Photo: Ellen Creager Detroit Free Press)
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 -- less than $800 round-trip to from several U.S. cities to Honolulu now through June -- 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.
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 like 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.
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 like 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 like 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.
Detroit Free Press travel writer Ellen Creager explores the Byodo Temple on Oahu, Hawaii, on a rainy day.
• Take pictures in lush Kualoa, scene of so many films and TV shows, like 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 (see below).
• Watch the surfers on the incredible giant waves of the North Shore (free).
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.
Howe Restaurants here are a mix of trendy Hawaiian-Asian fusion (like Chai's Waikiki Cafe & Market), old standbys like 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 wasOlomana 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.
New in Laie
The small town of Laie, Oahu, is growing. The heavily Mormon town on Oahu's northeast coast is known for its luaus and preservation of cultural influences that formed Hawaii. It is the home of the Polynesian Cultural Center, one of Oahu's biggest attractions. Now, Laie has three new things:
Hukilau Marketplace at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It focuses on Hawaiian and Polynesian arts and crafts, plus traditional local food styles. The Marketplace opened in February.
The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, in its second year, is now in its new home at the Hukilau Marketplace. Its 2014 honorees include former Detroit Lion Luther Elliss.
A new hotel. The Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore will open just north of the Polynesian Cultural Center. That should capture tourists who want to extend their fun overnight.
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.
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% 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.
Source: Hawaii Tourism Bureau 2014
Contributed to Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press
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