I know, I know: it’s about time. Part three to my “Paradise Has a Price” series has been a long-time coming. If you’re just tuning in, check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full experience.
Boats at sunrise. Photo by me.
Everywhere you turn, there are booths and tents and storefronts dedicated to selling you tourist packages. Activities range from ziplining to helicopter tours to deep-sea fishing excursions. Each come with a price, of course, as well as persuasive messaging reminding you that your time in paradise is short-lived. If YOLO were an island in the Pacific, it would look like Kauai.
My practical husband and I weren’t swayed by all the opportunities to experience this island via tour guide. We left Kauai feeling fairly accomplished, having seen and experienced most of what we intended, and even a few things we didn’t. Here’s my not-so-quick guide to saving money and still having fun on Kauai:
Prepare to drive. When we first started planning our trip, we contemplated not getting a rental car. I’m so glad we decided to get one, because otherwise it would have been difficult to explore the island on our own terms. Kauai is relatively small, but each side has its own charm and it’s fun to explore each area. Hanalei Bay offers lush jungle and insane ocean views, while Princeville gives you a glimpse of the high-end perks enjoyed by those with more money than you. Poipu is populated with resorts, rocky shores and tourist shops, while the area surrounding Waimea Canyon is far more open and agricultural than the rest of the island. Getting a vehicle with good gas mileage is key!
Instead of hiring a chopper tour, walk the trail. Helicopter tours offer an unparalleled vantage point from which to see the Napali Coast and other picturesque areas of the island. If it’s in your budget and something you want to do, by all means, go for it! At $250 to $350 per person, it was most certainly not in our budget. So, we opted to hike the Napali Coast instead and experience the scenery from our own two (four?) feet. Aerial views of the water and mountains are great, but you can’t take a dip in the cool-water streams or smell the ever-present guava and passion fruit littering the trails from the confines of a chopper cabin. Just saying.
Napali Coast Overlook. Photo by me.
DIY. We passed countless tour buses as we explored the area in Scooter McGoo, and sometimes I wondered how they navigated the narrow roads and tight corners. While you miss out on the history and other educational opportunities associated with tour buses and guides, you are tethered to a schedule. A bus tour for Waimea Canyon, for example, would run about $100 each and last 11 hours. While you’re sure to see all the highlights of the area, this tour does not include food and, in my opinion, lasts far too long. Again, if that’s you scene, no judging, but for us, we like to go when we want, stay for as long (or as briefly) as we like, and leave when we’re ready for something different.
Wing it. We discovered Queen Anne’s bath, the perfect early-morning destination to watch the turtles get batted around by powerful waves and look on as brave tourists and fearless locals splash about in the choppy waters. We also found a tasty taco stand in a local shopping area in Kilauea; a quiet beach area visited by locals (and not overrun by tourists); and a few homes for sale. Looking at the selling price and layout of homes on Kauai was oddly entertaining. One place was composed of 10 acres of macadamia nut trees and featured three properties: a mansion with panoramic views of the ocean and cliffs; a cottage on the opposite side of the property for visitors; and a workshop/studio space. For the bargain price of $12 million, it could be ours.
Queen Anne’s Bath. Photo by me.
Splurge selectively. One excursion I wish we would have done was a kayaking trip to the base of a waterfall. Our friends did it and paid $80 (not including tip) for both of them. They set out early in the morning before other tours started crowding the river, and they were the first ones to the final destination. Our friends said the tour guide was very informative and laid back, and they got a good workout in before splashing about in the water to cool down.
Balance relaxation with exploration. Overplanning during a vacation can make you feel exhausted by the time you get on the plane. Putting off plan-making until the last few days of your trip can also cause you to do way too much (and spend too much) toward the end of your trip, having languished a few days in the beginning. Strike a balance between the two: your first day should be spent lounging at the beach and getting your bearings. The next day can allow for more formal exploration, making notes of sites you want to visit and learning about the excursions you should take.
Enjoy free pool time. A week into our trip, a couple from our party got engaged and then married on the island. They booked a room at the Grand Hyatt in Poipu and invited us all to join them in the afternoon for cocktails and pool time. There was some concern that we’d be kicked out of the lagoon-style pool because we weren’t staying with the hotel, but we learned later the pool is open to the public. While the cocktails weren’t cheap ($14 for a specialty mai tai – ouch), the pool and ambience offered a wonderful alternative to ocean swimming.
Waimea Canyon. Photo by me.
Think outside the tourist box. My friend and I were excited for oceanside yoga, via Kauai Yoga on the Beach. Sadly, my blistered feet forced me to cancel, plus the impromptu wedding required the attendance of my friend. At $20 a pop, this experience isn’t exactly frugal, especially since I likely could have led myself through a yoga practice for absolutely free. However, I’m a big fan of the studio scene, and the investment seemed worth it to me since it would allow me to be led through a series of delicious asanas while enjoying a sunrise view. Sun salutation indeed!
Enjoy the in-between. This lesson from yoga definitely rings true on a destination-oriented vacation. Sometimes we’re so caught up in our final destination that we fail to recognize the beauty of the journey and transition. For example, the tree canopy along a short stretch of road between Lihue and Poipu was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and caught us completely by surprise. The rich green mountains and cinnamon-hued soil never ceased to impress us, and the ocean, well, it’s pretty spectacular.
And so ends my epic three-part series surrounding our big adventure on Kauai!