Kevin Whitton, author of Moon Hawaiian Islands, shares practical tips for making the best of The Aloha State.
What are your tips for someone making last minute travel arrangements during peak season? Is there one island that’s easier to arrange than others? What do you think about the air/hotel packages?
Hawai‘i is heading into its peak travel season and rates are at their highest. Waikiki will be at maximum occupancy and without a reservation you can expect at least an hour wait at the most popular restaurants for dinner service. For last-minute travelers, you’ll probably find that only the most expensive accommodations at the big name hotels are available.
Don’t get discouraged: there are ways to take advantage of last-minute planning. For example, Kaua‘i and the Big Island usually have lower occupancy rates than O‘ahu and Maui and might have more reasonable room rates for peak season to attract business. You can also take advantage of the flight and hotel package deals offered on travel and airline websites. However, before you book online, check the hotel website first to see if a better rate is available. In addition to that, once you’ve made your selection on an accommodation, call the hotel and speak with a reservation representative and ask about last-minute specials. Often you can find a good rate by working personally with the reservationist.
Flexibility is really the key to last-minute travel. If you’re open minded, and willing to take a garden-view room instead of an ocean-view room, you’ll most likely find the same experience as someone that booked a trip months in advance.
A lot of travelers to the islands are return visitors. What are your suggestions for people who have “been there/done that”?
For return visitors that have seen the sights, been on the tours, and explored the islands, sometimes the most obvious thing to do in Hawai‘i is what people have not yet done. Sometimes when I travel to a neighbor island with the family, we post up in a favorite, quiet locale where the beach, restaurants, and accommodations are all close by. I put the car keys away when I arrive at the accommodation and don’t pick them up till its time to drive back to the airport.
That’s right: if you’ve been there and done that, yet love the islands and keep coming back, then you’re sure to have that favorite spot that speaks to your heart. To really connect with that locale, with the people that live there and the natural beauty of the surroundings, find the right accommodation, post up, and put the car the keys away for a week. Walk the beach in the morning and evenings. Have coffee and read a book—really decompress and relax, and enjoy doing nothing at all but soaking up the surroundings.
What are your top tips for budget travelers?
It’s no secret that just about everything is more expensive in Hawai‘i than on the mainland. For travelers on a budget, that means traveling smarter and planning better to stretch the dollar. The first step is traveling during a non-peak season. Having a larger window for your vacation can really pay off, as flight and accommodation rates can change from week to week. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid summer and the holiday times around December. Spring Break season can see a rise in prices, too.
Often, you can find cheap accommodation rates if you’re willing to forgo prime real estate locales, like beachfront properties, or amenities like air conditioning. In Waikiki, choosing a property on Kuhio Avenue versus Kalakaua Avenue can save you a couple hundred dollars a night.
Another way to save money is to travel with a group and split the cost of a vacation rental, such as a home or condo with multiple baths, bedrooms, and a complete kitchen. This allows for shopping at grocery stores and preparing meals at the rental, so you don’t have to eat out at every meal. For those traveling light, camping is also a great option in Hawai‘i, although you’ll need to be prepared with your own gear. Camping is extremely affordable, but you will need to secure permits (which can be done online). Most campgrounds are closed one day a week, so campers can’t post up for weeks on end. If you’re camping, have a set plan for where to move your camp and have your permits ready to go. Or, duck into a hotel for a night for a hot shower and a little pampering.
If you plan on island hopping, you can save money by traveling at non-peak hours. When you book your ticket, remember that fares are lower for mid-day and late-evening flights.
Everyone knows the physical beauty of the Islands, but in what ways can visitors immerse themselves in Island history and culture?
Hawaii’s rich history is a story of the indigenous local culture, agricultural migrants that shaped the flavor of many towns, and Western influences introduced by the British. Visitors can tap into the history and culture by taking a closer look at some of the many cultural sites across the state. Explore native Hawaiian culture by seeking out heiau, native Hawaiian places of worship. There are many across the state, in different stages of disrepair or restoration. Heiau were made by stacking stones to create platforms and walls. The sites of the heiau are often washed in mana, or energy, and quiet reflection at these sacred places can really get your imagination going. It’s important to remember that heiau are religious sites, and resources such as Nā Wahi Pana: Respecting Hawaiian Sacred Sites, provided by ‘Ahahui Mālama I Ka Lōkahi and the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club, can help visitors inform themselves about respectful and culturally appropriate behavior.
For history buffs, Historic Honolulu can’t be missed. At the center you’ll find ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States. The Pearl Harbor Historic Sites are an obvious draw to commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor, where thousands perished. The Big Island also holds its own historic monument at the site where Captain James Cook landed in Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park.
Another great way to immerse yourself in island culture is to take in the music and the food. Most restaurants offer free live music at least once a day. Seek out establishments with musicians that play traditional Hawaiian music instead of classic rock covers. The beautiful mix of ukulele, guitar, and lyrics that speak of the natural beauty of Hawai‘i will offer a more meaningful experience than singing along to a Jimmy Buffet song you’ve heard a thousand times before. Look for mom-and–pop eateries in smaller towns away from touristy areas to get the most authentic local food possible. If raw fish isn’t your thing, stick with the kalua pork and cabbage.
What’s the biggest mistake that visitors to Islands make?
The biggest mistake most visitors to the islands make is packing too heavy and forgetting to bring more than one swimsuit. Leave those sweatshirts, beach towels, ponchos, and extra outfits at home. Even during winter, Hawai‘i beaches will remain in the mid- to upper seventies. At night, the temperature might dip five degrees. The air conditioning in most establishments will be set cooler than the outside temperature, so if you do need a cover up in the evenings, it will most likely be at dinner. If rain is in the forecast, most showers are short events that pass quickly with the trade winds. However, if a storm sets in, just grab an umbrella at the local market.
When you’re packing, reflect upon what you’ll be doing during your stay. If you plan on being in the water every day, bring a couple bathing suits and leave your shoes and socks at home. If you don’t have a pair of slippers (you might call them flip-flops, sandals or thongs) you can find a cheap pair at most grocery stores and souvenir shops. Five dollars will have you styling in a pair of rubber slippers, just like the locals wear. Conversely, if you plan on hiking and doing a lot of walking, a pair of comfortable, lightweight shoes will do the trick.
Don’t pack beach towels. Your hotel will have you covered. If you’re an avid surfer who plans on exploring the many surf breaks across the islands, then you’ll want to bring your own board. The extra fee at the airport will be worth the ease of paddling out without renting a board every time. If you plan on snorkeling and don’t want to jam a snorkel set into your luggage, most hotels and all tour operators have equipment to rent or buy. And if you plan on bringing your own sunscreen, make sure to pack it in your check-in luggage, because if you drop it in your carry on, you’ll be giving it up at the airport.
When your friends and family come to visit, where do you take them?
When family comes to visit, I hand over the keys to my car and house and head to another island till they leave. Just kidding! Entertaining friends and relatives is always a treat, and I enjoy sharing those nooks and crannies of island life. For starters, I always take company to Duke’s Waikiki. The food is delicious, it’s right on the sand, and the view of Waikiki and Diamond Head is amazing. If my company has the urge to jump in the water or rent a longboard to paddle out for a quick surf, it’s all happening right there in front of the restaurant. Duke’s is the perfect place to post up for a few beverages and pupu to watch the action. Not to mention that they always have great live music for pau hana.
The North Shore is another day trip that is a “must” for me. Instead of driving up the H-2, up the middle of O‘ahu, I take the Kamehameha Highway up the windward side of the island. The meandering drive winds up the coast through small rural towns. I always stop in Kahuku at the Kahuku Superette for poke over rice, some of the best on the island. Then we’ll post up at the beach for a while. If it’s summertime, snorkeling is the call; if it’s wintertime, surfing is on the agenda. If the swells are too big for the average surfer, then I prefer to watch the giant waves from the safety of shore at Waimea Bay or Pipeline. After some sun and sand, I stop at Hale‘iwa Joe’s, overlooking the harbor in Hale‘iwa, to catch up with friends, have a beer, and grab a bite. The burger is always good and the crab and avocado salad is the best.
Shave ice is always a treat for visitors, but there are so many places to grab a shave ice, it’s hard to know where to go. I take my guests to Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha in Aina Haina. They make their own syrups—which actually taste like fruit instead of sugar water—and have gourmet ice cream and toppings. Yum!
Save a mainlander from a faux pas. What does a traveler need to know about interacting with locals?
While Hawai‘i is part of the United States of America and traveling to the island state comes with all the comfort, amenities, and safety that U.S. destinations often provide, the local culture is far removed from mainland, Western culture. The biggest faux pas most travelers commit is not respecting the slower paced island lifestyle. And this is most apparent on the road.
Traffic is part of life across the state. Narrow roads, one-lane bridges, winding seaside highways, major roads that pass through neighborhoods—when thousands of people hit the road at the same time everyday, traffic is inevitable. In Hawai‘i, aggressive driving is frowned upon. When merging, cars take turns. If you’re switching lanes in front of someone, wave thank you. If someone needs to move over into your lane in front of you, let them in. In neighborhoods, people often stop to let others turn onto a major street. And you should always stop for pedestrians waiting to cross in the crosswalk. If someone in front of you is not moving as quick as you’d like, please take a deep breath and give them an extra moment more than you’re used to. And above all, don’t honk. That’s considered rude and is a great way to get yourself into an unwanted altercation.
In all interactions, kindness, courtesy, and respect will get you much farther than getting upset and making a fuss. If your meal is not up to your standards, chances are that the management will take care to prepare a new meal for you if you just explain the situation. There’s no need to get upset. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of competing restaurants, and they all want your return business, so they’re happy to go the extra mile.