See Hawaii on a Budget: Six Days in Kauai for Next to Nothing
What to See on Kauai | Hawaiian Vacation
How to See Hawaii on the Cheap
Hawaii is one of those places we dream of visiting, but the legendary cost of lodging, food and car rentals (added to the expense of airfare) can scare you away from taking that trip of a lifetime.
But even exotic Hawaii can be on your itinerary for much less than you may think. Here's how I spent nearly a week on the garden island of Kauai, spending less (after the cost of airfare) than I might have spent for a few days at a stateside beach.
Frequent-user memberships pay off: For years, I have traveled regularly for work, and although I always made certain to get miles on airlines (which I have used with great joy), only in recent years did I sign up for benefits at hotel chains. In my case, the chain I use most often is the Marriott, so I am a member of the Marriott Rewards Program. But most major chains have similar programs, such as the HHonors program the Hilton offers or Embassy Suites Gold Member program.
The benefits generally include free nights at hotels in the chain, or upgrades or other things travelers like when they're falling into a strange bed in a strange city, tired from a long day.
The offer I couldn't refuse:
To my surprise, I got a call one night from the Marriott Resorts arm of the Marriott chain, offering me (and one guest) six days and five nights in Hawaii, plus full use of a rental car, for only $650. As a Rewards member, they have special offers for you. Yes, this means I was asked to pay for the accommodations, but I'm an experienced enough traveler to know that five nights at a beach-side hotel in Hawaii would cost far more than $650, and that doesn't even count the cost of the rental car. Oh yes - they would also give me a $50 gift certificate to use for dinners or other expenses at the hotel or its shops.
Are Timeshare Presentations a Rip-off?
What's the hitch? All I had to give them was 90 minutes of my time to hear a Timeshare presentation. I'm not sure how they select Rewards members for the presentation, but the idea of looking into a timeshare in Hawaii was appealing; some friends of mine had taken the same tour and actually purchased a timeshare from them. I loved the idea of having my own little piece of paradise!
Hmmmm. Let me think. Several days on a gorgeous island, in return for an hour and a half of my time? Done!
I called a favorite traveling buddy (a longtime girlfriend from high-school days), and signed up for the trip.
Hawaii | Marriott Hotel on Kauai Island
Review of Trip to | Free Nights in Hawaii
A few months later, we found ourselves on the garden island of Kauai - still pinching ourselves that we were really and truly in Hawaii!
For those of you fortunate to live on a beautiful island or near a beach, this may sound like no big deal. It can be a dream trip for many people, though!
For two people who grew up in landlocked Columbus Ohio (one of whom, me, now lives in hot-hot-hot Texas), the chance to dip our toes in the ocean and stroll on a beach was thrilling.
True to the Marriott's promise, the car rental at the airport went without a hitch, as did check in at the beautiful hotel.
The Timeshare was on a different side of the island, so we needed the car to get around for our six days in paradise, and to get to the 90-minute presentation a few days later.
The hotel dated back to around the 1950s and had been acquired by the Marriott after construction.
The rooms were spacious and comfortable (a bit dated due to the vintage of the hotel, but more than nice), and the grounds were exceptional.
As with many hotels in tropical settings, the lobby was open to the courtyard, which had huge, mature palm trees and a large lagoon filled with colorful and very well-fed Koi.
A highlight of each day, especially for young children, is watching the fish frantically climb over each other at feeding time.
Feeding time at Koi Pond on Kauai
Kauai is small; you'll have time to visit many of its beautiful attractions in a short visit
How to Spend a Fun Week on Kauai
Kauai is one of the smallest islands of Hawaii, and it's known for being lush, laid-back, garden-like and pristine in many areas. However, its lack of public transportation and limited number of taxis mean it's not easily accessible if you don't have a car. We had never considered the logistics of a trip to Hawaii, and we were so thankful the Marriott was smart enough to plan ahead for us and provide a rental car. Fortunately, once you have a car, you can see almost all the beauty of the island in just a few days.
Among the highlights locals said to explore were the rugged shoreline and rock caves of the Napali Coast (you have to take a boat or fly over it; there's no paved road), the picturesque North Shore, home of the little town of Hanalei, the Spouting Horn water spout along the South Shore, and incredible mountaintop lookout at Kokee State Park, which looks down on the Napali Coast. And, of course, how could we go to Hawaii without attending a Luau?
Unlike the cosmopolitan mood you might find on Oahu, or even Maui, Kauai almost has the relaxed feel of being on a remote island where time stands still. Everyplace we went, we were impressed with the open friendliness of local residents as well as other tourists.
Fun Fact: If you've seen the spectacular scenery in the movie, Jurassic Park, you've seen some great views of the waterfalls and lush foliage on Kauai. Much of the movie was shot on the island; you can see similar views in parts of the video below.
Kauai is beautiful and varied
Kokee State Park: To get the best view from this incredible spot (3,200 to 3,200 feet above sea level), you need to leave early in the morning and arrive shortly after dawn.
Being the obedient tourists we were, we got up before dawn and drove the steep, winding climb up the tall mountain to get to the park before clouds move in for the day and spoil the view. Would the early hours and the long drive pay off?
Incredible View of Coast! We weren't disappointed; although the clouds tried briefly to block the scene, they blew off briefly enough to show give us a breathtaking shot of the Napali Coast below. Afterward, we enjoyed an inexpensive but tasty breakfast at the rustic restaurant in the park's headquarters, and toured its small museum.
Waimea Canyon: The drive up the mountain to Kokee State Park is along a ridge that divides the wet, rain-fed land to the east from the arid canyon on the west side of the mountain's spine.
On the way down the mountain, you'll find many lookout spots with beautiful views of the red clay walls of the canyon and a few waterfalls in the distance here and there.
Napali Coast: In addition to the excellent view from atop the mountain, you can tour the Napali Coast by boat. We got discounted rates on tickets, and the daylong tour, which included lunch, was well worth it. The coastline is far more rugged than the beaches that usually come to mind when you think of Hawaii.
Tall rock cliffs perch above the shoreline, with grottos, caves and coves here and there, where the constant battering of fierce waves has worn through the rock.
Dancing Dolphins: The boat crew was friendly and capable, and knew exactly where to find schools of dolphins, which delighted all of us by swimming next to us and ahead of the bow for several miles. We saw several mama dolphins with their babies tucked next to them, swimming in perfect in tandem with each other.
Luau | Lagoon in Hawaii
Peacocks, Waterspout, and Kauai's Famous Chickens
Luau Night: Who can visit Hawaii without going to at least one Laua? We were no different, so we devoted one evening to seeing the beautiful music and culture of this island.
Unlike what many movies show, the Luau is not about sitting on the ground in the dark around a spread of food, with drums, torches and dancing along the perimeter. Luaus are commercial events in today's Hawaii, but they are well presented, the food is great, and you will learn a lot about the people who settled the islands.
Our luau was in a tropical, park-like setting with a beautiful lagoon and some amazing peacocks strolling on the grounds, now and then treating visitors to displays of their plumage. There was indeed a pig roasting in a pit, and part of the evening included a demonstration of removing the pig before dinner. But the feast included far more than roast pig and poi sauce!
Dinner was at long rows of tables under a shaded shelter (which helps if a sudden rainstorm hits). The buffet included many choices of meats, chicken, fish, salads, vegetarian items and desserts. Yes, they had poi! It's rather tasteless if you aren't used to it's bland flavor, but at least we got to try it (and no, I didn't dip it out with my fingers!).
After dinner, we went to a nearby set of covered bleachers and watched an interesting and beautiful program of music and dance on a stage across a small pool from the audience. The program included explanations of all the cultures who came to Hawaii, with demonstrations of their music and dance. The luau wasn't cheap (you can find them from around $50 on up), but considering the educational value, the evening of entertainment and the lavish buffet, you get a lot for the price of the ticket.
Spouting Horn: With easy access from one of the perimeter highways on the island, a popular spot to see is this waterspout, which shoots up from holes worn in the rocks due to years of force from the ocean's waves.
At the grounds across from Spouting Horn, we dined on delicious, seasoned shrimp served from a trailer parked under the trees, and we met the proprietor - a woman who moved to Hawaii from Stateside and is fulfilling her dream of living and supporting herself in paradise. Her food was outstanding and she openly shared her story with us while we ate at simple tables in the shade of the nearby trees.
Chickens, Chickens and More Chickens! Little did we know, but Kauai is known for having a large population of chickens running wild on all parts of the island. You see them in parking lots, along the streets, in every field and anywhere else they can find bugs or other food.
Islanders claim to be resigned to them, annoyed at times and yet proud of this quirky tourist attraction. I found a cute T-shirt about the chickens, but didn't buy it at first - then went back a few days later when I couldn't resist getting it. Bad idea - the shop was near a stunning jewelry store and it is now known as my $900 Chicken Shirt. I will never live it down.
As with most visitors, we were charmed and amused at finding chickens roaming freely everywhere we went; they're a very endearing feature of the island.
Video Tour of Kauai by Helicopter (I'm not sure why this particular music was selected, but the photography is great)
Rating of Travel to Kauai, Hawaii
What do you think about Timeshare Presentations?
Have you attended a Timeshare Presentation? If not, would you consider seeing one?
Review of the Timeshare Presentation
True to their word, the Marriott staff at the Timeshare presentation were friendly, not pushy, good hosts and welcoming. My friend could also qualify as a potential timeshare owner, so we both sat in on the presentation. The staff gave a brief tour of the grounds and the model unit (which was nice, roomy and would make a great getaway for a small family). As with the hotel, the units are on the water and have direct access to the beach. There's no such thing as a bad view in Hawaii; everything was postcard-worthy from every angle.
Neither of us opted to buy a timeshare on that trip, but the idea is enticing. I learned a lot about how timeshares work, and more than that, I learned the promotional accommodation offers you hear about are reputable and worthwhile.
We divided the $650 cost of lodging and car rental (and shared the gift card for dinner one night), so the hotel and transportation on the island cost each of us $325. The room would have been at least $300 for the rack-rate (we checked), so we felt it was an amazing opportunity.
Overall, I was pleased with the entire package and the skill and courtesy of the staff in giving their presentation. The Marriott Resort timeshare on Hawaii is indeed beautiful, and my friends (who purchased a timeshare there) enjoy visiting it every year. If you are offered a mini-vacation in exchange for hearing a presentation, and if it's in a place you want to see (and maybe visit often, through a timeshare arrangement), I recommend going. You will learn whether the location is one you like well enough to invest, and you'll enjoy your time there tremendously.
Important Note: Timeshares are not the same thing as travel clubs. I get frequent invitations to attend a sales pitch for membership in travel clubs, where you pay quite a large amount of money for the privilege of paying yet more money to stay in one of their affiliate locations when you travel. The only thing you get for these memberships is a guaranteed price for the times when you travel.
I have yet to see the value in this - you pay a large 'membership' fee, but you still have to pay for the lodging when you use the membership. It's never made sense to me, so I have not invested in one of these. You are usually offered cruises or plane tickets in return for the (cheesy and pushy) presentation. I attended one and later found I had to pay a fee to use the 'free' plane tickets.
Timeshares, on the other hand, are actual purchases of real estate. There are advantages and disadvantages, but a key difference between timeshares and the travel club programs mentioned above is that you actually own a piece of the property, and you don't pay additional lodging fees when you travel there.
Some final thoughts
To our surprise, meals and other expenses were reasonable!
I'd always heard that food on Hawaii was very expensive, and that it's costly to travel there. Aside from a weak moment at a jewelry store (sorry!), the trip wasn't that expensive in terms of food and entertainment.
Luaus seem to range from $60 on up, and it probably pays to go to one that has a good reputation. You would easily pay $30 for the buffet that was included (the selection of dishes was endless), and the entertainment alone would cost that much at most local theaters Stateside.
We ate most meals on the run while driving around the island, and we were very happy with the small local restaurants we found; we were able to get lunch or dinner for $8 to $15 in most cases. We did splurge for a sit-down dinner at the hotel one night, but it was covered by the $50 gift card we got. Aside from the small restaurants we visited, we certainly could have spent $25 or more for dinners (not counting alcohol, if you choose to drink), or a similar amount for a fancy lunch. The point is, you can eat quite well without doing that. Breakfast can range from $8 to $15 at hotel restaurants to a few dollars for pastries or other light fare. The breakfast at the mountaintop park was well under $10.
Gas was a bit higher than in the states, but the island was small enough that we didn't use that much during our stay.