Confessions of a Hawaii Travel Veteran

What do you want out of your Hawaiian holiday? Will you be satisfied with the standard tourist experience—staying at the high-rise hotels, soaking in the sun and sand at Waikiki Beach—or does your soul crave something a little more unique?

Having experienced a wide variety of vacations in the Hawaiian Islands, from staying in the most luxurious resorts and taking part in high-dollar excursions to camping under the stars and bunking with farm volunteers, I have a few confessions to make.

By revealing what I’ve discovered in the paradise known as Hawaii, I hope you’ll be better prepared to make your own decisions as to what makes a vacation something straight out of your dreams.

Value Accommodations

They say money doesn’t buy happiness. While it does take a certain level to make sure your basics are covered, I’ve found that, in general, the experiences I’ve had in Hawaii that didn’t require lots of cash were far more rewarding.

Upscale resorts offer comfy beds and nice amenities—but they’re missing something when it comes to really immersing the traveler in this nature-lover’s paradise.

Extravagant hotels tend to draw travelers who expect a certain level of pretentiousness. Inside the lobby of any given high-end resort, you’re bound to hear a loud, obnoxious tourist complaining about the most miniscule of details.

In Hawaii, there are a number of places where you can camp for free or for just a few dollars while under a canopy of stars, with the sounds of the waves gently lulling you to sleep. Here in the tropics, average temperatures at night are in the upper 60s and low 70s year-round—why wouldn’t you choose to camp in the great outdoors? It’s certainly the better bargain.

Connecting to the Aloha Spirit

By avoiding the more costly (and often more touristy) excursions, I feel more of a connection to the Aloha spirit. The locals won’t usually be found in these places, and it’s within the people of Hawaii that you feel this amazing state of mind.

The Aloha Spirit is a well-known Hawaiian reference, but few take the time to learn its true meaning. It stands for much more than the common greetings of hello and goodbye.

It’s a life energy that brings joy and happiness to the present through gratitude, love and acceptance. It’s a path to becoming attuned to the divine power the Hawaiians refer to as mana.

Spending time with the people, taking the time to get to know them and their way of life, doesn’t cost a thing and can be a life-changing experience in and of itself.

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Connecting with Nature

Tourists spend hundreds of dollars for the chance to swim with the dolphins—who are all too often captives imprisoned inside pools at luxury hotel properties or ocean parks. Something about that just doesn’t feel right, especially considering how extremely intelligent these animals are.

While there are also tours that allow people to swim with wild dolphins in their own habitat, the truth is that swimming toward the dolphins, attempting to touch them or splashing around them can be just as disturbing. This is not only against the Hawaiian way of life that calls for respect for this incredible environment, it’s illegal.

If you’re a very good swimmer, there is another option in which you can experience life in the water with dolphins. On the east side of The Big Island, at a hidden black sand beach known as Kehena, a pod of wild dolphins often swims by the rocks.

The waves can get a bit rough here, but those who are in good shape can swim out while the curious dolphins frequently swim near on their own to get a closer look. This unforgettable experience is completely free and does not cause harm to these magnificent creatures.

Many of the Best Attractions Are Free

The highlights of my many trips to the islands are almost always activities that didn’t cost a thing, with the exception of maybe a small entrance fee, while some of the more costly adventures I took part in often felt like a waste of hard-earned cash.

On my first holiday in Hawaii, I spent quite a bit on a sunset sailing trip. While it sounded very romantic, it didn’t take me long to realize that we were only sailing a few hundred yards off shore—sailing back and forth near the same spot while packed in like sardines with other tourists! Finding a private spot on the beach to watch the sun dip below the horizon would have been preferable and wouldn’t have cost a thing.

Visiting the island’s many spectacular waterfalls is always one of my favorite things to do. The Big Island has some of the most breathtaking, especially on the northeastern coast. At Wailuku River State Park, you’ll find the 80-foot Rainbow Falls cascading down into bubbling pools known as Boiling Pots.

Traveling the Road to Hana on Maui is especially rewarding, with its heavenly smells of guava and ginger filling the air, endless idyllic beaches, cascading falls and basalt-lined pools perfect for taking a dip.

A friend in Kauai once took me on an incredible trip down the Hanalei River, Hawaii’s only navigable inland waterway, revealing many of the Garden Isle’s hidden spots, including Secret Falls. If you aren’t lucky enough to know someone who lives there, it may be worth shelling out the money for a guided tour.

Looking back to my experiences in this breathtaking region of our planet, I have to confess, the memories that make me smile the most didn’t cost a single cent.