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Honolulu on the Cheap

by Tom Passavant

Hawaii may be one of the United States, but unless you’ve got your own sailboat, getting there involves a flight of 2,500 miles from the West Coast, which explains why no visit to the islands is truly cheap. (And good luck using your frequent flier miles to get a free ticket.) From a box of cereal in a Waikiki grocery store ($5.95) to the gas for your rental car (a buck per gallon more than back home), prices reflect that slog across the Pacific.

Once on the ground, visitors to Honolulu get a break due to sheer numbers: five million tourists a year on Oahu means there’s some modest price competition among hotels and car rental firms. But you’ll find the best deals if you are willing to get off the beaten path in Honolulu, and explore the nooks and crannies of this vibrant, profoundly multi-cultural city. Even Waikiki itself is full of surprises that won’t set you back more than a few coconuts.

What to Do: Waikiki’s revitalization was kick-started a few years ago with the refurbishing of Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag along the beach. (All of Hawaii’s beaches, by the way, are free and publicly accessible, with signs usually pointing the way to the sand.) The torch-lighting ceremony and free hula and music shows at Kuhio Beach every evening at sunset exude genuine Hawaiian spirit. Next, pop into the courtyard of the legendary Moana Surfrider hotel next door and check out the free entertainment under the banyan tree, then stroll over to the newly refurbished Waikiki Beach Walk, a formerly seedy stretch of Lewers Lane that now glitters with shops, cafes, and hotels. At the end of the street is the classy Halekulani hotel; spring for a mai tai (with addictive free homemade potato chips) there and watch the elegant Kanoe Miller raise hula to celestial heights.

Beyond Waikiki, Honolulu’s Chinatown is livening up, with area art galleries now staging a popular free First Friday Art Walk. (Cabs are expensive; either rent a car for the day for around $25, or take the bus for $2 per ride.) Brochures for do-it-yourself tours are also available in any gallery. While you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Hawaii State Art Museum, which features excellent art and crafts and has no admission charge, and pick up a fresh flower lei ($5 and up) from the stands along Mauna Kea Street. Locals stop here on the way to the airport to greet friends.

Where to Stay: Bargains abound in Waikiki, and Pleasant Holidays (800/448-3333, pleasantholidays.com) offers unbeatable air-plus-hotel deals. Five-night packages from the West Coast at under $600 are common. The lowest prices, though, can include older hotels several blocks from the beach. A reliable name to look for is Outrigger Hotels (800/688-7444, outrigger.com), which offers good value across the board, starting at around $150.

Beyond those basics, I recently stayed with my family at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel (800/356-8262, kaimana.com), whose Hale Kipa package (available on-line only) yielded a small but clean room, nice view, and an excellent breakfast ordered off the menu for $160 a night. Oh, and did I mention it’s right on a quiet patch of beach?

The Aqua Hotels group has several refurbished properties with a touch of hipster vibe. The Aqua Bamboo & Spa (866/406-2782, aquaresorts.com; from $150) is nicely located, and many of its contemporary rooms have kitchenettes.

Staying for a week or more? Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com) lists dozens of Waikiki condos starting at around $100 per night. Just be aware, though, that the places will never look better than they do in their on-line photos.

Where to Eat: Honolulu is one of the world’s great cheap eats town, where seemingly every block is full of sushi bars, Korean barbecues, Vietnamese noodle shops, dim sum parlors, and Thai restaurants. Seafood is always ultra-fresh, and local Hawaii dishes abound as well.

One easy way to sample this bounty on the cheap is to walk up Kapahulu Avenue, which runs perpendicular to Waikiki beach at the Kapiolani Park end. A blocks or so past the Ala Wai canal is Rainbow Drive-In (3308 Kanaina St.; 808/737-0117), a long-time favorite for “plate lunch” like loco moco (two scoops of rice topped with hamburger, brown gravy and a fried egg). Two people can stuff themselves here for about $15. Dessert is a block or so north: fruit-flavored shave ice, ideally served atop ice cream and a few adzuki (pinto) beans, from Waiola Bakery and Shave Ice (525 Kapahulu; 808/735-8886).

A few blocks further on is the venerable Ono Hawaiian Foods (726 Kapahulu; 808/737-2275) for traditional, and fast-disappearing, dishes like laulau (meat or fish steamed in taro leaves; $5.50), lomi salmon that’s salted and serve as a salad ($4), and — wait til the neighbors back home hear this — a dish of thick, fresh poi ($3).

Leonard’s Bakery (933 Kapahulu; 808/737-5591) turns out fresh malasadas Portuguese-style fried donuts served plain or filled with assorted custards (coconut is called haupia)–all day long.

Izakaya Nonbei (3108 Olu St., 808/734-5573) is a tiny Japanese tavern a few steps off Kapahulu that serves bargain lunches for around $6, including shrimp tempura with noodles in broth or spicy ahi poke (chopped raw tuna) over rice.

For more upscale Hawaiian fare without breaking the bank, settle in for pupus at Sam Choy’s Diamond Head (449 Kapahulu; 808/732-8645), a sleek dining room where the popular local chef reimagines traditional dishes to delicious effect.

Finally, on your way back to the airport, make one final stop at Nico’s at Pier 38 (808/540-1377, nicospier38.com), where dinner won’t be more than about $10. Fishing boats tie up here, service is takeout only (there are plastic tables scattered about), and there’s likely to be a line of hungry locals waiting patiently for their grilled tuna sandwich with, of course, two scoops of rice.

P.S. First published in 2006, Pauline Frommer’s Hawaii (yes, her father is Arthur) is an excellent guidebook for budget-minded visitors. Another invaluable source of in-depth advice that other guides don’t mention is the highly opinionated, and very entertaining Oahu Revealed, by Andrew Doughty.

This story first appeared in Diversion.

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