Budget Friendly Activities in Hawaii

Traveler: Jamie Colosimo

The blog ahead focuses on “cheap thrills” – and yes, they are all kid-friendly! Don’t rule out Hawaii as a budget-friendly destination just yet! With a little planning and a sense of adventure, you are guaranteed to be amazed and delighted by all the islands have to offer without pawning any of your belongings in the process!

How I Came to Live in Hawaii

January of 2018 marks my fifth anniversary of island living. As I look back on all the amazing memories we’ve created here in Hawaii, I feel incredibly lucky, especially since it all started with a simple twist of fate. You see, six years ago, I was in the prime of my youth. At the ripe age of 25, the world was my oyster and I jumped at every opportunity to travel and explore. This insatiable wanderlust is exactly what brought me to Hawaii.  I had no idea at the time how this spontaneous trip would forever change the course of my life. One night, at a local country bar called “The Dixie Grille”, I met a submariner who was stationed at nearby Pearl Harbor. Perhaps it was love at first sight; or perhaps it was one too many of their signature drink –  “The Screaming Mai Tai” – but whatever transpired, it was swift and instant and honestly, a little bit insane. We were absolutely smitten and just two months later, we were married.

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Now I can’t say it’s been a fairytale ever since. I learned quickly that the life of a military spouse is quite often a challenge. Yet, somehow we’ve managed to stay afloat through stormy seas.  Of course, my favorite part of our little love story is the two tiny people who came into this world thanks to this chance encounter. Raising our kids in Hawaii has been a blessing. With beaches, mountains, waterfalls and wildlife right in our backyard, the opportunities for learning and exploration are truly endless! What follows are just a few of the highlights from our last five years in Hawaii. Whether young or simply young at heart, this is the ultimate bucketlist for your next island adventure.

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“But Hawaii is sooo expensive”. To a degree, there’s certainly truth in this statement. It is expensive to LIVE in Hawaii. The cost of rent is quadruple what one might pay on the mainland. I’ve paid $8 for a gallon of milk. I’ve considered selling my first born to afford gas for the week. (Obviously joking – she’d fill the tank for at least a year or so!) But hey, that’s the price of paradise. A “happiness tax” as I like to think of it. And what many overlook are all of the free, or almost free, experiences in Hawaii!!

Discover the various shades of sand

Growing up on the east coast, sand was the color of, well, sand. Even in its beige ordinariness though, it had its perks, most notably that you could mold it into cool stuff like castles or sea creatures and use it to bury your siblings. Flash forward 15 years and you can imagine my amazement to learn sand comes in a whole array of hues – and Hawaii boasts nearly the whole spectrum of possibilities!! Visiting Maui? Head to Hana for a Red Sand Beach (Kaihalulu). Bound for the Big Island? Stop at a black sand beach created by volcanic rock (Punalu’u).

Exploring Kauai? Don’t miss the secret glass beach (Eleele) formed from the breakdown of discarded glass.  (Public Service Announcement:  Pollution isn’t typically this pretty. Please properly dispose of your personal garbage, limit your use of plastic and always recycle when possible. Mahalo!)

Of all the sand colors found, here, in Hawaii, green is the one which I’ve grown the most fond.  Papakolea Beach on the Big Island’s southern coast is home to one of only four green beaches found worldwide. To get there, you can hike… but it’s much more exciting to pay one of the local drivers a small fee for a fun, albeit bumpy ride that just adds an element of adventure to this already unique experience.  You’ll want to bring the car seat and a carrier. The final descent to the Papakolea Beach is steep but a zig zagging path makes it doable even while baby wearing. At the bottom, feel free to indulge your inner child. Go ahead, build that green sand castle. Dig a hole and bury your spouse or kids. Aging is inevitable… Growing up is optional.

Climb above the clouds

If Maui is on your island itinerary, then Haleakala is not to be missed. For the overly ambitious types, you can hike to this dormant volcano but at 10,000 feet, this might be better option for a kid-free adventure. There are also an abundance of companies offering tours, treks, horseback riding and even cycling. However, the most efficient, cheapest and safest option is to simply drive to the top.  Just be prepared for switchbacks. Lots and lots of switchbacks. With that said, I highly recommend you plan to visit around sunset instead of the sunrise which Haleakala is more well-known. One of the many advantages of sunset over sunrise is that the road will be illuminated so it’s less intimidating than driving up the mountain in the dark. Also, keep in mind that this journey will take at least an hour or two, so the sunset option is great if you aren’t an early riser.  Finally, it’s freezing at the summit! And the temps drop even lower when the sun goes down. Thus, arriving while the sun is still shining ensures your family actually enjoys the experience rather than taking refuge in the car.

Recently, the National Park Service mandated a $1.50 permit to ascend the Haleakala between the hours of 3 am and 7 am. To my knowledge, there is still no need to make a reservation for sunset though.  As with most national parks, there is an entrance fee of $25 per vehicle or $12 per person. These fees are waived during certain holidays and always waived for active military and their families with proper ID. Learn more about Haleakala here. 

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Fun fact for Moana fans: Haleakala is said to be the place where demigod, Maui, lassoed the sun to extend daylight hours for the ancient Hawaiians…“You’re welcome!”

Witness Pele’s Spectacular Fire (or Smoke) Show

If you’ve always wanted to visit an active volcano, you’re in luck! A trip to Hawaii’s Big Island will allow you to behold the great power of Madame Pele. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Hawaiian folklore, Pele is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and violence. At her worst, Pele’s wrath is fierce. She spews fountains of molten rock from deep within her fiery core… But sometimes, she’s a little less turbulent, preferring to channel her frustration into mere puffs of smoke. Yes, Pele is rather fickle and like most women, a bit hard to predict. There’s no guarantee to which side she’ll show. But regardless of Pele’s mood, a visit to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is worthwhile, at the very least to see the mars-like landscapes created by her previous fiery feats.  If she’s feeling feisty, be sure to pay your respects with help of an experienced guide who can carefully provide you with an up-close look at the lava streams by boat, helicopter and even foot if conditions are safe. However, even when Pele is subdued, her eternal pit of fire still burns in the heart of Halemaumau Crater. You can witness this awe-inspiring spectacle daily from safety of Kilauea Overlook.

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As with Haleakala, there is a fee of $25 per vehicle, or $12 per person but if you are planning to do both parks, then you can save money by purchasing the Hawaii Tri Park Pass for $25 which will cover admission into Haleakala and Volcanoes National Park.

Enjoy a Picnic at “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”

What continues to amaze me about the Hawaiian Islands is the vast diversity of its landscapes. While only a fraction of the size, Waimea Canyon, on the island of Kauai, certainly rivals the beauty of its cousin at the Arizona/Utah border earning it the well-deserved title of “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. The endless hues of green, red and brown come alive especially during sunrise and sunset so beginning or ending your day here is a worthwhile detour. You’ll find this remote gem on Kauai’s sleepy west side. There are two lookouts which provide ample parking – Pu’u ka Pele and Pu’u Hinahina. And while hiking the many trails of Waimea is always an option, the beauty of this experience is that you can just as easily enjoy the scenery from the lookouts in “slippahs” and a sundress. Pack a picnic and don’t forget the camera. This is a moment you’ll surely want to savor and remember for years to come.

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Unlike Haleakala and Volcanoes National Park, Waimea Canyon is a state park so, at present, there is no entrance fee.

Jump on a Board

Hawaii is known worldwide for the sport of surfing and if you are visiting without young children, I absolutely recommend giving it a whirl. If traveling with a toddler, however, there’s a great alternative that will allow you to experience the thrill of gliding on water without the risk of a wipeout:  Rent a paddle board. Much larger and easier to maneuver, paddle boards provide an excellent platform for kids as long as they can follow basic instructions like “sit still”. If safety is a concern, go ahead and strap a little life jacket on them or better yet, get down on their level. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit down instead of standing. Also, you’ll want to avoid larger waves so opt for shallow and calm waters. Ko Olina Lagoons, Lanikai Beach, Kahana Bay and Pokai Bay are just a few of my favorite toddler-friendly places to paddleboard on the island of Oahu.

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Baby on Board!

Typically, you can rent a paddleboard for about $25 from various vendors and surf shops throughout the islands. However, here’s an insider secret: Each weekend, at Pokai Bay, there’s a local man known as Uncle George who promotes his passion for free provided you reserve a spot in advance and listen to his inspiring tale of how paddle boarding changed his perspective on life. Track down Uncle George on Facebook!

Hike a Pillbox

Hiking anywhere in Hawaii is truly a thrill but what makes a pillbox trek so unique is that you are uncovering a little piece of history in the process. These bunkers, built in World War II, are scattered throughout the islands and typically served as lookouts or shelters for US soldiers during the war. Today, many are covered in local artwork which adds a whimsical element to this adventure. With kids, they are especially fun because you can climb inside or just enjoy the spectacular views from the roof. Given their historical significance, most of these trails are well-maintained. Now, this is not to say they are “easy” by average standards. You’ll need to be somewhat fit especially if attempting these hikes while baby wearing. Just know your limits and take your time. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and water. Lastly, it’s always best to bring a hiking buddy. A partner or friend is fine, but if you are traveling solo with your kids you can reach out in one of Hawaii’s many hiking groups on social media, like “Hiking with Keiki” who organizes regular hikes for “keiki”, the Hawaiian word for “kids”, on the island of Oahu.

Hang Loose with the Locals on Oahu’s North Shore

The sight of Hawaii’s sea life on land never ceases to delight. Luckily, on Oahu’s North Shore, sea turtles and monk seals often come ashore for quick snooze in the sand. As a general rule, please keep your distance. I’ll spare you the lecture on photographs because it’s hard to resist… but certainly remember to respect the turtles and give them space. If you want to take a quick pic, here’s my advice: Keep the turtle in the foreground of the frame. Then, as quietly as possible, sneak into the background where you will be out of the turtle’s direct line of vision. If his eyes stay closed, you’ve succeeded — Ta da!

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Turtle Photobomb!

Monk Seals are a much rarer discovery but if you do happen upon one, DO NOT attempt the photobomb. Because they are endangered, there are state laws that make it illegal to capture or harass these creatures – and that includes getting too close! While these playful puppies of the sea might look cute and cuddly, they can be aggressive if provoked so please abide the law, for your own safety and theirs. Besides, it’s just outright rude to interrupt a well-deserved nap.

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Sweet, sleepy monk seal

There are plenty of public beaches and trails on the North Shore which are regularly patrolled by state officials and animal advocates so I feel at ease disclosing these particular locations. For monk seal sightings, take a stroll along the Ka’ena Point trail. In winter, this is also an excellent spot to watch for migrating whales. If you are staying at or near Turtle Bay Resort, there are also a number of hiking paths along the shoreline where you might also encounter a monk seal or two.

As for turtles, they have become local celebs at Laniakea Beach. However, the area is typically roped off to prevent people from infringing on their personal space. Though gaining popularity, All’i Beach Park in Haleiwa is a great alternative if you want to behold turtles in a less crowded, natural setting. Just be advised, sightings can vary but I’ve personally had the most success around sunrise and sunset.

Experience Waikiki’s Weekly Fireworks Display

A lot of people in Hawaii gripe about living in a vacation destination but there are certainly some advantages too. For example, while most towns might host a fireworks display, once or twice a year, Waikiki offers a show every single week. That’s right, each and every Friday, you can enjoy fireworks from just about anywhere on Waikiki Beach though the best seats are those closest to Hilton Hawaiian Village, the host of this dazzling lightshow. Right next door, at the Hale Koa, they offer live music on Fridays so it’s a great place to grab a drink or bite to eat, just right off the beach. Also, be on the lookout for vendors selling little trinkets like glow sticks and flying light propellers which are super cheap but great fun for the kids.

Splash in Waterfalls

Waterfalls are plentiful in Hawaii and arguably the best way to cool down from the tropical temps. Kids will especially love the thrill of splashing around in the pools beneath the falls. Obviously there are precautions but most are common sense — Don’t swim if the water is raging. Ensure the flow is calm and the pools are shallow. Don’t attempt a waterfall swim on rainy days as flash floods are a real threat. Pack water shoes to protect precious toes from cuts and scrapes. If you do have an existing wound, refrain from swimming as there is a strain of bacteria called Leptospira, albeit rare, that enters its host through open abrasions. For the same reason, do not drink stream water. Finally, if you do get injured or sick, seek medical treatment immediately to treat/prevent infection.

Ok now that we’ve covered safety, here’s a few of my favorite kid-friendly waterfalls on the island of Oahu with relatively easy, scenic trails: Likeke Falls, Lulumahu Falls (permit required), Hamama Falls and Manoa Falls. Again, the “Hiking with Keiki” community can offer advice and tips for navigating these trails with kids.

… and ALWAYS, ALWAYS Pause for Sunset

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from island living, it’s simply to slow down. There is so much beauty around us but, as parents, we often get so caught up in the chaos that we miss out on the little moments that make life so magical. Watching the sunset, for me, provides that daily reminder to pause, reflect and marvel at the world around me. The best place to behold a Hawaiian sunset will vary based on the weather and time of year, but for unobstructed views, year-round, the west side of any island is always a great option to behold Mother Nature’s masterpiece.

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So there you have it – my personal list of favorite free (or almost free) experiences with kids in Hawaii. If there’s such a thing as island fever, it’s safe to say I’ve never caught it! Maybe I cherish our time here more than most because, as a military family, we could one day be shipped off to a new station.  The mere thought breaks my heart a little.

Hawaii was the setting for our love story and it’s been the backdrop of our life together ever since. As our family has grown, we wanted to ensure we kept a piece of the islands in the event we ever had to leave. As such, we gave our daughter the name “Naia” which is the Hawaiian word for “dolphin” and our son the middle name of “Kai” meaning “ocean”. Regardless of where the winds blow us, Hawaii will always be a part of us, our story and our family.

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