Looking for a Bargain Vacation? Don’t Rule Out Hawaii

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Frugal Family

Maybe it’s because I hadn’t been to Hawaii since I was a child, when everything seemed big. But even from 10,000 feet, the Big Island was surprisingly, strikingly large. Its volcanic peaks had vast slopes, each divided into color-coded microclimates of green and tan, and each punctuated with charcoal-hued tributaries of recently cooled lava.

Along the shoreline, tangled patches of black, brutal rock were interrupted by long slivers of pale sand abutting a Pacific palette of faint, airy blue. Minutes from landing, I could hardly wait to be on those beaches, in that water, among those otherworldly expanses of newborn earth.

I’d put almost no planning into our five-day hop to the island, the biggest in the island chain. Other plans had fallen through at the last minute, and suddenly my husband, Tim, and I had five free days on our calendar. In our pre-baby life, when we spotted this kind of unexpected opening, we’d check our bank account, figure out what we could afford and just go — where didn’t matter as much as simply getting away. This, theoretically, is where vacation packages excel: the spontaneous trip on a tight budget. Yet I had never booked one.

For years I’d seen online ads for surprisingly affordable prefab vacations — airfare and hotel, with maybe a car and a tour thrown in — through unexpected vendors like Groupon and Costco. I remember thinking, “Do people actually buy vacations through Costco?” To me, packaged bulk trips were the five-pound tub of mozzarella balls of travel. Sure, it’s a bargain, but how bland? What quality could you possibly get for that impossibly low price? I was, in short, the worst kind of travel snob.

But, as the parent of a toddler, then-14-month-old Roxie, I find myself drawn to relaxation for relaxation’s sake as I hadn’t before. So, 12 days before our late-September window, I searched online for the best packaged trip I could buy. Where I usually seek to spend as little as possible, here my goal was different: to maximize bang for our buck by buying the most indulgent — and easy — trip we could afford.

Because we had only five days, I limited my search to beach destinations with nonstop flights from the Bay Area. After more comparison shopping than was prudent (a future column will delve into how best to shop for this kind of trip), I booked a $968-per-person Expedia package that included a convenient five-hour flight and four nights at the five-star Fairmont Orchid resort. The airfare alone would normally have been $600 or more each for Tim and me (Roxie is still free as a lap baby until she turns 2 in June), which meant the hotel most likely ended up costing about the same as a Motel 6 in Queens. It wasn’t cheap, but it did seem like a bargain.

Landing in Kona, on the Big Island’s windward side, we disembarked directly onto the runway, where we were met by humid heat and powerfully scented leis, an open-air arrival that has, for me, never lost its novelty. After retrieving our rental car, booked separately on Priceline, I did a lazy online search for quick, cheap places to eat nearby. Fifteen minutes later, I was standing outside a ticket booth-style sliding-glass window in a shopping center parking lot looking for signs of life. As I stood, staring at the Chirashi Sushi-Don by Jiro menu, the Open sign flashed on. Suddenly, a crowd appeared behind me and I realized, to my embarrassment, that the scattering of people sitting here and there was, in effect, a line. Hawaii being Hawaii, nobody had said a word about my inadvertently cutting in.

Soon, two generous bowls of chirashi — ultra-fresh and beautifully composed sashimi over a bed of flavorful rice — emerged, an unbelievable deal at $9.50 each.

Finally, it was time for our 3 p.m. check-in at the Fairmont. All three of us were ready for a nap. We drove north on a two-lane road through the moonscape of lava fields. Here and there, ornery-looking goats stood atop scattered mounds of volcanic rock. At the far end of a suburban-style complex of resorts, shopping centers, golf courses and homes, the Fairmont — with its lush landscape, white blooms and chirping geckos — was a man-made oasis, of sorts, amid the charred ruin.

We spent the day exploring the resort, indulging in the nap, an early evening swim in a pool framed by faux lava rock, and an in-room picnic dinner from the deli case at the nearby Foodland Farms, a local chain supermarket that sells poke, the Hawaiian raw fish salad, by the pound. Unable to catch up to the time change, we were asleep by 9 p.m., only to wake at 3 a.m. the next day.

Taking advantage of our early morning, we went for a sunrise walk on the beach, a small, sheltered cove dotted with white chairs. En route, we were intercepted by a friendly local, an older woman who comes to the Fairmont twice a day to feed and care for the feral cats that populate the island and are seen as a nuisance by the resorts. “You must know a grandma when you see one,” she said to Roxie. She told us about the island air, which is apparently good for the skin, and warned against visiting the flowing lava with a baby. The sulfuric vog, or volcanic fog, is dangerous, she said, recommending a helicopter trip (sadly outside our budget) instead.

After splitting a pricey tofu scramble at a health food restaurant near the hotel (still more affordable than the Fairmont’s $32 breakfast buffet), we sought out a beach we had heard about from a friend, who had recommended arriving early before the parking lot filled. It was behind the walled entry to the exclusive Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and I wouldn’t otherwise have known it was there and open to the public.

To get to the beach, we walked down a paved path, as golf carts zipped by, to a crescent moon of powdery sand and calm water backed by the huge wall of the multistory hotel. We found a secluded spot at the far end, where Roxie went to work shoveling sand into her bucket, Tim swam laps and I read. I could have happily spent all four days just like that.

But if I had, we would have missed out on the magnificent windward side of the island. The next day, we drove up to Waimea, on the slopes of the Kohala volcano, where we stopped for breakfast at Hawaiian Style Cafe, a cash-only diner in a small strip mall. While we were tempted by a menu of regional specialties like house-made Portuguese sausage and eggs ($13.95) and Haupia (coconut pudding) pancakes ($10.95), the waitress explained that we could mix and match half-orders, an option that allowed me to try the Korean fried chicken, the Korean ribs and the macaroni salad, while Tim got a half-order of pancakes (actually just one, dinner plate-size).

Waimea was pleasantly cool, with wooden houses on stilts with corrugated metal roofs and chickens in the yards. As we descended to the ocean, the landscape became tree-frog green with giant ferns and banana trees, eucalyptus and pine. At the coast, we drove north to the Waipio Valley, where we looked out over a deep rift between two sets of steep cliffs. We snapped photos and stared at the valley below, regretting not having rented a four-wheel drive, which would have allowed us to drive to the valley floor where there is a black sand beach and waterfalls.

Instead, we turned around and continued south to Akaka Falls, which was supposed to be one of the most accessible on the island. But even the short hike wasn’t doable without a carrier for Roxie. Feeling defeated by poor planning, we consoled ourselves by sharing a heaping cup of coconut shaved ice from a nearby food truck.

In Hilo, an offbeat college town with a small central square and a sprawling banyan tree at its heart, we stopped for coffee at a New Agey kombucha cafe, where I asked the woman working the counter for recommendations for where to go with Roxie. The mother of a 4-year-old, she directed us to Onekahakaha Beach Park, just 10 minutes away. With a grassy lawn instead of an actual beach, the park had a large, sandy-bottom pool of seawater, protected on all sides by lava rock boulders. We could watch the waves crash violently on the sea wall while pushing Roxie back and forth in her swim tube in placid water.

That evening, tiki torches were lit along the Fairmont’s pathways, and ukulele music swelled from the hotel restaurant, mingling with the sound of waterfalls and the whisper of palm fronds. This hour, when nearly everyone else was at dinner, would become our favorite time at the hotel beach.

On our final night, when we went for one last evening dip, it was just us and a 20-something drinking a cocktail from a plastic cup. Her family used to come to the Fairmont every year, she told us, and she had taken her first steps on this same beach. The fiery orange sunset was spectacular and the water didn’t have even a slight chill. Between two large resorts — the Fairmont and the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel next door — and who-knows-how many newlyweds, the four of us were the only ones there.

Though it won’t likely become one of our family’s traditions, I could see how a Hawaiian vacation package, with its ease and touch of pre-baby spontaneity, would be an alluring one.