On the island paradise of Kauai, families can enjoy all the beauty and luxury of a genuine Hawaiian vacation -- without breaking the bank.
One of the greatest -- but by no means the only -- bargains on the island of Kauai: all 43 of its beaches are free of charge and accessible to the public.
It's not surprising that a place as intensely photogenic as Kauai has been the location for such movies as South Pacific and Jurassic Park. What is surprising is that the natural attractions that make the island ideal for shooting expensive blockbusters are the same qualities that make it a great place for families vacationing on a budget. And there's no shortage of both the fun and the breathtaking.
Kids can swim in a mountain lagoon instead of a hotel pool, ride in a kayak instead of a golf cart, and wander through lush tropical gardens instead of tiki-tacky malls. All of these possibilities conspire to give Kauai its reputation as a paradise.
But the island is a relatively affordable one. Granted, Kauai is 3,000 miles away from the mainland and part of one of the most beautiful and popular island chains in the world, so it's going to cost a few bucks to get there. But there are deals available, with some direct flights from Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. There's really not an off-season, so visitors can check with hotels any time of the year to see whether they're offering specials, such as family packages or military or senior discounts. When occupancy is low, hotels are more inclined to give big breaks.
Families looking for budget accommodations will find the best deals in beachside condos, mountain cabins, and village inns. Outrigger's Kiahuna Plantation in Poipu on the island's south side offers large one- and two-bedroom condos with ocean views, a beach, ponds, and orchid gardens, for a realistic price. A two-bedroom sleeps six, so the bigger the family, the more economical. The condos also have full kitchens, so you're able to save money by eating in. Or you can barbecue outside by the beach.
Groceries at nearby neighborhood supermarkets may seem a bit more pricey than at home, but remember, that bottle of ketchup had to travel a long way. Shopping at the local markets is better than the sticker shock you suffer in the little hotel stores.
Inn Waimea, a plantation-style lodge in the tiny, historic sugar town of Waimea, is typical of the off-the-beaten path lodgings where you can often find family cottages that are much cheaper than the big hotels. Mountain cabins, available at Koke'e Lodge, are especially inexpensive, but you'll need to reserve them months in advance.
The lodge is just minutes from the 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon, which stretches 14 miles across the western end of the island and is often called "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific." To find the best deals in lodging, visit the Kauai Visitors Bureau for links and contacts for all hotels on the island.
When you make your reservations, be sure to query property managers about deals. Rates are directly related to occupancy -- cheaper when it's low, more costly when it's high -- so don't be afraid to haggle.
Once the family is unpacked, it's time to experience the beauty of Kauai's beaches. There are 43 of them and, as throughout Hawaii, they're free and accessible to the public. From the beaches of Hanalei Bay on the North Shore to the miles of empty sand on the west side at Kekaha, you could literally spend your entire vacation on a different beach every day. But then you'd miss the gardens and fruit plantations inland.
Kauai has more colors than even the largest box of crayons. Bring a good pair of walking shoes because the best way to see all the colors is by foot. Wander through the "Guava Capital of the World," the 480-acre guava orchards at the Guava Kai Plantation. Or hike up to the Fern Grotto, a stunningly beautiful cave along the Wailua River on the east side of the island. Botanical gardens, such as the National Tropical Garden in Lawa'I Valley, are overflowing with rare plants. Hike the many trails in the challenging Kalalau Valley on the northwest side of the island to the Koloa Heritage Trail, near the island's first sugar plantation.
Shop around -- or do a little haggling -- and when you book that kayak tour, you just might get snorkeling gear thrown in for free. Back on land, be sure to check out the Lihue Shopping Center, where local ukulele classes frequently perform.
The best things in life -- and on Kauai -- are free, or nearly so. For a low price, you can tour the 35-acre Kilohana Plantation Estate from a horse-drawn carriage. Tours of the plantation's 1930s mansion are free.
You can rent a kayak and get snorkel gear thrown in for free. Kayak Kauai on the Hanalei River was one of the first and still the best-known kayak rental outfits. Sign up for an ocean tour along the Napali Coast cliffs, or a paddle up the Wailua River, which culminates at the foot of a plunging waterfall.
Kamokila Village, home of Kaumualii, the king of Kauai who reigned in the late 18th century, has been re-created at the original site. Visitors can see the ruins and petroglyphs, and learn about the king of the only island not conquered by King Kamehameha.
Even families on a budget need to splurge on at least one signature event while on Kauai. One of the most popular is a half-day, off-road all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tour along old sugarcane roads, through a half-mile tunnel carved through a mountain in 1948, across the wide expanse of an extinct volcano, and culminating in a swim at a secret waterfall and pool. The tour is operated by Kauai ATV Tours.
Back at your condo, you might take a minute to just sit and smell the plumerias. You'll realize that for all its beauty, Kauai is real, not a movie backdrop. The slow pace gives the island a small-town flavor, making Kauai the sort of place families return to again and again.