Hawaii beckons, and now's the time

March 16, 2015

Waikiki in Honolulu is the most famous stretch of beach on Oahu, Hawaii.

HONOLULU — The beach is free. The silky aqua water costs nothing. And the sunshine doesn’t cost a dime.

Yes, you can afford Hawaii, or dare to dream.

With airfares from the mainland to the Aloha State running near historical lows, Hawaii suddenly is a real possibility for more travelers.

In fact, at this very moment, I am sitting in Waikiki with a mimosa in my hands at a tiny outdoor hotel bar, looking out at swaying palm trees, the ocean waves, the stress of the long flight behind me, feeling drowsy, and ...

Oh, sorry. Where was I? Hawaii is so distracting.

What I was about to say is that your "someday" dream trip should definitely become a concrete plan, ASAP. And I would start with Oahu.

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HONOLULU PRIMER

Oahu is the "beginnner’s" Hawaii. It’s the classic Hawaii you’ve seen on all the hula-swaying postcards. Its beaches are only 20 minutes from the Honolulu airport.

Honolulu’s Waikiki shoreline contains Duke Kahanamoku Beach, which was named the best beach in the U.S. last year. That is nice. That is fine. The beaches in Hawaii are all nice and fine.

But first-timers are cheating themselves if the beach is all they see.

In this culturally rich state, I am begging you to also experience things that you can’t find back home in Florida or Michigan or Rhode Island. Things such as Iolani Palace ($14.75 admission), where the only royal family in what’s now the U.S. once lived. Or the view from a hike on Diamond Head (free). See the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor (free). Or just drive around downtown or the neighborhoods and see how regular folks in Hawaii live.

Then, go exploring beyond Honolulu on a stunning coastal drive. You really can’t get lost. Or go wrong.

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ALOHA ‘OE

I based myself in Honolulu, renting a studio apartment through AirBnB for $120 a night. My rental didn’t have much of a view, but it had a fully stocked kitchen and was directly next to the trendy Modern Honolulu hotel ($279) and Hilton Hawaiian Village ($200). Best of all, it was two minutes from the beach.

If you stay in Honolulu, however, you soon will hear locals talking about big city problems such as homelessness, traffic jams and a half-finished transit system mired in red ink. That is all true. And yes, the median house in Oahu costs nearly $700,000. Yes, a half-gallon of milk really does cost $6.99.

But actually, it is amazing how much pure beauty and how many attractions are open to tourists cheap or free. Beyond the leis and luaus, there’s a depth to this land.

— It costs only $1 to park at Hanauma Bay (if you can find a parking spot), and an additional $7.50 if you want to go down to the horseshoe-shaped perfect beach, where snorkelers are rewarded by sights such as flame angelfish and yellow tangs.

— You can walk the sugar sand public beach in sedate Kailua, the place President Barack Obama vacations (free).

— Stop at the Nuuanu Pali Lookout on the Pali Highway to see the sweeping view of windward Oahu and the Koolau Range (free). Also notable: The intriguing warning sign: "Beware of bees during high wind." Yikes.

— Walk through Byodo-In Temple ($3), a serene ode to the Byodoin temple in Japan. I was there in the rain.

— Take pictures in lush Kualoa, scene of so many films and TV shows, such as "Jurassic Park," "The Hunger Games" and "Lost." (Free to stop at the state park; tours at Kualoa Ranch have fees).

— See what’s new at the Polynesian Cultural Center ($74.95 including demonstrations, exhibits and alcohol-free luau). Its new Hukilau Marketplace shopping area is free to wander.

— Watch the surfers on the incredible giant waves of the North Shore (free).

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MUCH MAHALO, THANKS

What about eating and shopping? Oahu has, like the rest of the country, been swept away by the "grow local, shop local" food movements.

This is a good thing when you are 2,500 miles from anywhere.

Restaurants here are a mix of trendy Hawaiian-Asian fusion (such as Chai’s Waikiki Cafe & Market), old standbys such as Red Lobster, and food trucks serving garlic shrimp. In Hawaii, you can eat sushi you pick off a conveyor belt. You can have a plate of "country tots" — tater tots with onions and cheese. Yes, Hawaii still has Spam. And plate luncheons with enough carbs to kill a horse. So if your lodging has a kitchen, eat breakfast and lunch in the room to save money, then splurge on dinner.

Shopping? The stores in the tourist areas of Waikiki make me irritated. In the last 10 years, luxury chain stores have taken over. The scale is too large. Their focus is wealthy international tourists. To find souvenirs made in Hawaii, you’ll have to elbow aside jostling crowds at Salvatore Ferragamo, Tiffany and Hermes.

Eventually, you will find quilts and quilted products made in Hawaii, Hawaiian coffee, Macadamia nuts and Hawaiian shirts actually made on the islands. My big find was Olomana Orchids, a huge orchid nursery in Kaneohe that ships all over the U.S.

Do your eating. Do your shopping. Do your sightseeing. Relax on the beach.

But there is no need to overexert yourself. Or spend a fortune. Because I have a feeling you’ll be coming back to Hawaii again.

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IF YOU GO

Getting there: Some airlines are competing heavily on the Hawaii route, pushing down fares by about half and adding flights. Nobody knows how long these fares will last, so book ASAP.

Getting around: If you want to see things, rent a car. If you’re just hanging around Waikiki, rely on shuttles or taxis.

Lodging: Check with your travel agent for their best package deals, or book the trip yourself directly through a resort or online vacation rental site.

For more: www.gohawaii.com

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ONLY ON OAHU

— Bad traffic. Who would have thought? Honolulu has rush hour.

— No headlights at night. Dangerous local custom.

— Li-Hing Bang smoothie featuring li-hing mui (dried plum) powder. It’s foamy and fruity.

— The tiniest parking spots. Anything wider than a Smart Car is a tough fit.

— Great radio station with local DJs and Hawaiian music is KINE-Hawaiian105.

— Conveyor belt sushi (it goes around and around and you pluck your plate off the moving belt)

— Odd signs: "Beware of bees in high winds" at a park. Also saw a road sign warning that road construction would begin in May 2009.

— Official form that flight attendants give passengers on Honolulu-arriving flights. It looks mandatory, but only the agricultural questions require a response. The rest is a tourism survey.

— Purple taro rolls.

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POPULAR HAWAII

Hawaii had a record 8.3 million visitors last year. Most came from the U.S. West, then U.S. East, then Japan. Oahu is most popular.

Oahu: 5.2 million

Maui: 2.4 million

Big Island: 1.4 million

Kauai: 1.1 million

— Air capacity rose 3.4 percent to a record 11 million seats last year, mostly to Honolulu and Maui.

— Average length of stay for visitors from the mainland: 10-11 days.

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(Source: Hawaii Tourism Bureau 2014)

 

 





 


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