By Lena Katz
Six months ago a certain guy from Hawaii introduced the “Yes, we can!” mantra to the American public, and now we’re reprising it right in time for the end of summer. After too many months of denying yourself all things fun and sunshiney, the question as August rolls around is, “Can I somehow manage a Hawaii vacation after all, even on a shoestring budget?” And my answer is …YES YOU CAN…
…get a cheap meal in the islands
In Oahu, Haili’s Backyard Luau, the new lunch wagon at Ward Centers, serves the same great Hawaiian plate lunches that were popular at former neighborhood fave Haili’s Hawaiian Foods for more than 50 years. The Makai Market food court at Ala Moana Center offers everything from Japanese noodles and Korean BBQ to Hawaiian plate lunch and deli sandwiches. Diamond Head Market & Grill is especially well known for bakery items like the signature blueberry cream cheese scones, but later in the day it offers gourmet plate lunches, sandwiches, wraps, and desserts.
If you’re in Maui for your Hawaii vacation, it may seem like a near-impossible challenge to dine on the cheap, but actually all you’ve got to do is get out of the resorts and into town. At strip malls along South Kihei Road, you can get great Asian fare at Sala Thai and bangin’ breakfasts at Kihei Cafe. For my money, little Wailuku is home to the best Vietnamese food on the island: Saigon Café, a gourmet experience for about what you’d pay at Applebee’s back home.
The search gets even more intense in Kauai, but once again, the strip malls save you — this time with Kauai Pasta, a down-low favorite of locals and visitors. King & I Thai is good for a Kapa’a pad Thai fix.
…get great mai tais under $10
The “scratch” mai tai at The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian is the classic, and comes in right at $10. It’s the original mai tai recipe made with fresh-squeezed pineapple and orange juice, orange Curacao, Bacardi superior, orgeat and a float of whaler’s dark rum.
The Mai Tai Bar at Ala Moana Center is a hit with locals and tourists — even those who’d rather have a mai tai-tini than any of the mai tais on the menu. It’s got one of Honolulu’s winning pau hana (happy hours). Locals also suggest La Mariana’s on Oahu — one of the last Tiki Bars, and known for its mai tais. “Totally kitsch place, but wonderful,” is the word on the street.
On other islands, the Marriott Kauai and Buzz’s Wharf in Maui are fan favorites. Finally, shouts to the Royal Kona Resort on the Big Island for hosting the first annual Don the Beachcomber World’s Best Mai Tai Competition this very week — August 22nd to be exact. I hope it becomes a tradition.
…learn how to hula
The Big Island is host of Merrie Monarch Festival (March-April), Na Mea Hawaii (January) and several other big hula festivals. And Molokai, as the widely acknowledged “birthplace of hula,” hosts the famous Moloka’I Ka Hula Piko annually. However, to actually learn a bit of the dance yourself during your Hawaii vacation, start with an easy, tourist-friendly class like the ones that take place every Thursday (4-5 p.m.) at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Honolulu or those that Lori Higa teaches Tuesdays and Thursdays at Aqua Hotel Molokai. Also look for lei-making classes in those and similar venues. The Aston Ka’anapali Shores on Maui has a great kids’ program that offers hula classes as well as ukulele lessons and Hawaiian crafts.
Puzzled by the local lingo? Pick up a copy of ”Peppo’s Pidgin To Da Max” and you’ll soon learn all the catch phrases from “Howzit brah?” (“What’s up, man?”)” to “Like beef?” (One you don’t want to hear; it means, “Do you want to fight?”) to “Hana Hou!” (“One more time!”)
…have the beach all to yourself (or almost)
Believe it or not, this one’s pretty easy, even on the most populous island. Oahu’s North Shore has Ke Iki Beach in Haleiwa, while the Eastern Shore is home to the famous “From Here to Eternity” Beach, located below the Halona Blowhole parking lot.
Lanai is such a quiet little island, you can often have even the most popular attractions to yourself — for example, the protected marine preserve at Hulopo’e Bay, where you’re more likely to be snorkeling beside spinner dolphins and sea turtles than tons of tourists. The tour buses don’t make it here; it’s just the lucky Four Seasons Lanai guests and a few day trippers arrived by boat.
A similar situation exists at the Aqua Hotel: Kaimiloloa Beach fronts the property and is a public area, but so few people make it to Molokai, those who find themselves at this hotel or on the beach will often feel like it’s their own private photo op.
…keep your kids busy while you get a li’l snooze time
Relax by the Helumoa Playground, AKA “The Superpool,” at the Sheraton Waikiki, and let the activity coordinators chase your kiddies down the 15-foot water slide, through the interactive fountain play area, into the floaty toy area and over to the ponds for the koi fish feeding. Meanwhile, you can dip your toes but nothing else in the water, while remaining peacefully supine on a water chaise lounge.
Speaking of cool pools…the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea just unveiled the spectacular $9 million Serenity Pool, a saltwater infinity-edged pool elevated above the main pool. This grownup water playground features customized poolside spa treatments, underwater music and a custom cocktail menu…but only for those 21 and over. Drop off little ones at Kids for All Seasons beforehand, for a full day of professionally supervised outdoor-indoor activities.
So with all that inspiration and happy feelings going ’round, the question is no longer “Can we take a Hawaii vacation?” But instead…”How soon can we get there?”
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.