Waikiki Differently

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Even in the most crowded areas of Hawaii's best-known beach zone, there are alternatives to overpriced rooms and meals, tacky hula dancers, and plastic leis

The cheapest airfares to Hawaii, the least expensive air-and-land packages, and most of the desirable budget hotels are found to and on the island of Oahu, in the city of Honolulu, near Waikiki Beach. But lodging in Waikiki usually means crowds and commercialism (and nearby skyscrapers). How can you minimize this big-city feel and enjoy a vacation resembling your ideal vision of Hawaii?

Enjoying Waikiki differently means, first of all, finding a comfortable, well-maintained hotel in a quiet area, with decent-size rooms and pleasant price policies. In the 1960s, the streets around Waikiki Beach were lined with such inexpensive, low-rise, family-run apartment-hotels, nothing fancy, with standard-issue but appealing units, just half a block from the beach. A few still exist, like the sand- and blue-green-colored, two-story Kai Aloha Apartment Hotel (235 Saratoga Rd., 808/923-6723, fax 808/922-7592, e-mail: kai.aloha@gte.net), just across the street from Fort DeRussy Park. The 18 studios and one-bedroom units, starting at $65, still hang on to the retro decor of their 1955 origins, but definitely offer a homey, comfortable feel, and feature kitchens (full kitchens in the one-bedrooms, kitchenettes in the studios) plus the added bonus of daily maid service, air-conditioning, cable TV, and even voice mail. A large outdoor deck on the second floor is a great place to sip early-morning coffee or gaze at the sun sinking into the Pacific.

Just up the street is a similar throwback to the halcyon '50s and '60s: the three-story, light-gray concrete Aloha Punawai (305 Saratoga Rd., 808/923-5211, fax 808/622-4688, alternative-hawaii.com/alohapunawai), with splashy red Torch Ginger plants lining the small patio area. The 18 immaculate white-on-white units all come with full kitchens, starting at just $58 a day if you stay a week or $63 a day for shorter visits. Around the corner is another 1950s-ish apartment/hotel, Hale Pua Nui Hotel (228 Beach Walk Ave., 808/923-9693, fax 808/923-9678), a four-story walk-up not quite as charming as its neighbors. The 22 small, well-lived-in units have a more spartan look with two single beds, a small table, air-conditioning, TV, phone, kitchenette, and a no-frills price of $57 for two.

Among my other Waikiki favorites, much in the same style, is the flamingo-pink Royal Grove (151 Uluniu Ave., 808/923-7691, fax 808/922-7508, royalgrovehotel.com), just a couple of blocks from Kapiolani Park. This cozy, family-owned hotel (just 85 rooms, all with kitchenettes) is built around a courtyard pool, with the beach just a three-minute walk away. For $42.50 you get a basic room along the lines of Motel 6, with two twin beds, TV, and phone, just one block from the bus line. For $14.50 more, you can get a unit with air-conditioning. Book seven nights or more from April to November, and you'll get a discount on the already low rates.

Newer and without kitchenettes, but an always-reliable source of low-budget rooms, is the ten-story, recently renovated Aston Waikiki Grand (134 Kapahulu Ave., 800/535-0085, fax 808/923-4708, aston-hotels.com), with a pool, bar, restaurant, and year-round specials starting at $58 for a city view and $68 for an ocean view. But along with the rates, it's the prime location that makes this particular hotel so appealing -- right across the street from the Honolulu Zoo and lush Kapiolani Park, and a stone's throw from the quiet Queen's Surf Beach.

And finally, if you are on a very tight budget and don't mind a 10- to 12-minute walk to the beach, Edmunds Hotel Apartments (2411 Ala Wai Blvd., 808/923-8381), which faces the Ala Wai Canal, has modest studios with small kitchenettes (but no phones and no A/C) for the low rate of $40 for singles and $45 for doubles. A block away is the six-story, sparkling white concrete Holiday Surf (2303 Ala Wai Blvd., 808/923-8488, fax 808/923-1475) with 34 well-scrubbed studios and one-bedroom apartments, complete with full kitchen and the added bonus of air-conditioning. By bargaining a bit with manager Patrick Chun, you can get the price down to $68 during the slow season (March 16 to June 30 and September 1 to December 15). Otherwise rates jump up to $95.

Grocery shopping in Hulaland

With kitchens in your accommodations, you'll need to get bargain-priced groceries. But since Waikiki does not have any supermarkets, you'll have to venture out: The cheapest way to find normally priced groceries (especially fresh vegetables and fruit) is either to walk over to the People's Open Market, located at Kapiolani Park (on the corner of Monsarrat and Paki Avenues, every Wednesday from 10 to 11 a.m.), or to take a 20-minute bus ride to the open-air markets in Chinatown (in downtown Honolulu).

Shopping in Chinatown not only saves you money but can be an adventure in itself. From Waikiki take the city bus, appropriately named TheBus, numbers 2 or 20. Get off at Hotel Street (ask the driver to tell you when you get there). This was a "good time" street during World War II, when pool halls and beer joints lined the curbs and prostitutes were plentiful. Today, small shops, from art galleries to ethnic restaurants, have replaced all the relics of ill repute.

From Hotel Street follow the sweet tropical fragrances wafting through the air to Maunakea Street, where numerous lei shops line the street, with their makers stringing some of the most beautiful leis in the islands at some of the best prices (starting at $2.50).

At the corner of Maunakea and King Streets (look for two fire-breathing dragon statues guarding a local bank), turn right. Near the corner is the Viet Hoa Chinese Herb Shop (162 N. King St.), where a Chinese herbalist acts as both doctor and pharmacist, diagnosing patients and then prescribing the appropriate herb from hundreds of specimens in the shop ranging from sweet-smelling flowers to pungent powders made from things like antelope antler.

Across the street is the Oahu Market Place, an open-air market where you'll find everything you need (fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and a few things you have probably never heard of (salted jellyfish, pipikala, thousand-year-old eggs, etc.). The vendors each have their own stalls and love to "talk story" with visitors, explaining what they sell and giving instructions on how to prepare Hawaii's treats, ranging from cutting a papaya to the best way to cook the local catch of the day.

Step back in time with historical and cultural tours

Plan to spend some time roaming around Chinatown, taking in the exotic smells and shops. If you would like a more formal visit to this historic area, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (42 N. King St., at Smith St., 808/533-3181), has tours at 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday for $5 per person.

Chinatown isn't the only area that has changed with time; the Waikiki you see today bears no resemblance to the area of yesteryear, a place of vast taro fields, dotted with numerous fish ponds and gardens tended by thousands of people. This picture of old Waikiki can be recaptured by following the Waikiki Historic Trail, a meandering two-mile walk with 20 bronze surfboard markers (standing as they do at 6'5" tall, you can't miss 'em), complete with descriptions and archive photos of the historic sites. The markers note everything from Waikiki's ancient fish ponds to the history of the Ala Wai Canal. Free walking tours are conducted Monday through Friday from 9 to 10:30 a.m. and Saturdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m.; meet at the beachside surfboard marker at the entrance to Kapiolani Park, on Kalakaua Avenue, across from the Honolulu Zoo. For more information contact 808/841-6442, waikikihistorictrail.com.

Other interesting tours include a guided walking tour of downtown Honolulu's historic sights conducted by the Mission Houses Museum (553 S. King St., at Kawaiahao St., 808/531-0481; take TheBus no. 2) on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $16 for students, and children under five are free; the fee includes a tour of the museum as well as the downtown area. Or try archaeology tours of Honolulu, a temple tour, and other walks conducted by the Hawaii Geographic Society (808/538-3952); or purchase the society's self-guided Historic Downtown Honolulu Walking Tour for $3.

Cheap eats: Where the locals eat for less than $12

At the intersection of Kapahulu and Kilauea Avenues, an easy 15-minute stroll from Queen's Surf Beach, directly inland on Kapahulu, a hands-down local favorite, Irifune (563 Kapahulu Ave., 808/737-1141), is virtually unknown to tourists. Yet it serves full meals of garlic ahi tuna or seared sashimi, miso soup, rice, and large side dishes for less than $10! The decor is eclectic, with fishing nets, masks, posters, and the visual remnants of the beauty salon it once was. Go early -- there's usually a line of hungry people.

For other frugal meals, go ethnic. For $7 to $12 you can get a complete dinner (from credible Mexican fare to surprisingly tasty Jamaican chicken to blackened mahimahi) at the always lively Cha Cha Cha (342 Seaside Ave., 808/923-7797). On the other side of Waikiki, the elegant, orchid-filled Keo's in Waikiki (Ambassador Hotel, 2028 Kuhio Ave., 808/951-9355), features Thai delicacies (a host of curries, pad Thai, and treats in basil-coconut-chili sauce) for $7 to $13. For more variety, walk or take TheBus (nos. 19, 20, or 55) down Ala Moana Boulevard to the warehouse atmosphere and home-style cooking of Kakaako Kitchen (Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., 808/596-7488), offering local-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner for way under $12. The ever-changing fare, served on Styrofoam plates, includes entrees like charbroiled ahi tuna steak, five-spice shoyu chicken, and its very popular meat loaf. Or try one of the Ba-le Sandwich Shops (in a variety of locations, including the Ala Moana Shopping Center, 808/944-4752) just a few blocks down the street. It's hard to spend more than $7 for the French and Vietnamese specials, including pho, croissant sandwiches, and complete dinners. Other bargains at the Ala Moana Shopping Center include Curry House Coco Ichibanya (808/947-4889), Patti's Chinese Kitchen (808/946-5002), and Tsuruya Noodle Shop (808/946-7214).

If you can't decide on what you want, walk around the corner from the Ala Moana Shopping Center, where the casual I Love Country Cafe (Ala Moana Plaza, 451 Piikoi St., 808/596-8108) has a huge range of entrees - from cheese steaks to healthy veggie fare - for under $9 (including salad) again served on Styrofoam plates and Formica-topped tables.

Beyond the beach

Apart from its many beachy, watery activities (surfing, sailing, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, and even vegging out on the sand), Waikiki also offers budget golf (Ala Wai Golf Course, 404 Kapahulu Ave., 808/296-2000, just $42, half price after 3:30 p.m.), free tennis (Diamond Head Tennis Courts, Kapiolani Park, on Paki Ave.), free Hawaiian music (wander down Waikiki Beach at sunset, bring a beach mat, sit on the sand outside such hotels as Hilton Hawaiian Village, Sheraton Waikiki, Halekulani, and Sheraton Moana Surfrider, and enjoy the nightly entertainment without even having to buy a drink; or, on Tuesdays through Thursdays, take in the free Kodak Hula Show in the Waikiki Band Shell in Kapiolani Park at 10 a.m.), and free museums (the U.S. Army Museum, in Fort DeRussy Park, features military memorabilia dating from ancient Hawaii to the present, and the Father Damien Museum, 130 Ohua Ave., 808/923-2690, spotlights the famous priest's work with leprosy patients on Molokai). There's even a daily art show at the Art Mart, on Monsarrat Ave., on the fence facing the Honolulu Zoo, where you'll find local artists working on and displaying their recent creations.

And don't leave Waikiki without heading out to the other side of the island to see the Polynesian Culture Center (55-370 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie, 800/367-7060, polynesia.com), a 42-acre lagoon/park that re-creates the traditional villages (along with customs, songs, and daily living) of the islands of Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, the Marquesas, New Zealand, and Easter. You travel through this living museum on foot or by canoe, visiting each village, where natives from that Polynesian island (students attending the Hawaii branch of Brigham Young University) share their culture with you. The park, which is operated by the Mormons, also features an outstanding and renowned evening stage show (a giant open-air amphitheater of Radio City Music Hall-like quality) celebrating the music, dance, history, and culture of Polynesia. Since a visit can take up to eight hours, it's a good idea to arrive when the gates open at 12:30 p.m. Admission to the park and evening stage show begins at $35 ($20 for ages 5 to 11). A $49 ticket ($32 children) includes an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. The cheapest way to get there is via TheBus, no. 55, $1.50 each way. The easiest way to get there is via the Polynesian Cultural Center coaches, which will transport you in air-conditioned splendor for $15 round-trip.

Paradise packaged

The most cost-effective way to vacation in Hawaii is by booking an all-inclusive package that includes some combination of airfare, accommodations, airport transfers, and maybe some sightseeing. If you want to check out one of America's most famous beaches before mid-December, we found such deals as eight days in Waikiki with air for $505 from Los Angeles, or $763 for six days with air from New York or Chicago, including airport transportation and lei greeting (Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, 800/242-9244, pleasantholidays.com); or seven nights in Waikiki with air from Florida for $829 (Lowest Fare.com, 888/444-5555, lowestfare.com).

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