Having lived in Hawaii, I know how painful the price of paradise can be. Even for kama'aina (long-term residents), who enjoy 10 to 50 percent off on many goods and services, the island of Oahu is not cheap to enjoy. A generic Waikiki luau is $49, tickets to The Polynesian Cultural Center can be a whopping $54 per person, and the once-free snorkeling spot of Hanauma Bay now charges $3! To save you some dough, I'll divulge these 20 bargain secrets (over half of them free), so your next vacation to the Aloha State is happily affordable.
1. Bond with the band
Over 160 years old (it's gone through a few musicians, mind you), the Royal Hawaiian Band (808/527-5666, royalhawaiianband.com) is one of the last links to Hawaii's royalty, commissioned by King Kamehameha III in 1836. Catch the band for absolutely no charge at the scenic 'Iolani Palace Bandstand (in front of the former royal residence) every Friday at noon, and at the Kapi'olani Bandstand in Kapi'olani Park every Sunday at 2 p.m. Stand up and hula along if you must.
2. Lyon in the tropics
Green thumbs will go gaga at the Lyon Arboretum (808/988-0456, hawaii.edu/lyonarboretum), a research center tucked back in the moist, verdant Manoa Valley, just ten minutes' drive from Waikiki. Hundreds of species of exotic tropical and Hawaii-specific plants are on display to the public for a suggested donation of $2.50, with guided tours included on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and Saturdays at 1 p.m. Be sure to check out the nearby hiking trail to the dream-like Manoa Falls while you're there.
3. Walking Waikiki's past
Learn about Waikiki's history with free guided walking tours offered by the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. The two-hour Queen's Tour takes you around Kapi'olani Park and Queen's Beach, while the Kalia Tour traces the origins of Waikiki, and the home of Olympian swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Each tour is at 9 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Info: 808/841-6442 or waikikihistorictrail.com.
4. Free Hollywood movies, Hawaiian-style
If you've never watched a movie outdoors in the warm tropical breeze with gentle waves lapping in the background, here's your chance: Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening "Sunset on the Beach" happens near the Kapahulu Pier in Waikiki. Food booths serve local island treats for under $10, musicians croon Hawaiian melodies, and then a 30-foot screen plays free Hollywood films, with Diamond Head looming in the background. Who could ask for more? Info: 808/523-2489.
5. A fishy auction
The Kewalo Basin, a harbor built in the 1920s between the Honolulu Airport and Waikiki, is the site of The Honolulu Fish Auction every day at 5 a.m. (don't worry, with the time change you'll be waking up early anyway!). Grab your cup o' java and head to the boats hauling out their fresh catch of local fish like mahimahi, ono, and opah. The colorful dickering, often in local pidgin English, is well worth the early-morning effort.
6. Towering Aloha
A Honolulu icon, the Aloha Tower has been greeting guests arriving on cruise ships since 1926. For some of the best views of the city, hop aboard its creaky elevator to the top of the 184-foot structure, all for free. It adjoins the pleasant Aloha Tower Marketplace mall and is open all year long from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
7. Pray in Hawaiian
The New England-style Kawaiahao Church is Honolulu's oldest. Built in the 1800s out of 14,000 hand-quarried coral slabs, it served as the church of the Hawaiian royalty (King Lunalilo has his own impressive mausoleum in the back). The church offers soul-stirring services in Hawaiian and English every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., with songs sung in Hawaiian by a renowned choir (957 Punchbowl St., 808/522-1333).
8. Learn to live life like a Hawaiian
Be sure never to pay for hula, ukulele, or lei-making lessons in Waikiki: The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center (2201 Kalakaua Ave., 808/922-0588) offers all for free! It's located right behind the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the heart of Waikiki. Hula lessons are Mondays and Fridays at 10 a.m. (Ilima Court, third floor); ukulele lessons are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11:30 a.m. (Hibiscus Court, first floor); lei-making lessons are Mondays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m. (Orchid Court, third floor).
9. Lei it on, for a song
Honolulu's Chinatown is the real thing, with noodle shops, herbalists, and storefronts looking like they haven't had a makeover for a century or so. Amid all the color is Maunakea Street, which could be called Lei Lane with its rows of flower shops and elderly ladies stringing garlands in open doorways. What would be a $20 lei at the airport will only cost you a few bucks here. Call Cindy's Lei Shoppe (1034 Maunakea St., 808/536-6538), and they can even deliver leis costing as little as $4 right to your curbside car door (since parking is tight in Chinatown).
10. Learn more than you ever wanted to know about pineapples
The Dole Plantation, in the rich red earth of Wahiawa in Central Oahu, is a fun, free-of-charge destination. Begun as a roadside stand in 1950, the large center has history displays, gift shops, free samples, demonstrations on how to properly cut pineapples-even a $5 pineapple maze (the largest in the world according to Guinness) and a $7.50, two-mile train ride through the plantation. Info: 808/621-8408, dole-plantation.com.
11. Discover a princess
Most guests at the classy Sheraton Princess Ka'iulani (120 Ka'iulani Ave., 808/922-5811) in Waikiki don't realize that the hotel is built on the former Ainahau Estate where the young princess lived. For no charge, you can partake in a guided tour of the grounds and historical rooms Monday through Friday at 4 p.m. Included is a reading of the poem "Island Rose," which Robert Louis Stevenson penned for Ka'iulani.
12. Free fish gazing
Built in 1904 and holding four impressive galleries of tanks, the Waikiki Aquarium (808/923-9741) is a steal at $7 a ticket, but there are two other lesser known but free aquariums in Waikiki as well. One, The Tube, at the DFS Galleria Waikiki shopping mall (330 Royal Hawaiian Ave., 808/931-2655), is a 65,000-gallon, two-story saltwater aquarium you can actually stroll through. The second is the Oceanarium Restaurant at the Pacific Beach Hotel (2490 Kalakaua Ave., 808/922-1233), a three-story, 280,000-gallon saltwater tank, also free.
13. Shave off the heat
Probably the most famous yet humble shave-ice (known to you mainlanders as "snow cone") store in the world, Matsumoto's (66-087 Kamehameha Hwy., 808/637-4827, matsumotoshaveice.com) near the North Shore town of Haleiwa offers this local delicacy starting at only $1.20 per cone, and that includes a dollop of ice cream as well (with red beans, an Asian favorite, it's 60 cents more).
14. Budget bus blast
One of the best-kept secrets on Oahu is the public bus ride around the entire island of Oahu for $2! The route is over 150 miles, and bus tours run by big outfits will charge you over $50 for the same pleasure. The benefit of riding "The Bus" (as it's known) is that you can get off and on at different beaches or towns for up to two hours without incurring a second fare -- it's a treat to escape the cement of Waikiki and discover the lush island's more remote shores. Take Circle Island Bus 52 or 55 from the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Info: 808/848-5555, thebus.org.
15. Tea for three (dollars)
The Urusenke Teahouse in Waikiki (reservations: 808/923-3059) is a soothing, authentic Japanese teahouse that presents a full-fledged ancient tea ceremony on Wednesdays and Fridays starting at 10 a.m., for a small donation of three dollars. You sip tea made from 400-year-old bushes in a reverent setting (long pants and socks required) and soak up the Zen atmosphere away from Waikiki's bustle.
16. Pig out, local style
Irifune (563 Kapahulu Ave., 808/737-1141) is usually full of locals in the know. Snapshots of friends and Kabuki masks cover the walls, fishing nets and glow-in-the-dark stars hang above diners, and there's a TV fish tank in the bathroom. Huge Japanese meals with all the trimmings go for under $10.
17. Aloha art
With over 35,000 Asian, Western, and Pacific works, The Honolulu Academy of Art (900 S. Beretania St., 808/532-8700, honoluluacademy.org) is well worth relinquishing a day at the beach for. The admission is only $7, but you can avoid that by arriving on the first Wednesday of each month when it's free. Included are the James A. Michener Collection of Japanese prints, and royal feather capes and tapa hangings.
18. Palacial yesteryear
Queen Emma's Summer Palace (808/595-6291, daughtersofhawaii.org), along the Pali Highway in dramatic Nu'uanu Valley, is just five minutes from the center of Honolulu. For $5 you can witness how the royalty lived in this mansion with its rich koa-wood furniture, and sumptuous grounds where the queen entertained.
19. Polo in paradise
Yes, Oahu has it all-even polo grounds. Prince Charles himself has played at the Waimanalo Polo Grounds, located on the island's windward coast near Waimanalo town at the base of the spectacularly ridged Ko'olau Mountains. For $3, you can take in a real polo game every Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (practice games Wednesdays and Fridays at 4:30 p.m.) from April to October, with plenty of shade, a snack bar, and the kids get to pet the resident ponies as well. Info: 808/947-6511, honolulupolo.com.
20. Ascend Diamond Head
Once free, the popular hike to the top of Diamond Head now costs $1, but it's still one of the best deals on the island. You park inside of the actual crater (called Le'ahi and the site of human sacrifices on its western slope) and ascend about a mile of trail, ducking through tunnels, ramparts, and up steps built during World War II. You're rewarded with certainly the best view of Waikiki available anywhere.
21. Shrimp surprise
When traveling on the North Shore, stop by Giovanni's Shrimp Truck. Its heaping plates of locally harvested shrimp go slightly beyond our budget ($11) but are worth the splurge, especially with its infamous Hot & Spicy sauce ("hot as our volcanic lava") that's also sold separately for $5 a bottle. Decorated with comments handwritten by loyal customers, the truck is along the Kamehameha Highway near the town of Kahuku. Info: 888/923-9494.