While planning a weeklong family trip to Hawaii, I kept getting suggestions from friends, websites and even my kids for all kinds of "must-see" activities.
Helicopter tours! Dolphin encounters! Luaus! Bike rides down volcanic mountains!
Then I checked out the prices for all these marvels. Helicopter tour, $200. Dolphin encounter, $100. Luau, $100. Bike ride, $100.
Now multiply each fee by four, for me, my spouse and two kids. I'd just added $2,000 to the budget for our trip. But if we didn't do any of these things, would we really feel we'd missed out?
We skipped them all, yet our trip to Hawaii was spectacular. We hiked through rain forests, walked across a volcano floor, stargazed from the world's tallest mountain and swam in a bay full of colorful sea life. We visited Pearl Harbor, climbed Diamond Head, sunbathed on Waikiki and body-surfed at Hanalei Bay. We saw petroglyphs on a remote seaside trail and watched Hawaiian dancers at sunset. We even stopped by the apartment building where Barack Obama was raised, because I wanted my kids to see that you don't have to grow up in a mansion to be president.
The cost, aside from parking or car entry fees: Zero.
Which is not to say that a vacation to Hawaii can be done on a dime. Airfare is sky-high — more than $1,200 round-trip from Tampa in April. If you can wait until summer, when it's humid here and there, you'll pay about $400 less. If Hawaii is a dream trip and you're ready to bite the airfare bullet, some cheap activities can offset the expense.
We stuffed ourselves at free hotel breakfasts and at places like Me's BBQ, 151 Uluniu St. in Waikiki on Oahu, where the plate lunch (a mix of choices including chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, rice and macaroni salad) fills you up for under $10. The Hawaiian ABC chain became our second home, offering basics like sunscreen and postcards as well as fresh fruit, sushi and sandwiches.
But most of all, we collected memories from one amazing adventure to the next, without spending a lot of cash.
KALALAU TRAIL AND HANALEI BAY ON KAUAI: The Kalalau Trail (kalalautrail.com) on Kauai's Napali Coast is 11 miles one way, but the first section — 4 miles round-trip — makes a perfect half-day outing. Parking is free, but the limited spots fill up early. The steep trail can be muddy and slippery; wear sturdy footwear. Scenery ranges from lush and junglelike as you climb the mountain to dramatic overlooks from high cliffs over the ocean to roaring waves on a rocky beach.
Numerous signs warn against swimming; the surf is known for deadly riptides. But when you're done hiking, drive a short distance to the public beach at beautiful Hanalei Bay for a dip.
MAUNA KEA, VOLCANOES PARK AND KAHALUU BAY ON THE BIG ISLAND: Mauna Kea, the world's tallest mountain (30,000 feet from its base in the ocean to its summit, which sits 14,000 feet above sea level), is home to many of the world's largest observatories. Guided tours can run $200, but there is a free alternative.
Free stargazing programs are held nightly at the visitors center, at 9,000 feet. We looked through a telescope at Mars' polar ice cap and other celestial wonders.
Best souvenir at Mauna Kea: "Beware of Invisible Cows" bumper sticker, which refers to cows that may be hidden by fog on the rough mountain road. Most rental car companies prohibit driving to Mauna Kea because of road conditions, but one, Harper (harpershawaii.com), rents four-wheel-drive vehicles specifically for Mauna Kea.
We spent a day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo; car entry fee, $10), where we hiked through lush rain forests and then across the black-cratered floor of the Kilauea volcano, punctuated occasionally by bright red lehua flowers. Elsewhere, the black volcanic rock stretches to the ocean. The volcano is active, so you might see plumes of white smoke in daylight, and an orange lava glow at night.
A final Big Island wonder was Kahaluu Beach Park in Kona. For under $10, you can rent snorkel gear on site and wade into the water to see coral and fish. The sea life is so colorful, you don't even need to put your head underwater to see it. Huge green sea turtles can be observed swimming here too. The parking lot fills up fast; street parking is available.
DIAMOND HEAD, PEARL HARBOR, HULA SHOW AND SURFING ON OAHU: The famous beach at Waikiki is in Honolulu on Oahu. Here I found a free alternative to a luau. The Kuhio Beach Park Hula Show offers a charming, authentic show of traditional Hawaiian music, dance and stories with a torch lighting. It's at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (6 p.m. in November, December and January).
No visit to Oahu is complete without visiting Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. Arrive first thing to beat the crowds. A steep 1.6-mile round-trip trail to the summit of Diamond Head's volcanic cone offers panoramic views; parking is $5; pedestrians, $1 per person (bit.ly/eoB6kg).
At Pearl Harbor (nps.gov/valr) your visit begins with a film on the site's history. Then take a short boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial just offshore above the sunken vessel where more than 1,000 victims remain entombed. Parking is limited; visitors are encouraged to take buses or taxis to the site.
We did opt for a few small splurges, like $30 one-hour surfing lessons for the kids that got them up and riding the waves.