The good news? Hawaii is gorgeous, and a cruise offers the opportunity to experience several islands' unique personalities without having to constantly pack and unpack your suitcase. The bad news? The price of paradise is steep. Because of our 50th state's distance from the continental U.S. — more than 2,000 miles off the Pacific Coast — everything needs to be imported, which means meals and souvenirs often cost double what you'd expect to pay on a call to a mainland port like Miami or even Boston. (Fun fact: When K-Mart and Best Buy initially opened on the islands, the locals lined up for hours beforehand, so eager were they to bag bargains!)
Sure, going it by sea gives you a leg up on land travelers shelling out an average of $180 per night for a hotel room, but once you've plunked down $1,500 apiece for a balcony cabin, and estimated you'll pay another $500 in onboard expenses ranging from spa treatments to bar charges, will you have anything left to spend on land? Sure — if you know where to look. Having visited regularly by sea and air for the past 18 years, I have picked up budget-boosting secrets for achieving luxury on low dough — no matter which island you visit. But first, here are a few general tips for saving money on your Hawaiian cruise:
When you arrive at each port of call, look for the free, slender magazines with names like Oahu Gold and This Week on Maui (or Oahu or Kauai), which always contain a wealth of discounts, coupons, freebies and two-for-one deals to make the most of your trip. Even better, visit their Web sites ahead of time, and request copies before you even pack your bags!
Remember, all Hawaiian beaches are open to the public, so you can swim and surf the sands fronting any luxury hotel. (Just don't try to sneak into a pool area lounge chair, or, as I have seen happen many times, you'll be politely asked to leave.)
For great souvenirs, visit grocery stores for Kona coffee, chocolate-macadamia nuts and other edible goodies. I personally love the ABC stores and Long's Drugstores, where I always find the most adorable items: Island Heritage note cards in the shape of aloha shirts, which open at the buttons ($8.99); aloha-shirt sticky notes ($2.99); kiddie purses made from coconuts ($2.99); shell night lights ($4.99); surfboard key rings ($2.99); and hula-girl "dolls" whose colorful skirts are used for dusting ($4.99).
For more money-saving tips, here's our island-by-island rundown:
What to Do
Cruise ships dock at the pier at the Aloha Tower Marketplace; you'll be met by hula dancers and Hawaiian musicians who perform as they once did during the old "boat days." The Aloha Tower Marketplace offers a wealth of fun shops and great dining. Adjacent is the Hawaii Maritime Center where you can learn about Hawaiian history, starting with its discovery by Polynesian navigators more than 1,500 years ago. $7.50 admission; 8:30 until 5 p.m. daily. (808) 536-6373.
Walking along Kalakaua Avenue is a must-do, as is visiting the beach fronting the pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel. There, you'll find the most people-watching-worthy sands anywhere, with gorgeous views of Diamond Head. If you're feeling adventurous, walk to the adjacent Outrigger Waikiki Hotel, and take an outrigger canoe ride. For just $5 per person, you'll ride three waves, just like the ancient Polynesians did. 2335 Kalakaua Ave. (808) 926-9889. After, it's free to sit in Halekulani's House Without A Key lounge. From 5 until 8 p.m. nightly, you'll see free live entertainment in which you'll hear beautiful Hawaiian music, and watch a former Miss Hawaii dance the ultimate hula. If you spend $8.50 on one of their acclaimed Mai Tais (there are no cocktail specials) you'll have an evening — and spectacular sunset — filled with fun and music for less than $10! 2199 Kalia Rd., (808) 923-2311.
From the Aloha Tower Marketplace you can catch the Waikiki Trolley's yellow line, which is the shopping route that takes you to, among other places, the Ward Warehouse and Ala Moana Center malls. $25 per person for a one-day pass.
Just a 20-minute cab ride away, Waikiki also offers not-to-be-missed adventures. History buffs, World War II veterans, and lovers of all things Hawaiian should take the free historical tour at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider — Waikiki's first hotel. (I've found it so interesting that I've taken it at least three times.) There, staff historian Tony Bissen educates visitors from around the world on the turn-of-the-century resort, and the evolution of Waikiki; last year Bissen spoke to more than 6,000 people. During WWII, the hotel was closed, and the American government used it to offer rest and relaxation to U.S. servicemen. (If you listen closely, you can almost hear the Glenn Miller music.) The hotel's main building, the Banyan Wing, is even listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Don't forget to check out the huge banyan tree that graces the oceanfront property. Tours are held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when various ships are in town, at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. 365 Kalakaua Ave., (808) 923-3111.
You'll never forget your visit to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, where 1,100 crewmen lost their lives on December 7, 1941. Arrive at least one hour before doors open at 7:30 a.m. The tour starts with a brief film, then a quick boat ride to the silent resting place and memorial that earns all of our respect. You can even see oil leaking from one of the compartments of the sunken ship, below the memorial. (808) 422-0561. (No admission; donations accepted.) Pearl Harbor is about a 15-minute cab ride from the pier.
Where to Shop
If you visit Pearl Harbor on Saturday or Sunday, you can follow up your visit with a trip across the street to the Aloha Flea Market to find first-class souvenirs at coach prices. Admission is 50 cents — a small price to pay for the great deals within, such as eight T-shirts for $10, $8 backpacks and board shorts, 12 shell leis for $3, aloha wear starting at $5, and macadamia nuts for $6 per pound.
If you love to bag bargains, head to the International Marketplace — a shopper's paradise with scores of vendors at kiosks selling all types of jewelry, souvenirs and clothing. No trip to Hawaii is complete without purchasing some Royal Hawaiian jewelry: gold earrings and pendants, etched with plumeria flowers and filled with black enamel. I've bought just about everything here — sarongs, divine tropical soaps, pearl earrings and pendants, strands of freshwater pearls. At Gold Classics, you'll discover its best-selling 14-karat gold Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry, which is handmade on site. Individual gold charms start at $15; small gold flower earrings, cultured pearl earrings and sterling silver sets of pendants and earrings all start at $25. 2330 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu.
Where to Eat
Winner of awards too numerous to mention, Ono Hawaiian Foods is a hole-in-the-wall, no-frills restaurant 3/4 of a mile outside Waikiki. Its owner is an 84-year-old semi-retired woman who opened the business as its chef and financial wizard. Ono Hawaiian foods ("Ono" means "delicious" in Hawaiian) is one of the few restaurants to serve authentic aloha food, from jerky-like pipikalua to laulau (ti-leaf wrapped steamed packets filled with taro leaves and chunks of pork) and poi. Try the chicken long rice combination plate for $9.50, which includes lomi salmon and a square of scrumptious haupia coconut custard for dessert. Closed Sundays; open daily 11 a.m. - 7:45 p.m. 726 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu, (808) 737-2275.
What to Do
Every night at 7 p.m., Whalers Village, Kaanapali, hosts free entertainment of Polynesian music and dance on the Center Stage. 2435 Kaanapali Parkway, (808) 661-4567. After, head to the Hyatt Regency Maui's rooftop and take the "Tour of the Stars" at 11 p.m.; a special tour for couples only is held on Friday and Saturday nights. The event includes Champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries and a guided tour of Maui's superb skies, thanks to "Big Blue," the 16-inch high-powered telescope. You'll see the Southern Cross, star clusters and galaxies. $25 per person at this writing. 200 Nohea Kai Dr., Lahaina, (808) 661-1234.
Where to Shop
Locals and celebrities swear by Maui Babe browning lotion. The local secret potion, made upcountry in Wailuku, is used by models and sports figures all over the world. It's made with Kona coffee, kukui nut oil and aloe. When used alone or on top of sunscreen with any SPF, it will turn you an amazing cocoa tan (and you'll smell good enough to drink). Find it in $9 and $13 sizes at ABC stores and Long's. (800) 250-3581. Not convinced it's a necessity? Buy the small size — you'll swear by it — and used sparingly, it can last far beyond your Hawaiian cruise.
Or rent a car and drive to the outdoor market opposite Kalama Park, Kihei, held 11 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. daily. You'll find excellent deals on local, handmade paper products, koa-wood merchandise, clothes, soaps, candles and much more.
Where to Eat
Make fish your main dish at Alexander's Fish, Chicken and Chips (which is next to the Kihei outdoor market, and also in Lahaina and Kahului). I can vouch that Alexander's offers a satisfying lunch, and they're known for "great food fast at fast-food prices." Everything's made from scratch daily, and when frying, they only use canola oil. You can order a lunch entree of mahi, ono or ahi fish for just $7.95, or a broiled fish or chicken sandwich for $7.25. In Lahaina at 840 Wainee St. (808) 667-9009.
KONA, BIG ISLAND
What to Do
Perk yourself up with a visit to one of the Kona coast's legendary coffee farms. The one closest to the pier is Kona Blue Sky Coffee Company, a 15-minute drive to Holualoa. The free 20-minute tour includes a video, a stroll in the gardens, tastings of decaf and various roasts, and samples of coffees and chocolate-covered coffee beans. In the retail store, you can purchase made-in-Hawaiian gourmet goodies such as chocolate, macadamia nuts and pancake mix. Two-ounce bags start at $4.50, while 3.5-oz bags of coffee covered in chocolate are just $8. Yum! (877) 322-1700. The best show in town is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where the 4,000-ft. Kilauea volcano has erupted continuously since 1983. Rent a car and head to this fascinating place; entrance fees to the Kilauea Visitor Center are just $10 per car. Click here or call (808) 985-6000 for an eruption update. Open 7:45 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.
Where to Shop
On the way back, stop at the Alii Gardens Marketplace, an open-air Kona market held Wednesday through Sunday from 9 - 5 p.m. You can shop for island merchandise, bargains and super-affordable souvenirs. (808) 334-1381. For example, you can find stunning black pearls that would ordinarily sell for more than $500 for less than $300. The artwork, done by local artists, can be made starting at about $15 for prints, and paintings starting at $75, depending on the artist and framing.Where to Eat
Kona's Huggo's On The Rocks is as close to the water as you can get without getting wet. Ask for table 14, to see and hear the waves crashing below your tiki-torch-lit table. Eat dinner on the ship if you like to make the most of the cruise meals you've already paid for, but come here for snacks and delectable desserts. Enjoy $8.96 grilled pizzas and $10.95 imu chicken tacos and fish tacos, then dive into a delectable dessert: the $10.95 signature Pele mud pie with Tahitian vanilla ice cream. 75-5828 Kahakai Rd. (808) 329-1493.
HILO, BIG ISLAND
What to Do
The Pacific Tsunami Museum chronicles the fact that tsunamis have killed more people in the State of Hawaii than all other natural disasters combined. In fact, Hilo has suffered more damage than any other area of the Hawaiian islands. The museum is a living monument to those who lost their lives in past tsunamis. By combining scientific information with actual testimony taken from oral histories of tsunami survivors, the museum makes the experience real — and fascinating — for museum visitors. Myths and legends about tsunamis are also addressed. $7 admission; 130 Kamehameha Ave. (808) 935-0926.
Where to Shop
The Farmer's Market is so terrific that residents of the other Hawaiian islands fly in to Hilo just to shop here. Choose from the finest, freshest variety of exotic fruits, vegetables and flowers including lychee, star fruit, coconut, papaya, orchid, anthurium, heliconia, bire of paradise, protea, gardenia and roses. Open every Wednesday and Saturday, 7 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Where to Eat
Just one whiff -- that's all it takes to get your taste buds excited at O'Keefe & Sons Bread Bakers. Owner Jim O'Keefe (a former New Englander) sells about 30 irresistible artisan loaves such as German rye, Italian focaccia, and American sourdough and honey wheat. But the real treat is lunch on Monday or Friday. That's when the bakery serves its thick, amazing, made-from-scratch vegetarian chowders of corn, and New England clam, respectively, poured in a half-pound bread "bowl." They cost just $5.95 each, served with a small salad, letting you say sayonara to a lackluster lunch. 347 Kinoole St., Hilo. (808) 934-9334.
What to Do
At the Kauai Museum in Lihue, you can learn about the art and artifacts of Native Hawaiians; displays include a permanent collection of poi pounders, calabashes and tapa; tell the story of Captain Cook's arrival; and offer WWII memorabilia. The museum's gift shop sells books and distinctive Hawaiian crafts, such as rare, collectible tiny-shell necklaces from the Niihau, the "forbidden" Hawaiian island where the public is prohibited. A Niihau shell necklace lei can take up to four years to complete, and prices for them range from several hundred to thousands of dollars. $7 admission for adults; 4428 Rice St. (808) 245-6931.
Where to Shop
After your cruise ships docks at Nawiliwili Harbor in Lihue, disembark and head one block over to the Aloha Center Marketplace, where you'll find 11 vendors offering uncommon local crafts such as carved wood items, handmade glass and jewelry, paintings by Hawaiian artists, quilts, body lotions, and more. Aloha Center Marketplace offers free shuttles back and forth from the cruise terminal. Here you'll find 10,000 square ft. of goodies -- tapa cloth that's 30 percent cheaper than anywhere else on Kauai, koa bowls that are discounted up to 40 percent off and handmade pearl jewelry starting at $10 that would be priced up to $35 elsewhere. You'll also find made-in-Hawaii aloha wear and unusual woven baskets and purses. Moped rentals started at the beginning of 2006, and helicopter tours can be booked on site. Open 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday - Saturday, (808) 245-6996.
Where to Eat
One place that I visit on every trip to Hawaii is Duke's Canoe Club, the famed restaurant named after Hawaii's four-time Olympic swimming champion (and the father of surfing) Duke Kahanamoku. Even if you're not a surfer dude — or Gidget — you'll find that Duke's offers a fun-filled atmosphere that may inspire you to "hang ten." The place is filled with vintage surfing memorabilia and posters, and even some of Duke's own surfboards. You'll walk away with nothing but respect and admiration for Duke himself. Duke's in Kauai is on Kalapaki Beach, at the Marriott next door to the harbor. Its Barefoot Bar is the place for a pina colada at sunset -- it's located right on the sands of beautiful Kalapaki Beach, with stunning views. (808) 246-9599.
If there were a saimin (noodle) Hall of Fame, Hamura's would be in it. This mom-and-pop luncheonette in Lihue is a throwback in time; fans line up to sit on wooden stools at the decades-old U-shaped counter, where they scarf down steaming bowls of saimin heaped with vegetables, wontons, hard-boiled eggs, sweetened pork, vegetables and condiments. At just $3.25 a bowl, it's the best deal in town. Hamura's, about a mile from the dock, is always busy. Save room for the lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie for dessert. It's ono — that's Hawaiian for "delicious." 2956 Kress St., (808) 245-3271.Karpowicz-Kickham, formerly editor of Robb Report Magazine, also contributes to publications ranging from Canada's National Post to Weight Watchers Magazine.
Cruise Critic has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas Award and was named in Travel + Leisure's "Best 35 Travel Sites" list.