Though mega-resorts dominate the trade here, it's possible to book a cheaper, more authentic stay in one of the many islands smaller, family-owned hotels and B&B's
The islands of Oahu and Maui might be better known, but the Big Island is probably the most dramatic and "real" slice of Hawaii left to the traveler. Not only is it home to the fire goddess Pele and her tumultuous lava craters that have been erupting since the early '80s, it also is where the Polynesians from Tahiti first landed over a thousand years ago, and where King Kamehameha the Great was born in 1758. Captain Cook, the great explorer who discovered New Zealand, Hawaii, and parts of Australia, was killed here by islanders in 1779. No wonder Hawaiians even now refer to the Big Island as having great "mana," or spiritual energy.
Most tourists come to the Big Island (bigisland.gohawaii.com) to see the fiery furnace of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo), where you can at times witness lava streams gushing into the Pacific and fly over the actual craters in a helicopter. But the rest of the island is worth exploring too, from the snowy summits of Mauna Kea at nearly 14,000 feet, to the desert-like Kohala Coast where whales love to frolic, to the cool slopes of South Kona where the world-famous Kona coffee is grown on family-owned farms. The whole island is nearly four times the size of Rhode Island, so give yourself some time to see it all.
But where to stay, you ask? Don't worry -- beyond the mega-resorts, with their fancy rooms and fancy prices, you'll find a plethora of cheap digs around the island. (Although one mega-resort, the Waikoloa Beach Marriott, is offering cheap rates since it is going through a major renovation and retrofitting, with rooms up to 47 percent off until Dec 21.) But let's concentrate on the smaller gems around the island.
Starting from the low end of the scale, a great local secret is the Pineapple Park hostels located on either side of the island. Believe it or not, hostels are actually very hard to come by in the hotel-dominated Aloha State, and these two no-nonsense inns are kept clean and friendly by Annie Chong Park (who speaks fluent Korean and some Japanese and runs a beach equipment and kayak rental outfit) and Louis Doc Holliday (who is "full of fish tales and tangled yarns of old Hawaii"). Their Kona-side inn is near Kealakekua, and their Hilo-side inn is near the town of Volcano, and both have communal living rooms and kitchens, video libraries, high speed internet access, laundromats, and are located at a cool 1,500-foot elevation. "VIP" rooms are $85 and come with private bath, lanai, and breakfast for two, while $60 private rooms come with shared bathroom. If you are really roughing it, go for the $20-a-night bunk bed dorm rooms. Info: 877/865-2266, pineapple-park.com.
Bed and breakfasts are also harder to find in Hawaii than other states, since getting a B&B license here can be a hassle. But that's not to see they aren't some beauties: The Hale Aloha (800/897-3188, halealoha.com) has rooms starting at $80 queen bed with private bath, and until mid-December it's having an "Aloha Special" of $10 off during the slow period (refer to the special when making your booking). Hale Aloha (meaning "House of Aloha") is nestled up on a sloping mountainside in South Kona, among coffee plantations and macadamia nut orchards. It's very private and quiet, accessible by a long dirt road, and offers sweeping views of the coastline. The house is huge and spacious, and there's a seven-person outdoor hot tub and plenty of lanais with hammocks to wile away the afternoons. Owner Johann Timmermann says, "It's still very rural here, away from the built-up hotel areas, and has that special feel of what Old Hawaii used to be."
A mainstay in Hilo on the eastern side of the island in the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel (800/367-5004, castleresorts.com) along the serene shoreline of the town. From now until Christmas, they are offering rooms for $86 (normally they're $140). The place has a swimming pool, sundeck (be warned -- Hilo is the rainiest city in the U.S.), and views of the bay and the long breakwater that was built to prevent tsunamis from devastating the town (which has happened more than once in Hilo's history).
A mainstay of Kailua-Kona town on the western side of the island is King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel (800/367-6060, konabeachhotel.com), located right in front of the finish line of the famous annual Ironman International Triathalon, and fronts the only sandy beach in the area, as well as an authentic oceanfront Hawaiian temple. The 460-room hotel also features three restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pool with a whirlpool spa and sauna, a Hawaiian activity center, beauty salon and the only air-conditioned shopping mall in Kona! Its "Paradise on Wheels" package for $148 gets you a mountain-view hotel room, compact rental car, breakfast for two, 10 percent dining discount for parties up to 10 at any of the hotel restaurants, free local telephone calls, free hotel parking, and free tennis court usage. (Normal room rates alone are about $135.)
Going more upscale, the Ohana Keauhou Beach Resort (800/462-6262, ohanahotels.com) is next to one of the best snorkeling spots on the island, and features ancient Hawaiian fish ponds on its property. A stroll through the gardens is a lesson in native trees vital to Polynesian life: ulu (breadfruit), kukui (candlenut), and hala (pandanus). There's also a replica of King David Kalakaua's beach cottage, and the remains of three heiau, ancient Hawaiian temples. With its Fun is Fundamental program, you get a garden views room for $119 (normally $189), and a scratch-and-win card for instant prizes. The hotel can add on car rentals $26 a day until the end of the year.
So be it a pineapple park or a king's hotel, you are sure to sleep right without breaking the bank on your next trip to this magical island.