ALOHA STATE FOR LESS
No question it's expensive to visit the Hawaiian islands, but it's equally likely you'll be tempted -- there's year-round, bikini-friendly temperatures and an unparalleled lineup of attractions, including postcard-worthy beaches, volcanoes, sunrises, and waterfall hikes. If it's impossible to resist the lure of the land of the luau and the lei, here are some ways to experience and explore on a budget.
BEST NATIONAL PARK: HAWAII VOLCANOES
A stop at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park should be high on the list for any visitor to the big island. After all, it offers an up-close view of the world's most active volcano, Kilauea; hiking or biking hundreds of miles of trails and roads, for any fitness level or desired duration; hands-on cultural demonstrations; even walking through a lava tube in a lush forest. Concerned about crowds? Late winter may be less packed as holiday vacationers head home. Entering with a vehicle for $25 (good for seven days).
BEST FREE MUSEUM: U.S. ARMY MUSEUM OF HAWAII
Dedicated to the state's military history, the Army Museum of Hawaii gives visitors a very different view of the state than nearby Waikiki Beach. It traces conflicts from early Hawaiian warfare to Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam War. Although admission is free, donations are welcome; audio tours cost $5.
BEST BOTANICAL GARDEN: HAWAII TROPICAL, PAPAIKOU
In this preserve, visitors can follow a long boardwalk through a lush tropical forest. Other trails lead through a world-class collection of 200 species of palms and gardens of giant ferns, passing waterfalls, heliconias, banyan trees, orchids, bromeliads, a giant koi pond, and abundant wildlife. The $18 entry fee to Hawaii Tropical is relatively steep, but reviews on TripAdvisor almost unanimously declare the cost well worth it. The garden supports a tropical plant database, and a florist ships lush bouquets anywhere in the U.S.
BEST RV PARK: HEDONISIA HAWAII ECO-HOSTEL
There are very few RV parks in Hawaii -- after all, how would anyone but a local drive there? But visitors who decide to rent an RV while staying on one of the islands will find several options. For $25 a night, Hedonisia Hawaii Eco-Hostel & Sustainable Community in Pahoa on the Big Island offers a hippie-esque paradise. The grounds use geothermal electricity and have solar showers, and yoga is a popular activity.
BEST SUSHI: BANZAI SUSHI
Arguably the best sushi and seafood in the Hawaiian islands is served up at Haleiwa's Banzai. The restaurant partners with local fishers and a network of organic farms on the North Shore to bring unrivaled freshness to diners.
BEST SMALL TOWN: PAHOA
Tiny Pahoa is an undeniably American small town (population: less than 1,000) in the middle of a tropical Pacific paradise. Known as the hippie capital of the Big Island, Pahoa is a peculiar blend of raised wooden sidewalks, false-front stores, historical structures, and a Marketplace district of restaurants and shops.
BEST SUNRISE: HALEAKALĀ NATIONAL PARK, MAUI
It's worth getting up early to watch the sun rise above the clouds at Haleakalā National Park. Soaring more than 10,000 feet above sea level, the view as stars dissolve into daylight from the summit of this volcano is breathtaking.
BEST SUNSET: POIPU BEACH, KAUAI, HAWAII
Poipu Beach, on Kauai's sunny south shore, is one of the best places in Hawaii to take in a postcard-perfect sunset. The beach stretches about a mile in a series of crescent shapes, so there are plenty of spots to sit back and watch the sun kiss the Pacific Ocean.
BEST ODD TOURIST ATTRACTION: PALA'AU STATE PARK
Hawaii's Pala'au State Park in Molokai features Phallic Rock (its Hawaiian name, Kaule o Nanahoa, means "the penis of Nanahoa"). It has stood erect for generations overlooking Kalaupapa, a leper colony from 1866 to 1969 that is now a tropical beach getaway worthy of a travel magazine cover. The same isolated location that helped the island contain the contagious illness makes it a thriving, one-of-a-kind ecosystem, so be aware that 95 percent of the native plant and animal species on the island are found nowhere else in the world. Travel at the right time and catch monk seals giving birth to pups on the beach.
BEST FISHING: LAKE WILSON (WAHIAWA RESERVOIR)
Bass is the main attraction at this O'ahu fishing hole, specifically peacock bass. Catch rates are most consistent April through October. Shore fishing is an option, and there's a boat launch, bathroom, convenient parking, and picnic tables to help make this spot an angler's or vacationer's dream.
BEST PLACE TO GAS UP: EWA BEACH
Ewa Beach is on the southern shore of Oahu, near Pearl Harbor and across the bay from Honolulu International Airport. It is on the way to the airport for those for those staying at the hotels and villas off Ka'ula Bay, making it a good place to stop and fill up a rental car tank.
BEST HAPPY HOUR: ARNOLD'S BEACH BAR, HONOLULU
It's almost as if it's always happy hour at this Honolulu hangout. In addition to $5 drink specials all day, every day, Arnold's offers $3 draft and domestic bottled beer until 6 p.m. daily and $4 local drafts from 6 p.m. until close, which can be enjoyed with live music from 5 to 8 p.m.
BEST PURE BEACH EXPERIENCE: HANALEI BAY
Hanalei Bay on Kauai has an awe-inspiring backdrop of waterfalls and mist-covered mountain peaks just beyond the beach. The coral reefs are perfect for snorkeling, and water sports from windsurfing to kayaking and boating are available. Serious surfers, though, are some of the most devoted fans.
BEST FAMILY BEACH: KAPALUA BAY
Go early to beat the crowds at Kapalua Bay Beach on Maui. The beach is considered one of the island's best, and has activities for all ages. Try snorkeling to see tropical fish and even turtles in the crystal-clear water, which is also calm enough for stand-up paddle boarding.
BEST BEACH FOR SWIMMERS: LANIKAI BEACH
The water at Lanikai Beach in Kailua, Oahu, is warm, shallow, and calm in the summer months, making it the perfect beach for long swims. The spectacular view is marked by nearby islands. Lanikai Beach doesn't get as crowded as some other local beaches, so a visit here promises to be a tranquil experience.
MOST UNUSUAL BEACH: PAPAKOLEA AND ITS GREEN SAND
Near the southern tip of the Big Island, another natural wonder, Papakolea Beach, stuns visitors with its blue waters and green sand. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to the beach from the Kahaluu-Keauhou area. Then, expect a 2.5-mile walk to the beach, plus a climb down a steep cliff. The trek may be worth it to see one of only four green sand beaches in the world.
BEST NUDE BEACH: LITTLE BEACH
Popular among locals and tourists alike, this nude beach is at one end of a larger clothing-required beach with warm breezes and breathtaking views -- of the ocean, that is.
BEST TIKI BAR: LA MARIANA SAILING CLUB
One of the original tiki bars, La Mariana Sailing Club in Honolulu is as authentic as beach bars come. Tiki bar memorabilia, a leisurely pace, and drinks and food drawn from classic Hawaiian recipes recall times past.
BEST NOODLE JOINT: MARUKAME UDON
Do not be intimidated by the long lines at this wildly popular Japanese noodle restaurant. Marukame Udon in Waikiki gets an average 4.5 stars on Yelp from more than 6,500 reviewers, and most say it is well worth the wait. Large bowls of udon soup start at less than $6.
BEST CHEAP B&B: AT THE END OF THE ROAD
Close to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, and appropriately located in the town of Volcano, At the End of the Road is reasonably priced -- starting at less than $100 a night -- and most reviewers have enjoyed their stays. The breakfast is simpler than some, but the convenient location and welcoming hosts claim many fans.
BEST FLEA MARKET: ALOHA STADIUM SWAP MEET AND MARKETPLACE
An outdoor market at the state's largest sports venue, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet in Oahu is loaded with bargains on all kinds of merchandise, from ethnic food to antiques. Shop all year on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
MOST CONVENIENT VIEW: NUUANU PALI LOOKOUT
There is no shortage of places to catch a magical view in Hawaii. This local favorite on Oahu is a windy stone terrace just a short car ride from downtown Honolulu. The view from more than 1,000 feet up looks out over mountains, the coast, and botanical gardens.
BEST FREE WALKING TOUR: HIKING OAHU HAWAII
Hiking Oahu Hawaii is dedicated to "sharing the true spirit of real Hawaiian aloha" by offering guided nature trails at no charge. (Optional pickup and drop-off service is available for $39.) Visitors can experience breathtaking natural scenery of parks and waterfalls on eco-minded treks that cover geology, archaeology, mythology, natural history, and culture. Hiking options vary by time, distance, elevation, and degree of difficulty.
BEST THING TO LEARN: BIG-WAVE SURFING
Up to challenging the mighty Pacific Ocean? Private lessons from an expert for $149 make it possible at the legendary surfing mecca of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. Spend less by choosing semi-private or group lessons.
BEST BOUTIQUE HOTEL: THE EQUUS, HONOLULU
The swanky Equus boutique hotel near Duke Kahanamoku Beach charms guests with -- you guessed it -- an equestrian theme revealed through horse art, rustic finishes, and southwestern colors. The owners are polo enthusiasts and hand out free match tickets to guests during polo season. Customer service earns high marks on TripAdvisor, although some guests say the street noise is excessive. Nightly rates start at $117.
BEST NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURE: CULTURAL DEMONSTRATION AT HAWAII VOLCANOES
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can take part in free cultural activities such as ʻIke Hana Noʻeau, which focuses on traditional Hawaiian handcrafts and invites visitors to take part, and Nā Leo Manu, or "Heavenly Voices," an evening concert series that introduces participants to Hawaiian music and dance, including hula.
BEST SURPRISE ENTERTAINMENT: SKATING AT THE ICE PALACE
If ice skating doesn't come to mind when you think of a tropical Pacific island chain made of volcanic rock, then you've never been to the Ice Palace. The unofficial home of ice sports in Hawaii since 1982, the Ice Palace hosts birthday parties and hockey games, as well as public skating, which costs $11.50, including skate rentals.
BEST TOURIST TRAP LOCALS LOVE: POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER, LAIE
This popular attraction on Oahu's North Shore aims to show visitors what life used to be like for islanders in the South Pacific, with 42 acres of lush rainforest and cultural demonstrations based on differing island cultures taking place throughout the day. Each day ends with a luau feast and a fire-spinning, storytelling show called Ha: Breath of Life.
BEST ROAD TRIP: HANA HIGHWAY
Hana Highway, on the eastern coast of Maui, is 52 miles long but not for drivers who are in a hurry. The gorgeous roadway boasts 600 curves and a whopping 59 bridges (many of which are single lane). It clings to cliffsides in what travelers contend is a worthwhile but sometimes hair-raising trip. Along the way, stop at Pua'a Ka'a State Park to enjoy its waterfalls and swimming holes; end the trip at Haleakalā National Park.
CRAZIEST MEAL: M.A.C. DADDY PANCAKE CHALLENGE
At the 24-hour M.A.C. 24/7 in Waikiki Beach, Oahu, customers looking to carbo-load can order the Pancake Challenge. Chow down three 14-inch pancakes topped with fruit in 90 minutes and the $24 meal is free. But be forewarned -- even Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel series "Man v. Food" failed.
BEST TUBING: LIHUE PLANTATION IRRIGATION SYSTEM
That's right -- you can go tubing on a ditch and tunnel system that helped water sugar crops on Hawaii's island of Kauai. You'll even need a headlamp because there are several tunnels along the way. Getting there is half the fun -- you'll have to hop on an all-terrain vehicle to get to the drop-off point. Kauai Backcountry Adventures is the exclusive tour operator.
MOST SOLEMN EXPERIENCE: PAYING TRIBUTE AT THE USS ARIZONA
Make time for history at the USS Arizona Memorial. Now part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, the USS Arizona sank when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Accessible only by boat, the memorial rests atop the sunken battleship and includes a shrine dedicated to the 1,102 of the 1,177 Marines and sailors who died in the attack, which launched the United States into World War II. It is also an active military cemetery, and many of the 334 survivors of the attack have had their ashes scattered over the Arizona. They are the only people whose remains are allowed to be interred there.
BEST HIKE: MAHA'ULEPU HERITAGE TRAIL
This two-mile trail highlights the last undeveloped stretch of coastline on Kauai's south shore. Narrow cliff-side paths showcase stunning views and limestone rock formations. Starting at Shipwreck Beach, brave souls can jump off a cliff into the ocean, mimicking Harrison Ford and Anne Heche in the 1998 movie "Six Days Seven Nights." Don't miss the heiau ho'ola, an ancient site where offerings were made to the god of the sea to ensure good fishing. Hikers sometimes spot migrating humpback whales, sea turtles, or an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or nene, Hawaii's state bird.
BEST ALL-DAY BREAKFAST: 808 GRINDZ CAFE
Hawaii's diners are like no others in the nation, and 808 Grindz Cafe in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is unique even among them. Its breakfast-centric menu is full of traditional American dishes infused with Pacific flavors served cheap in a laid-back dining room. On the sweet side, try macadamia nut pancakes ($7 for two), and on the savory side, sample kalua-pork hash eggs benedict ($12), fish of the day, or anything from the $8.08 menu.
BEST FREE ZOO: PANA'EWA RAINFOREST ZOO AND GARDENS, HILO
Located inside a tropical rainforest, this free 12-acre zoo features more than 60 animal species. The focus here is on fauna found in rainforests around the world, such as Capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, giant anteaters, lemurs, two-toed sloths, colorful frogs (some poisonous, many endangered), and even monarch butterflies. Tropical birds are always a treat for the eyes and the ears, and this zoo contains a wide variety of parrots, macaws, toucans, pheasants, peacocks, cranes, and more. Native Hawaiian animals, such as green and black poison arrow frogs, feral goats, and feral pigs, are on display, and the endangered Hawaiian state bird, the nene, is a truly special sight. The zoo's well-landscaped gardens are filled with more than 40 plant species, including native and non-native orchids. Check out the petting zoo on Saturday afternoons.
BEST AIRBNB: TREEHOUSE AT KILAUEA VOLCANO
Five minutes from famous Kilauea and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this custom-designed treehouse for two is in an old-growth rainforest, complete with stained-glass windows, two lanais, an outdoor shower, and a cedar hot tub. Amenities include a small kitchen, flat-screen TV, composting toilet, and fireplace.
BEST FARMERS MARKET: HONOLULU
If you’re thinking the farmers markets in Hawaii are all about pineapples, you’re wrong. The handful of markets promoted by the Hawaii Farm Bureau dash any clichéd thoughts and befit a vacationer's paradise. Take the lineup at the Honolulu market where local farmers and producers have featured everything from Italian parsley to Indian curry, seasonal tropical juices to taro, dishes made with local saltwater shrimp, and papaya to Brazilian cheese bread, with all ingredients grown on the Big Island. In addition to weekend markets, there are evening hours during the week.
BEST PLACE FOR WINTER SUN: WAIKIKI
Famous Waikiki on the island of Oahu has the best beach weather in the state, with an average high of 85 degrees. Surprisingly, the highest recorded temperature in Hawaii is only 98 degrees, the lowest record high of all the states.
WAIKIKI AQUARIUM, HONOLULU
Associated with the University of Hawaii, the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, has exhibits featuring local animals and habitats. Tickets are $12 for adults and $5 for seniors (over 65) and children (4 to 12), and there are a variety of add-on experiences offered, including nighttime explorations.
BEST TRIP BACK INTO TIME: KONA COFFEE LIVING HISTORY FARM
Discover how Hawaii's first coffee farmers lived and worked at this Captain Cook historic farm, which features costumed interpreters demonstrating traditional crafts, agricultural work, and everyday activities from the 1920s to the 1940s. Of course, visitors can also sample the Kona coffee. Admission is $15 for ages 18 and up; $5 for ages 7 to 17