To be honest, Hawai’i was never really high on my wish list for travel. I figured since I had been to the Caribbean a few times, Hawai’i was not going to be much different…blue water, white sand, warm tradewinds…been there, done that, got the t-shirt. My parents had traveled there when I was about 12 years old, they dropped me and my sisters off in Virginia to stay with our two grandmothers and off they went for a week in paradise (Hawai’i was heavily touted as such in the 70s and gained more publicity from the Hawai’i 5-0 tv show). But as I continued my travels domestically, I realized that if I was going to get all 50 states under my belt (5 left as of this post), then a trip there would be necessary. And it’s not cheap to fly there, airfare starts upwards of $800…hell, I’ve flown to Europe for cheaper than that. So when the volcano eruptions started on the big island of Hawai’i back in early summer, I assumed that no one was going to travel there, but something happened. Airfares started coming down dramatically to $300-$450 to fly to most of the islands because others were canceling their Hawaiian trips out of fear of the volcanos. Now I’m thinking, I’m not going to the big island of Hilo with the lava burning up communities but I can go where there were no active volcanos. And Oahu is home to the capital city of Honolulu. So I started looking…immediately. Flights were selling out quickly so each time I thought I had found a good price, by the time I went to book the flight came up at $800+. Persistence paid off and finally after about 30 minutes, got the trip for $440 for 6 days with a layover in Phoenix on American. Tip: sign up for the airline emails since that is how I found out about the airfare sale.
I live for Pinterest to plan my travel so got my Honolulu board created and started looking at AirBnB for a condo in Waikiki. Found a few that I had saved but by the time I was ready to reserve, all those units were taken due to others grabbing the cheap airfares like me. I didn’t want to spend a lot considering I got a break on the airfare but finally found a studio condo in the heart of Waikiki on a relatively quiet street for $79/night. I had a full kitchen, balcony, cable and wifi in a prime location near everything. There are some expensive convenience stores in Waikiki for food (as I found out when I bought what I considered to be minimal groceries and it came up to a whopping $40!). Or you can take the bus to the main grocery stores in Honolulu (Walmart downtown or Safeway near the Honolulu Zoo) and have more selection and better prices (it’s still expensive but not as much as the smaller stores in the tourist areas).
Hawai’i is notoriously expensive since it is so remote from the mainland US so I started looking up cheap/free things to do but knowing I was going to have to spend somewhere. Here is my list of inexpensive things to do:
I’m a big fan of the hop-on/hop-off sightseeing bus in every city I visit, it gives you a good lay of the land plus you can jump off when you get to an attraction you like. I did the Hawaiian Trolley which has five different routes, they range from $25-$45. I opted for the Blue route which takes you to the eastern coastal area. Our stops included Hanauma Bay Lookout (great snorkeling for $7 admission), Holana Blow Hole, and Sandy Beach (where Barack Obama learned to body surf as a teen and did once as President). You can purchase your ticket on the trolley or in advance.
I rented a car for one day only (since parking can cost at least $25/day at most hotels and home rentals) and drove up to the North Shore of the island (there are a number of rental offices around Waikiki), I went first thing in the morning to Enterprise which was two blocks from where I was staying and got a compact car for $70. Now had I booked it in advance, it probably would have been more like $40 but I wasn’t sure what day I was going to head up prior to my arrival. Recommend booking in advance with Booking.com if possible so you’re guaranteed a car since they do often run out of the smaller cars early. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive, I got stuck in a lot of traffic between rush hour and construction, consider taking the interstate instead of the city streets. The main town in the North Shore is Haleiwa but the true treasures are the beaches! I enjoyed Sunset Beach which was relatively empty compared to Waikiki Beach, there were only 20 people there when I arrived at 10:30 am. Helpful hint: bring water/aqua shoes since some of the beaches have small rocks where you walk into the water, there were times I couldn’t get my footing to get out because the rocks were slippery and the water tends to pull you back in. Once you’ve hit the sand for the day, check out one of the many shrimp places on the main road. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is probably the most famous but it also is the most crowded, they basically developed a small village around it with markets so it was very busy. I opted for another place a mile down the road and got fresh steamed shrimp with butter full of garlic chunks, white rice, corn on the cob, salad and a drink for $20. Let me tell you, worth every penny and the wait. I also tried a Hawaiian staple - shaved ice. It’s basically shaved ice with flavored syrup put on top of a scoop of ice cream and the whole thing is drizzled with cream. As a friend of mine would say, it was some good diabetes. Very sweet and very filling, I couldn’t finish mine since the woman gave me a large size when I asked for a medium but wasn’t barking since I paid for the smaller size.
There is a free hula show at 6:30 pm on Waikiki Beach every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday near the Duke Kahanamoku statue. It is traditional hula dancing with a band and singers. Consider bringing a towel/blanket to sit on the grass since there are no chairs and the crowds do get quite big. The show is enjoyable and one of the male band members actually danced in one of the hula numbers.
I personally used public transit during most of my visit, Hono’s “The Bus” will take you all around Waikiki, downtown Honolulu and even the North Shore (but that’s about a 2 hour bus ride one way). You can buy a day pass for $5.50 as you board that you can use to transfer to different routes.
Speaking of the bus, I used it to go Diamond Head Crater Trail to hike up one mile to the top. It will drop you off at the main street entrance and then you have to walk up a hill 1/2 mile to get to the trail entrance but it only costs $1 to enter if you arrive by foot (otherwise $5/car). Recommend getting there early (the park opens at 6 am), I arrived at 7:15 am and don’t you know there were already 8 tour vans there! But the main reason to go early is to beat the afternoon heat. Be sure to wear good hiking shoes or sneakers since the trail partway up gets to be rocky and uneven and bring water because you will need it (also consider some trail mix or bars) because I found myself wishing I had a snack once I got to the top. I saw people walking it in flip flops, one woman even had a boot on what appeared to be a broken foot.
And the bus will take you out to Pearl Harbor (it is a 45-minute ride) but with all the traffic in the city, it was good to not have to sweat driving myself out there. It is on the other side of the Honolulu airport so it is some distance from Waikiki. You can go out to Pearl Harbor on the day you want to visit and try to get free tickets, only 1,300 tickets are available per day so you will take your chances on getting there and either tickets aren’t available at all or you may get tickets for the later part of the day. But you can buy advance tickets, it does involve signing up on the Recreation.gov website for $7.50/person for a narrated tour on a headset. Since it is an effort to get there, I would recommend reserving in advance because it is probably the most visited attraction in Hawai’i. But it was so worth the time to go, it is truly hallowed ground. At the time I went, the USS Arizona Memorial was closed due to structural issues so didn’t get to go inside, but it is a beautiful tribute to those who served on it and the other ships in the harbor. I believe they said there are about 10 survivors left, the oldest is 106. If a USS Arizona survivor wants to be interred in the ship with their lost shipmates, they can request that prior to their death and Navy divers will put their ashes in an urn to release in the ship. I got choked up hearing the story of the last veteran that had been entombed. You can easily spend all day there so plan your time wisely if you want to see all of the exhibits. I spent at least 3.5 hours there and that included doing the narrated walking tour around the grounds and taking the boat out to the Arizona Memorial.
I also toured around downtown Honolulu via the bus. The only royal palace in the US is Iolani Palace which you can tour. Due to time, I didn’t do the tour but did watch a free documentary about the Hawaiian monarchy prior to the US taking over Hawai’i as a territory. You can also see the King Kamehameha statue, the Aloha Tower, and Chinatown downtown. The Fort Street pedestrian mall has some really good cheap restaurants and it’s a chance to get away from the major hustle (and prices) of Waikiki, budget shopping is there as well.
As far as eating out, again not cheap for most places in Waikiki since they cater to the foreign tourists who usually have crazy money to spend on food that we can get at home. But I found a few places that were worth going, first was a food truck pod on Kuhio which is a few blocks off the main shopping street, Kamitol had some killer ramen bowls for about $9. I had the beefy wild ramen with toasted garlic…mmmmmm!!!! Marukame Udon also on Kuhio had some amazing soups for about $7, and both will fill you up!
The one “splurge” I did do was visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie (about an one hour ride from Waikiki). It was $90 but that included the roundtrip bus ride from Waikiki, dinner and show. It really was an amazing experience, you get to visit six Polynesian cultural villages representing Hawai’i, Tonga, Samoa, Aotearoa, Fiji, and Tahiti. Each has unique experiences to partake in such as playing Poi Maori which a game with ball and string in Aotearoa or get a Fiji warrior temporary tattoo. There is a midday show, “Yuki”, that takes place on the lagoon. I would liken it to a boat parade, it was pretty cool. The dinner (dependent on what package you buy) is a luau buffet, all types of Polynesian foods. The higher end package includes an actual luau with the pig and performance. But the best part of the day was the evening show, “Ha - Breath of Life” (no photos/video are permitted during the performance…and they don’t play). The actors/dancers are students who attend Brigham Young University-Hawai’i from each of the cultures and it was absolutely magical! There are all types of dances and stories that focus on each of the Polynesian cultures and the fire dancers were just crazy amazing! They got a standing ovation, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, highly recommend that you spend some money to check out the cultural center, I learned a lot about Polynesia.
So that was my Hawaiian adventure in a nutshell, I enjoyed my visit but in hindsight if I were to go again I would completely bypass Honolulu and opt to explore Maui. Have you traveled to Hawai’i and if so, what was your favorite experience?