An impromptu island vacation is easier than you might think. Just head to Honolulu.
Hawaii's largest city, Honolulu is a winter sun destination unlike any other.
"Where else can you see businessmen in suits crossing the street next to people in bikinis carrying surfboards?" asks Jeanne Cooper, coauthor of Frommer's Hawaii.
The youthful, invigorating city offers excellent multicultural food and nightlife for all budgets—and there's a huge inventory of hotel rooms and airline seats that keep prices competitive, she says. You could stay a week in Honolulu and visit a different beach every day. Most famous is the touristy central section of Waikiki, fronting the historic Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider hotels. It's a spectacle, but for a quieter scene head west to Fort DeRussy Beach Park, an 1,800-foot stretch of soft sand backed by green lawn at Waikiki's outer fringe. To the east, just beyond Diamond Head, locals may outnumber tourists at pockets of white-sand beach dotting the tony Kahala neighborhood.
For all its glitzy high-end shopping, dining, and entertainment, Waikiki harbors under-the-radar values. You'll find freebies everywhere: sunset hula performances on Kuhio Beach; Friday fireworks over the Hilton Hawaiian Village; cultural classes (lei making, ukulele, hula) at the Royal Hawaiian Center; and yoga at the International Market Place every other Sunday. Happy hour means bargain libations—such as $5 mai tais at Tiki's Grill & Bar—and often pau hana pupus, "after work" appetizers that can make a light meal. A tasty food-truck plate lunch at Pau Hana Market Waikiki won't break the bank, nor will a slightly more spendy bowl of ramen along Waikiki Yokocho, a new Japanese-style food alley with 15 purveyors.
Honolulu's value continues outside Waikiki. View contemporary artworks at the free Hawaii State Art Museum or during the First Friday open-gallery event throughout downtown and Chinatown. At the vast Kapi‘olani Community College farmers' market, enjoy a budget breakfast of Hawaii-grown coffee and Brazilian-style cheese bread stuffed with dulce de leche before hiking the nearby trail to Diamond Head's summit. Wander the lush greenery at the low-cost Foster Botanical Garden or Lyon Arboretum. The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is free—1,300 walk-in tickets are released at 7 a.m. daily for those who haven't booked ahead—and at the monthly (except December) Eat the Street event in the up-and-coming Kaka‘ako district, you can chow down inexpensively at 40-plus vendors.
That ultimate tropical island experience, an oceanview sunset dinner, can be challenging on the cheap. Consider a picnic at the Ala Moana Beach Park rather than a restaurant meal. As the lights of nearby Waikiki twinkle against an orange and purple sky, you'll recall that, indeed, the best things in life are free.
Go car free and skip the costs of rental, gas, and parking. Central Honolulu is easy to navigate by foot, bus, taxi, and ride shares. For transport around Waikiki and to the Ala Moana Center, hop on the $2 per ride Pink Line of the Waikiki Trolley.
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This article was first published in Winter 2018 and updated in August 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.