. named for the fabled burst of emerald light that often accompanies sunsets on the Kona coast.
Inside, we scanned the menu of breakfast sandwiches and smoothies until my eyes alighted on the Kona coffee: it was $2.95 for a 12-ounce cup, versus $1.85 for a non-Kona version. Granted, that’s not a huge amount in itself, but a cup or two a day could really add up — a no-no for this frugal traveler. I opted for the cheaper brew.
Over the next few days, as we combed the island for luxurious meals on a less-than-luxurious budget, I noticed that no matter where we ate, prices were two or three or four dollars higher than I was accustomed to. At Ba-Le, a relatively affordable Vietnamese restaurant, a banh mi sandwich that would have been $3 in New York City was $6. At Big Jake’s Island B-B-Q, a pulled-pork sandwich plate was $8.95, perhaps twice what you’d pay in North Carolina.
Again, these weren’t egregious pricing schemes — and both places were, incidentally, fantastic — but they brought home the fact that while Hawaii’s natural wonders may clear your mind of cares, its restaurants, hotels and attractions can, almost without your noticing, clear out your wallet.
Yet Jean and I were determined to sacrifice neither comfort nor our savings. At first, we got lucky — or rather, Lucky: the very first result in a Google search for “affordable Hawaii Kona” was Pomaikai “Lucky” Farm B & B, an eco-resort whose breakfasts featured Kona coffee grown on the premises. (My verdict: good, but not $2.95-per-cup good.)
We’d requested the romantic renovated Coffee Barn room, but because of a booking error wound up in one of the two Greenhouse rooms. It was simple and comfortable, with screens for windows, a big bed, an ensuite bathroom and a lime tree just off the porch. And just $80 a night.
The room may have been basic, but it came with beach towels, snorkeling gear, body boards and a seemingly endless supply of fruit dangling from the trees: papayas, bananas, passion fruit (usually known by their Hawaiian name, lilikoi) and juicy, fragrant strawberry guavas. Lucky Farm even raised red bulbs of awapuhi kuahiwi, whose juice is a traditional hair conditioner — and a much-touted ingredient in costly Paul Mitchell products.
Our base established, Jean and I began to explore the Kona coast. Unlike the northwestern areas of the Big Island, where you find large resorts like the Four Seasons and touristy chains like Outback Steakhouse, the southwestern coastline — from Captain Cook to Naalehu — is far less commercial. Tropical trees crowd the winding highway, briefly vanishing to allow for the lone gas stations or coffee shops that mark a settlement, then swarming up again to envelop you in fecund jungle.
It was about 10 miles south of Captain Cook, not far from Lucky Farm, that we found Puuhonua o Honaunau, a “Place of Refuge” that once functioned as the oceanside home of Hawaii’s royal chiefs and as a safe haven for women, children and noncombatants during times of war, and for lawbreakers hoping to evade a death sentence.
Today, the site (which is operated by the National Park Service) contains a big heiau, or temple, surrounded by carved wooden figures, separated by a hefty rock wall from a plain of black volcanic stone that reaches into the sea. Well-written pamphlets explain the significance of every spot, and admission is $5 a vehicle — but only till 4 p.m., when anyone can visit (until 8) free.
For us, Puuhonua o Honaunau was a refuge from the island’s exorbitant demands. The first afternoon, we wandered the plain and walked down a lava-rock trail, forged in 1871, that led to an abandoned village. (Alas, the sun set before we reached the end.)
The next morning, we were back, for snorkeling at Two-Step Beach next to the park. No sooner had I strapped on my mask and flippers and slipped off the double rock ledge that gives the beach its name than I came face to face — literally — with a 30-inch green sea turtle, swimming lazily next to me.
After my initial shock, I explored the healthy coral reef with Jean, spotting schools of yellow tang and, on a stretch of sandy bottom, “Aloha” spelled out in concrete blocks. Just before we left, I saw a pair of dolphins surface in the near distance; only federal law, which prohibits the feeding and harassing of dolphins, kept me from diving back in to greet them.
One afternoon, we returned to Puuhonua o Honaunau to make use of another budget-friendly feature: free beachside barbecue grills. Equipped with charcoal and utensils from Lucky Farm, and a cooler full of ingredients from local markets, we cooked up a feast of tombo tuna, mahi-mahi and corn on the cob (which we soaked in a tidal pool to dampen the husks).
Along with an octopus-and-cucumber kimchi and a few bottles of pale ale from the Kona Brewing Company, we spent about $20 — perhaps a quarter of what the same meal would cost in an up-island restaurant like Merriman’s in Waimea, where the ponzu-marinated mahi-mahi is $34.95. Plus, we got to watch the sun sink into the Pacific, turning the water cool and silver before plunging us into darkness.
Try as we did to visit all the island’s beaches, parks and inexpensive restaurants, we soon came to understand why it’s called the Big Island: it’s really big (almost the size of Connecticut). With limited time, we saw only the white, yellow and gray sand beaches — not the black or green ones; we lunched on rich kalua pork and poi at Super J’s ($7), but never found the time for loco moco, the Hawaiian comfort dish of hamburger, a fried egg and gravy over rice, at Kenny’s, on the east coast.
Saddest of all, we never made it to Volcanoes National Park. But we did join Arnaud and Stéphanie, a young French couple who’d lucked into the Coffee Barn, on an excursion to Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot mountain that is Hawaii’s tallest.
After a brief stop at the golden beach at the Four Seasons resort — access to the shoreline is a much-disputed public right — we began our ascent in a 4 x 4 and watched the landscape change, first subtly to the grassy, temperate ranches where local cattle roam, then dramatically to the treeless moonscape of lava fields below Mauna Kea’s peak. Surrounded by the white domes of stellar observatories, we gazed out on a carpet of clouds below us, and once again the sun turned the sky crimson before disappearing, revealing the vast band of the Milky Way encircling us.
So much was left to do on the Big Island, but we had to depart — after all, what’s a Hawaiian vacation without a little island-hopping? Thanks to an explosion of low-cost airlines, it’s easy to bounce around cheaply: Our round-trip tickets to Kauai on Go! cost $118 each, including a discount simply for joining the frequent-flier program. That’s not much for what amounts to a trip in a time machine — from the youngest of the main Hawaiian islands to the oldest.
Where the Big Island is vast and spacious, its lava fields flowing gently to the sea, five-million-year-old Kauai is knotty and lush, with eroded spires of volcanic rock shooting up from dense jungles of palms and pines, bamboo and guava groves. Kauai was the setting for “Jurassic Park,” and in this prehistoric setting, it’s not hard to imagine a couple of raptors sunning themselves at your side on one of the soft, sandy beaches that circle virtually the entire island.
IN spite of its extravagant spectacle, Kauai feels intimate. The towns on its ring road are small, and as that road nears an end on the island’s north side, it shrinks to cute, single-lane bridges over inlets and streams.
It was out there, just past the town of Hanalei and a few miles from the highway’s terminus at the Na Pali Cliffs, that Jean and I were staying, at the Kalalau B & B’s $75-a-night “Jungalow,” which we imagined was hidden away somewhere in the forest.
Not quite. The Jungalow was a small, charming, tin-roofed, bamboo-paneled shack that Mark Pearson, the Long Island-born proprietor, had built in the backyard of his house in a tidy little subdevelopment. As with Lucky Farm, we had access to a panoply of beach gear, plus an outdoor shower, a hot tub, fruit-heavy breakfasts (an extra $10 each) and Mr. Pearson’s 16 years of experience on Kauai.
Just down the street, he told us, was Tunnels, the area’s best snorkeling. He was right — clouds of tiny, blue-silver fish swarmed us the instant we entered the shallows. And down the road, he said, up a rarely explored trail, lay the Blue Room, a monstrous cave filled with swimmable spring water; it was, we discovered, isolated and magical — if a bit too eerie for us to relax.
The north shore beaches were more traditional. On the half-hidden, pine-shaded sands of Kauapea Beach — a k a Secret Beach — we picnicked on grilled fish wraps and ahi salad from Kilauea’s Fish Market ($27.89 with soft drinks and kimchi). On Hanalei Bay, I took a beginner’s surfing lesson with the Titus Kinimaka Hawaiian School of Surfing ($65 for a 90-minute lesson, plus use of the board afterward). And on Kee Beach, at the very end of the highway, we watched the sun set next to the nearly impassable Na Pali Cliffs.
When we weren’t at the water’s edge, we were hanging around the town of Hanalei, a short stretch of restaurants and shops that was as low-key and high-quality as you could hope to find on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. We drank $4 smoothies made with taro, the ubiquitous purple tuber, and while Jean browsed the bikinis at Hanalei Surf Company, in the town’s well-preserved former school, I chatted with the young employees about what to do that evening.
“Today’s Thursday?” said the kid behind the counter. “Oh, it’s fish taco night at Hanalei Gourmet,” the cozy local restaurant at the other end of the school.
Good enough for us — and they were the best we’d ever had, easily worth $10.95 for two big ones with rice and beans.
On our final day, Jean and I loaded up on bottled water, drove to Kee Beach and set off on the Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile trek along the Na Pali Cliffs, a wilderness that effectively cuts off the island’s north shore from its west side. We weren’t doing the full hike, just two miles out, to a beach with thunderous waves, then two miles inland, to Hanakapiai Falls.
All along the way, we noticed a familiar, enticing smell. Lying at our feet, some squashed, some freshly fallen from the trees above, were guavas, dozens of them, yellow and the size of Ping-Pong balls. As we marched along the coast and deeper into the jungle, we plucked them from the earth, rinsing them in streams and chomping the ripe, sweet, juicy fruit. Elsewhere, we knew, suckers were paying good money for these treats we had for free.
Finally, we reached the waterfall, a cascade of fresh water that tumbled at least 1,000 feet off a cliff above and into a wide, chilly pool at the base. Other hikers were swimming and lunching, and yet it still felt like a moment out of time, a lost corner of paradise.
I put down my backpack, put on my trunks and eased myself into the water. Then I swam over to where the falls hit the surface and stared up at the little droplets that showered from the rocks above. Somewhere beyond them was a sky bluer than the ocean, and in that sky hovered a dot of a helicopter, ferrying visitors around the island on tours that cost hundreds of dollars.
It made no sense to me: Why come all this way for Hawaii’s natural beauty, only to spend extra to distance yourself from it?
For almost a week, Jean and I had stayed close to the ground — and, despite our indulgence, well within our budget — and achieved an up-close-and-personal relationship with the islands. Besides, we’d get to see them from the air the next day — we had window seats on our flight home.
Total: $956.84 (with car rental, $1,210.93).
TWO ISLANDS, MANY PLEASURES
WHERE TO STAY
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Hawaii, the Big Island:
Ba-Le Kona Restaurant, Kona Coast Shopping Center, 74-5588 Palani Road, Kailua Kona; (808) 327-1212.
Big Jake’s Island B-B-Q, 83-5308-B Mamalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (866) 470-2426; www.bigjakesislandbbqandcatering.com.
Kona Seafood, 83-5308-A Mamalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (808) 328-9777.
Sandy’s Drive-In, 79-7432 Mamalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (808) 322-2161.
South Kona Fruit Stand, 84-4770 Mamalahoa Highway, Captain Cook; (808) 328-8547.
Super J’s, 83-5409 Mamalahoa Highway, Honaunau; (808) 328-9566.
Hamura Saimin, 2956 Kress Street, Lihue, (808) 245-3271, sells what many consider the island’s best saimin, noodle soup with pork, wontons, chopped scallions and more (from $4.25).
Hanalei Gourmet, 5-5161 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei; (808) 826-2524; www.hanaleigourmet.com.
Hanalei Taro and Juice Company, 5-5070 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei; (808) 826-1059; www.myspace.com/htjc.
Kilauea Fish Market, 4270 Kilauea Lighthouse Road, Kilauea; (808) 828-6244.
WHAT TO DO
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Highway 160 and Hale o Keawe Road, Honaunau, Hawaii; (808)328-2326; www.nps.gov/puho.
Aloha Theatre, 79-7384 Mamalahoa Highway, Kainaliu, Hawaii, (808) 322-2323, www.alohatheatre.com, shows art-house films on an irregular schedule in a grand cinema built in 1932; admission $7.
On Mauna Kea on the Big Island, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, (808) 961-2180, www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis, runs a free nightly stargazing program and, on Saturdays and Sundays, escorted summit tours (bring your own 4 x 4).
At the Titus Kinimaka Hawaiian School of Surfing in Hanalei, Kauai, (808) 652-1116 and www.hawaiianschoolofsurfing.com, beginner’s lessons are $65.