It's honeymooners' heaven and a surfer's dream. It's America's most remote capital and perhaps its most exotic. Home to hula skirts and palm trees and some of the world's most breathtaking beaches, Honolulu may well be a United States paradise, although paradise isn't always cheap. The Hawaiian capital and the surrounding island of Oahu are among the most expensive places in the United States, and it can feel intimidating to find reasonably priced meals and activities as a budget-conscious tourist. Luckily, there are some pockets of sanity within this American paradise that will bring a smile to the face (and wallet) of travelers on a budget.
Take "TheBus." TheBus - yes, it's actually called TheBus -- is Oahu's public transportation system, and it has stops throughout the island. One-way fares for adults are $2.50 and $1.25 for kids. (You can also get a four-day pass for $25.00 and a monthly pass for $60.00). TheBus is a great way to get around Oahu without busting the piggy bank on a rental car and fighting the horrific traffic and parking fees. From Waikiki, it is very convenient to take TheBus to places like the Ala Moana shopping center, Hanauma Bay for snorkeling, Pearl Harbor, and even up to the North Shore.
Taste Hawaiian cuisine. No trip to Oahu is complete without some native Hawaiian fare like kalua pork (smoked pork slow-cooked underground), lomi lomi salmon (fresh tomato and salmon salad), chicken long rice (chicken broth with glass noodles) and poi (mashed taro).
Haili's Hawaiian Foods -- winner of the Healthy Plate Lunch Contest -- offers a variety of native Hawaiian dishes for under $10. The family-run restaurant has been in business since the 1950s, and the sisters who currently run it are happy to answer questions about dishes with an enthusiastic smile. Haili's Hawaiian Foods is a short 20-minute bus ride from Waikiki on the 13 bus; the restaurant is closed on Mondays.
To sample some of the best short ribs on the island, visit another family-run local favorite, Helena's, which has been around since 1946 and was featured on the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food." Expect a line. The B or #2 buses go to Helena's from Waikiki, and the ride takes about 40 minutes. It's also closed on Mondays.
Climb Diamond Head. Work off that Kalua pig by climbing Diamond Head crater. One of the most iconic sites on Oahu, it was formed about 300,000 years ago after a volcanic eruption. The trail to the summit was built in 1908 and used by the military to defend Oahu from invaders, but today, guests can climb it to see some of the most spectacular views of the island. Trekkers should allow 11⁄2-2 hours for the climb and should get an early start, wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of water and a flashlight. Some parts of the ascent can be strenuous, and near the summit, there is a 225-foot narrow tunnel; those suffering from claustrophobia should ask for the alternate route to the top. The walk to the base from Waikiki Beach takes about an hour. Diamond Head is also accessible via a short ride on the 22, 23 and 24 buses from Waikiki. Cost of admission is only $1.00.
Pick up souvenirs at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. Take the #20 or #42 bus from downtown Honolulu to the Aloha Stadium where a huge swap meet -- kind of like a tropical flea market -- takes place Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Here, everything from macadamia nuts to Hawaiian shirts and local crafts to junk that residents are trying to unload from their attics are sold at prices well below what's to be found in Waikiki. While some at the swap meet are regular vendors offering deals on beach towels or souvenir magnets, be sure to check out locals selling used items on blankets near their cars, which may be more unique. Entrance to the swap meet is $1.00, and the best time to arrive is between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning. There are also lots of food vendors at the meet...a great chance to sample goodies from the food truck community!
Visit Pearl Harbor. Don't miss the opportunity to pay your respects to those who died at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The mood is a somber, peaceful contrast to the frenetic activity of Waikiki, and the recently renovated visitors' center offers a unique opportunity to learn about the Pearl Harbor attack from personal accounts of people who were there. While there is a charge to tour some areas of Pearl Harbor, many of the most moving parts of this historic site are free. There is no charge to visit the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument or to tour the USS Arizona. Note: Tours of the USS Arizona must be reserved. To reserve online there is a $1.50 reservation fee per ticket. It is not uncommon for tours to be booked solid several days in advance, though some tickets may be available up until noon on the same day of the tour. The 20, 40, 40A, 42 and 62 buses from Waikiki all make stops at Pearl Harbor; the ride takes about an hour.
Eat shave ice. No visit to Hawaii is complete without an afternoon shave ice. This Hawaiian treat is somewhat like a snow cone, only with smaller ice slivers that hold syrup better. For a really authentic version of this treat, ask for a sprinkle of Li Hing powder on top -- a kind of sweet and sour topping made fromdried plums -- or condensed milk. Azuki beans (sweet red beans) and ice cream are also delicious accompaniments. Expect to spend $4 to $6, depending on size, for your sugary treat.
Cheer as surfer dudes conquer the Banzai Pipeline (or vice-versa). Oahu is a surfer's paradise and home to some of the most exhilarating -- and dangerous -- waves in the world in the winter months. (It's flat as a pancake in the summer, so be aware!) Here, it's not unusual to see daring surfers sliding underneath curling waves of the variety normally reserved for magazine covers. Surfers ride waves all day, though they're usually most impressive before 11 a.m. Located on the less developed north side of Oahu, the Pipeline is near the Mokule'ia Beach Park. The 52 bus from Honolulu goes to the Pipeline; the ride takes a little over two hours, although I recommend renting a car for the day so you are free to explore Haleiwa town and other sites on the North Shore in one amazing day!
People-watch on the most famous beach in the world. Yes, Waikiki Beach is crowded, but it is crowded with the most interesting people EVER! You will see it all...from Japanese tourists practicing Tai-Chi in the early mornings to elderly locals who meet daily to play chess, to sunburned tourists in speedos. It is truly a feast for the eyes and imagination...and it's totally FREE!
Tour the Dole Plantation. It opened as a fruit stand in 1950, but today, the Dole Plantation is a popular tourist attraction that pays homage to one of the island's most iconic foods: the pineapple. Access to many parts of the Plantation is free, including a garden where children can roam and see different varieties of pineapple growing. For a bit more of a splurge, the Plantation Garden Tour is $5 for adults and $4.25 for children, and access to the world's largest maze -- complete with a pineapple at its center -- is $6 for adults and $4 for children. A ride aboard the 20-minute Pineapple Express train is a little steeper, costing $8 for adults and $6 for children. If the weather's hot, be sure to indulge in the world-famous pineapple frozen treat known as the Dole Whip before leaving ($4.25). To get there, make it a stop on the day you rent a car to explore the North Shore.
Shop in an ABC store. The ABC store in Hawaii is an incredible store, located literally every 50-feet, where you can buy everything from a 99-cent beach mat, to Macadamia nuts, to beer/wine/liquor, to Aloha wear, to fresh fruit snacks, etc....get the picture? If you can't get it here, you don't need it! And if you forget something, don't worry! There is an ABC store within a 1-minute walk fromanywhere in Waikiki! Seriously! Extra tip - save your receipts and you can get a free gift - usually a bag or a mug - as a an extra souvenir to bring home!
So, you see? Hawaii doesn't HAVE to be expensive...it's all in the planning! Sure, you should splurge on that Luau or Snorkel Sail or gourmet dinner, but it hurts a little bit less when you have saved money on these great options! The important thing is to GO! Don't let your fear of busting the budget keep you from experiencing one of the most amazing spots on earth! You will thank me later!