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Pinching Pennies in Paradise

Follow these money-saving tips for a whale of a Hawaiian vacation.
Story and photos by John Handley

As the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean, the cliff diver in Hawaiian warrior dress climbs massive Puu Kekaa (Black Rock) while holding a torch. He pauses briefly atop the lava rock promontory high above the water. Then he dives dramatically into the dark, churning sea.


Above: A free Hawaiian-style show attracts tourists to Lahaina’s harbor.

Below: The Aston Maui Kaanapali Villas resort is set on three-mile-long Kaanapali Beach.


Applause breaks out from the crowd on the beach watching this nightly performance on Maui’s Kaanapali coast. A re-enactment of the legendary cliff dive by Hawaiian King Kahekili in the 1700s, it ranks as one of the many spectacular photo opportunities on the islands. And the show is absolutely free.

Yes, the price was right and that was our plan. My wife and I set the goal of enjoying the best Hawaiian vacation at the lowest cost. Here are some of the money-saving tips we picked up while soaking up the sun in a tropical paradise.

Accommodation deals

We scored the lowest airfare by being flexible in our travel dates and flying midweek. Of course, the best bet is to use frequent flyer miles whenever possible.

Even Hawaii has hotel deals. Many properties offer one free night for every week you book. Others give a 25-percent discount if you stay a week. The best bargains are in the low-season months of May and September.

Because our aim was a relaxing vacation instead of a go, see-it-all trip, we picked just one island. That saved the expense and hassles of flying between islands.

We chose Maui on the advice of friends and relatives. Also, who can argue with ancient Hawaiian royalty who chose Maui as their favorite playground?

The major resort areas on Maui are Kapalua, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Wailea, Kihei, Makena, and Hana. We opted for Kaanapali on the island’s west coast. Launched in the early 1960s as Hawaii’s first master-planned resort area, it’s still hot, boasting a three-mile-long palm-fringed beach lined with resort hotels, condo villages, and championship golf courses.

Kaanapali has the plus of being a short drive from Lahaina, a town with a colorful history, as well as many shopping, entertainment, and dining options.

Food is expensive in Hawaii and restaurant tabs mount quickly. One way to save is to stay at a condo village. Individually owned, the units are put into a rental pool. Condo units often are larger than hotel rooms, but the key advantage is being equipped with complete kitchens.

If a couple makes breakfasts and lunches, they can save $300 or more a week. Of course, families will save even more. On many days, we ate breakfast in the condo, enjoyed lunch at a restaurant (cheaper than dinner out), and then cooked the evening meal at the resort.

Our choice of a condo village was Aston Maui Kaanapali Villas, a AAA Three Diamond property. Set on 11 acres with 266 rooms, it is one of several resorts strung along the three miles of Kaanapali Beach, with swimming, surfing, sailing, and snorkeling almost at your door.

Enjoy whales for a song

The first morning on the beach we had just applied sunscreen and were enjoying the view of Lanai and Molokai, two other islands far across the water, when a dark, moving shape, like a mini submarine, caught our eye. Suddenly, the whale surged out of the sea, seemed to hang in mid-air for an instant, then plunged back with a thunderous splash of white water.

This is a frequent sight along the coast of Maui, one the world’s best whale-watching destinations. From December to May, humpback whales stage the biggest free show on Maui as they breach, almost jumping out of the water. Keep your eyes open at the beach. For a closer view, bring a pair of binoculars.

Whales have come to the Hawaiian Islands for many years. Averaging 40 tons and 45 feet long, more than 2,000 of these gentle giants migrate annually from the Arctic to mate and give birth in these warm waters.

Sailors from New England discovered the bonanza of whales in Hawaii and made Lahaina a bustling–and sometimes rowdy– whaling port from 1825 to 1860.

Today, Lahaina is a thriving tourist town, and the whales are only shot with cameras. Shops and restaurants are centered along busy Front Street. Naturally, the people watching is fun and free–young surfers, aging hippies, and tourists in just-purchased Hawaiian shirts dot the streetscape.

Bottom line: It’s not necessary to pay about $30 per person for a whale-watching cruise. But if you do, go in the morning when the sea is calmer and prices a bit lower.

Entertainment, dining

All budget travelers should pick up copies of the free visitor magazines that are available at the airport in Kahului and along Front Street. These are packed with information about attractions, entertainment, restaurants, and coupons, some offering 20 percent off kayaking, surfing, diving, and whale-watching services. The coupons of several eateries give 50 percent off the second entrée after the first one is purchased at the regular price. If you’ve a taste for a beefy burger, try Cheeseburger in Paradise.

While sightseeing is free, gasoline is more expensive than on the mainland. But the most scenic drive on Maui is worth it. Though only 52 miles long, the Road to Hana zigzags around 600 curves and 56 one-lane bridges on a roller-coaster ride through the mountainous east side of the island. Be sure to stop at overlooks for views of green cliffs falling into the sea and cascading waterfalls.

At the northern end of the road is Hookipa Beach Park near Paia. This is Maui’s surfing haven. It’s fascinating to watch the skill and daring of surfers as they challenge towering waves.

Watching it on Oahu

The royal capital of Hawaii was on Maui in the early 19th century, but then moved to Honolulu on Oahu. Best-known of the islands, Oahu also offers an abundance of free things to do.

Visit Pearl Harbor, part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, and its five historical sites, including the USS Arizona Memorial, which is free. Admission is charged for the other sites.

Walk and wade along famed Waikiki Beach, where the island’s first luxury hotel was built in 1901.

Hike to the top of Diamond Head, Hawaii’s most famous landmark.

Watch world-class surfing at Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay on the North Shore.

All in all, the aloha spirit can be captured on a budget.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

Mar/Apr 2012 Issue


To visit Hawaii, first stop by your nearest AAA Travel office for help planning a complete vacation package. Pleasant Holidays, a AAA preferred travel partner, offers extensive getaways to Hawaii.

The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau
(800-464-2924; has information about Maui and other islands.

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