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Kauai: Paradise on a budget can still feel like luxury

Kauai is a picture-perfect paradise, with warm blue water, countless waterfalls, and dramatic land formations that draw adventure- and beauty-seekers worldwide. A family wedding in early June was a perfect reason to visit. My goal was to spend wisely on the big-ticket items so that I could take advantage of all Kauai had to offer. Happily, I found out that you don’t need to spend big to live it up island-style.

Getting there

When I first began my airfare search in January 2004, the lowest prices started around $600 round-trip. Hawaii doesn’t really have a low season, but many hotels and B&Bs on the island offer low-season prices for summer stays anyway, so I hoped that as time went on, I would be able to find cheaper airfare as well. However, my dates spanned the busy Memorial Day travel weekend, so I was prepared to pay a bit more if necessary.

Although it felt a bit risky, I decided to wait through a few sales, but happily watched prices drop further each time. Because I had a mild interest in earning United frequent flyer miles, I kept an extra close eye on United and its partner airline, Aloha. When Aloha announced a sale in early February with fares for $308, including all taxes and fees, I booked immediately.

Although I generally have mixed feelings about booking through Hotwire, especially when it comes to hotels (you never know what you’re going to get until it’s too late), I found it to be a great way to get an affordable rental car. Through Hotwire, I booked a mid-size car from Hertz for eight days on Kauai for $235, which would have cost $389 if I had booked directly through Hertz. The car I received had only eight miles on the odometer, plus I got a CD player, which likely wouldn’t have come with a compact or economy class rental. Plus, as I discovered through the Hertz website, when a AAA member rents a car, other AAA members can be added as additional drivers for no extra charge, which saved my traveling party another $50.

Getting around

While renting a convertible is very popular on Kauai, it may not be the best idea for all parts of the island. I spent most of my time on the north shore, which gets around 85 inches of rain per year, and almost every day I watched sudden rainstorms catch people who were cruising along with the top down. In contrast, the south and west shores receive far less rain, making them more suitable areas for convertibles.

If you want something more than the average rental car, and you plan on taking advantage of the amazing hiking on the island, a four-wheel drive vehicle (such as a Jeep) might better transport you, especially to overgrown trailheads.

Sleeping and eating

After researching hotels and resorts on the north shore of Kauai, I decided to stay in a vacation rental instead. While resorts offer many amenities, a vacation rental allowed my traveling companions and me the autonomy we wanted in our island escape. I first checked Kauai Vacation Resorts and Kauai Vacation Rentals to get a sense of what my options were. I knew I wanted to be on the north shore, so I also did a search using the keywords “vacation rental” and then plugged in the names of towns in the area.

We decided on a vacation rental with a kitchen, common areas for relaxing, and a deck with a barbecue and a view of the river. Plus, our rental house came with beach towels and chairs, boogie boards, and snorkeling gear. At $48 per person, per night, it was a deal I couldn’t pass up.

Restaurants are often more expensive on Kauai than on the mainland, so having a kitchen for at least breakfast and lunch meant major savings. That’s not to say that food at the grocery store was cheap; I was shocked to find $5 milk and $7 cereal at a small local market. However, I discovered that shopping at larger grocery stores in more major towns (such as Princeville and Kapa’a) was more economical.

Farmers markets were a great source for locally grown and delicious food. I learned about apple-bananas, enjoyed coconut milk right out of the coconut, and bought ripe, juicy tomatoes. If you can’t make it to a farmers market, fruit stands along the side of the road can offer the same produce, and sometimes extra goodies like sandwiches and dried fruit. Prices are about the same as the grocery store, and it’s a great way to talk to locals and buy the freshest produce.

Staying active on a budget

On Kauai, I had a plethora of activities to choose from. I found hiking, which cost me only as much as a good guidebook and a bag lunch, to be a perfect way to see hidden waterfalls, swimming holes, and snorkeling spots, plus explore the Na Pali coast. While a helicopter ride to see the inaccessible interior of the island wasn’t in my budget, my hike and a trek to Waimea Canyon gave me a satisfying glimpse of the island’s rugged beauty for much less.

Also, eager to spend as much time in the water as possible, I visited a new beach every day and took a 90-minute surfing lesson in Hanalei for $40. (For other first timers like me, I highly recommend instructor Cliff at Learn To Surf.) I liked surfing so much that I rented a surfboard the next day for just $10. I also considered other affordable activities like kayaking, horseback riding, and going on a day cruise. But in the end, the allure of relaxing at the beach won out, and I returned home rested, rich in memories, and well within budget.

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