Seven Budget Hotels in Heavenly Kauai

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Hawaii's lushest island is dotted with affordable treasures amid all the luxury and glitz

Lots of people have complained that various islands of Hawaii were not what they expected -- but no one says that about Kauai. This is the place of your dreams, a tropical vision of Bali Hai-like cliffs and voluptuous vegetation, of mountain gullies dark with ferns and peppered with vertiginous waterfalls, and of beaches -- miles and miles of sand sloping gently to a bathtub-warm sea. And this "Garden Isle" is also the smallest of Hawaii's four major islands, one where you devote your days not to endless road trips but to floating in crystalline waters full of tropical fish. Here, not a single building can be taller than a coconut tree. So instead of mega-high-rises and packed urban areas, Kauai is a series of small seaside towns, each retaining the uniqueness of its agricultural (sugar, coffee, taro) heritage. An intimate small-town feeling (where people smile and wave to one another) still prevails. Its biggest advantage for the budget traveler is that almost all of its great natural sights are free of charge, and that -- amid the luxury resorts -- a thriving industry of affordable hotels, inns, and other lodging is found in every major section. We've named our seven favorites below.

Hotel Coral Reef 1516 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa, tel. 800/843-4659, fax 808/822-7705, 24 units. $59-$99 double. Extra person $10; children 12 and under stay free in parents' room when using existing beds. Room/car packages available.

No question this is Kauai's best bargain buy on the sea. Family-owned and operated, the small (24 rooms) pair of two-story buildings (one wood, one concrete) faces a grassy lawn that slopes down to a white sand beach bordered by coconut trees. It offers economical rooms and friendly service in an ideal location that is also within walking distance of shops and restaurants. There's even an eight-mile bike path that starts right on the grounds. In the main building are standard rooms (cable TV, ceiling fans, partial ocean view, and lanai) at $79 to $89 double, while the other oceanfront wing offers slightly more spacious rooms that overlook the beach through sliding-glass lanai doors for $89 to $99 double. Other pluses: daily maid service, complimentary coffee in the lobby all day, free beach mats and coolers, and guest laundry facilities. Linda Warriner, owner and gracious hostess of this quaint hotel, is always happy to give pointers on how to stretch your budget and still have a good time on Kauai.

Garden Island Inn 3445 Wilcox Rd., Lihue, tel. 800/648-0154, fax 808/245-7603, 21 units. $75-$125 double. Extra person $5.

Location, location, location: Just across the street from one of Kauai's most beautiful white sand beaches and next door to the haughty Kauai Marriott, where rooms start at $229 a night, this family-run inn is a real find. It's a whitewashed, plantation-style three-story building, with wraparound lanais on the second and third floors, and a lush garden with brilliant tropical flowers, bananas, and papayas. The address is perfect for touring the island, and within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Island-style furniture, bright prints, and fresh tropical flowers (grown right on the grounds) decorate the spacious rooms. Each unit contains a fridge, microwave, TV, and coffeemaker; the suites have sitting areas. Prices are based on the view: The first-floor units looking out onto the grounds are $75 (with ceiling fans only, no air-conditioning), the second-floor rooms, with A/C and ocean views, are $85 to $95, and the top-floor two-room suites with private balconies and ocean views are $95 to $125. Owners Steve and Susan Layne offer friendly service, lots of advice on activities, even complimentary use of beach gear, golf clubs, and coolers.

Kalaheo Inn 4444 Papalina Rd., Kalaheo, tel. 888/332-6023, fax 808/332-5242, 14 units. $55-$65 one-bedroom with kitchenette; $75 one-bedroom with full kitchen; $95 two-bedroom with full kitchen. Two-night minimum.

This place is a deal! Located in the town of Kalaheo, within walking distance of shops and restaurants, the inn is a comfortable 1940s motel (a series of 14 units in one- and two-story buildings centered around a grassy lawn) that was totally remodeled in 1999 and converted into apartment units with kitchens (microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, refrigerator). An added bonus: Guests have privileges at the Kiahuna Swim and Tennis Club in Poipu (free tennis and use of the swimming pool), just a short 12-minute drive away. Owners Chet and Tish Hunt couldn't be friendlier, handing out complimentary beach towels and beach toys to guests. This is a must-stay for vacationers on a tight, tight budget.

Waikomo Stream Villas 2721 Poipu Rd., Poipu, c/o Grantham Resorts, 3176 Poipu Rd., Suite 1, Koloa, tel. 800/325-5701, fax 808/742-9093, 60 units. $85-$95 one-bedroom for four in low season; $105-$115 one-bedroom for four in high season. Five-night minimum.

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to stay in the upscale Poipu resort area for less than $125 a night. This low-rise, plantation-style condominium, landscaped with lush tropical vegetation, features 1,100-square-foot one-bedroom apartments (which comfortably sleep four) at eye-popping prices. Tucked into an Eden-like garden setting, its 60 units are a series of low-rise wooden structures with a swimming pool, a tennis court, and barbecue areas dotting the landscape. One drawback: They're located not directly on the ocean, but a five-minute walk away. Offsetting that, the spacious, well-decorated units have everything you could possibly need on vacation: full kitchen, TV, VCR, washer/dryer, and private lanai. The complex is also adjacent to the Kiahuna Golf Club and just a five-minute walk from restaurants, shopping, and (as noted before) Poipu's beaches. Additional small print: no maid service, no air-conditioning (never mind, the ceiling fans will keep you cool), and these prices don't apply to the Christmas season, December 20 to January 5.

Kahili Mountain Park 4035 Kuamualn Hwy., Koloa, tel. 808/742-9921, fax 808/742-9921, 32 cabins. $45-$55 cabins double, with kitchenettes and shared community bath/showers; $65-$110 cabins with full kitchens and private baths/showers. Extra person $15.

For families determined to get away from it all yet unwilling to sacrifice the kid's college tuition, this collection of countryside cabins, with Mount Kahili rising majestically in the background, is an answer to their prayers. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which owns and operates these 197 rolling acres of peace and quiet, makes available 32 single-story cabins ranging from rustic to real vacation homes: one-room "cabinettes" have limited cooking facilities and share a community bath and shower; old one- and two-room cabins with kitchenettes have toilet facilities inside and private showers outside; new one- and two-room cabins have full kitchen facilities and private shower and bathroom; and a two-bedroom home comes with modern kitchen, living room, and two baths. Linens and kitchen utensils arefurnished. There are coin laundry facilities and a pay phone on the property.

Kapaa Shores 900 Kuhio Hwy., reservations c/o Garden Island Properties, 4-928 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa, tel. 800/801-0378, fax 808/822-7984, 84 units. $115-$125 one-bedroom. Five-night minimum.

In the heart of Kapaa, with the sound of waves lulling you to sleep each night, this complex series of three-story, red-roofed, forest-brown buildings near thick tropical vegetation features views of the exotic gardens, a large swimming pool, and the ocean from every unit. The one-bedroom suites are in excellent shape and come with amenities like fully equipped modern kitchens, cable TV, and large lanais (big enough for a patio table and chairs) where you can enjoy a breakfast or cocktails. The tropically decorated apartments can comfortably sleep four (the queen-size sofa in each unit turns into a bed). Besides the pool, there's a tennis court, a family-size hot tub, a shuffleboard court, laundry facilities, and barbecues.

Wailua Bayview 320 Papaloa Rd., Kapaa, tel. 800/882-9007, fax 425/391-9121, 45 units. $99-$110 double. Apr. 15-Dec. 15, seventh night free.

In a light, sand-colored wood building with dark chocolate trim, three stories high and perched on a cliff overlooking the surf at Wailua Bay, these spacious one-bedroom apartments offer the island's best value in oceanfront condos. The roomy units feature ceiling fans, full kitchens (including microwaves and dishwashers), washer/dryers, cable TV, VCRs, radios, and large lanais; most spacious bedrooms have air-conditioning (drowning out any noise so you can snooze undisturbed); and if you have kids, the queen-size sofa bed in the living room allows you to sleep up to four. Several of the units were renovated recently with new carpet and reupholstered furniture; but some of the $99 garden units are close to the road and can be noisy -- I'd recommend the ocean-view units (at $110 still a great deal). On-site facilities include a pool and barbecue area. From April 15 to December 15, there's a seventh-night-free deal.

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