Hawaii Super Cheap: Kauai

Staying in Kauai for $6/day

By Cristina Romento

Flexing in Waimea Canyon, Kauai. Cristina Romento photos.
Flexing in Waimea Canyon, Kauai. Cristina Romento photos.

There’s a vacation in Hawaii many travelers don’t take. It’s not Thailand cheap, so it’s easily dismissed by the penny pinching backpacker. Being raised on Oahu, family trips off the island were too expensive. A cheap staycation that everyone liked? Beach camping.

Why camp?

You’ve got this notion Hawaii is kitschy luaus, honeymoons, and Tiki bars.

Enter the bad ass brother of the isles, Kauai. It’s the first of eight islands formed, and it looks like it. The jagged hills give it the landscape Jurassic Park films so coveted. If Land Before Time oasis existed, this is it. You literally feel a T-Rex is going to invade your grill.

The stretch of island boasts more coastline than any of the other Hawaiian islands. It’s pretty easy to find your own sprawl of secret beach. Plenty of recommendations came from hippies living out of their vans.

Poipu beach
Poipu beach

Dismiss those familiar pretenses of camping for a second. Imagine bath water temps breezing through an open tent; a stone’s throw from cobalt blue ocean calling your name. You’ll hike with wildlife you won’t see anywhere else on earth, and one snorkel adventure away from getting cozy with a sea turtle. Suddenly those sleeping pads don’t seem so bad.

How to get a permit:

Wild chickens in Hanalei Valley, in Kauai.
Wild chickens in Hanalei Valley, in Kauai.

Getting a permit takes an old-school attitude. No e-mails. You hand write it in, or apply in person. Both are made very easy by an amicable clerk staff. They only accept money orders in person. I sent a whopping $45 check via snail mail and had permits printed a week later. Visit this website for more information.

Hot Spots to stay:

On our trip, my sister and I went counter-clockwise around the island, handpicking sites near towns we wanted to see. Here’s a list of places we crashed:

–Anahola (near Kapaa)
–Anini (right before Princeville and Hanalei)
–Haena (after Hanalei and close to Kalalau Trail and Ke’e Beach)
–Salt Pond (near Hanapepe)

Cows are a common site in Kauai's camping sites.
Cows are a common site in Kauai’s camping sites.

Word on the isle is Lyndgate Beach Park is peppered with transients, so we avoided it.

Kauai Beach House Hostel–In Kapa’a, we hauled from Lihue Airport to here. If you want to be in a spot that doesn’t shut down at 9pm, this is the slice of Kauai nightlife. The hostel owners are friendly and resourceful. On your way out, grab a Hamburger Steak or Mac Pancakes at Ono Family Restaurant, a joint full of local vibe and devoid of sugary tourism.

Most of the campsites are located in blink-and-you’ ll-miss-it roads miles away from the one lane “highways.” Places on Kauai also close up shop early. If you’re planning to drink far away from campsite after dark, you might as well bunk down in your car. Some are more “tourist-friendly” than others, and some will be cluttered with local families, such as Anahola and Haena.

Waimea Canyon: For around $20, you can lay your head at the lip of the red vastness that is the Waimea Canyon. Here’s how:

You can claim a patch of grass at Kokee. Their world-renowned Kokee Lodge Restaurant is the best diner because, well, it’s the only one you’ll see. If camping here, bring warm clothes or a stern resolve. This area is made for a more craggy breed of camper:

Kauai Beach Hostel
Kauai Beach Hostel

There’s also YWCA’s Camp Slogget, which looks like the summer camp of your childhood. Spend the night bunkbed style for $15.

Make sure you have everything you need before you make the trip up to the canyon to post for the night. It’s a long, winding journey up in the clouds. No one wants to make it twice because your forgot some batteries.

Best time to go:

March and April are the rainiest months and much cooler, making it harder to take off your camp grime. Your airline ticket will cost about $400 extra to sit in the rain during a mid-March trip. Mid-April seemed more favorable. Locals boasted June-August had some reliably sunny weather.

Add plenty of towns to your weather app. Before you venture out, check the forecast. Chances are, if it’s rainy and gray on one side of Kauai, you can drive to much improved skies. Hanapepe and Poipu Beach were shoe-ins for the best temps when we visited.

Getting there

I booked my flight through Allegiant, which has a rap of bad reviews. My take? If you’re ok without a reclining seat and can withstand a couple hours minus in-flight entertainment, it’s a decent save. My flight did arrive an hour late, but paying $280 one-way during peak season saved me $400. Seems pretty even on the “time is money” ratio. Land in Oahu, then hop on an interisland flight to Lihue. Mine cost $90.

Necessities:

Getting set to kayak the Wailua river
Getting set to kayak the Wailua river

Book your car rental through www.discounthawaiicarrental.com. You can reserve far in advance with no money down or cancellation fees. If you plan to chug across the island, a car with some power is necessary. I got a Chevy Aveo for $160/week, and it handled Kauai’s bumps pretty well. The Kauai Bus does go directly to and from Hanalei, but it’s worth the price to get a car if you’re camping for $6/day. We got by well on one tank of gas for 8 days.

Hanapepe Art Night
Hanapepe Art Night

Waterproof portable speaker: Grab one at REI and fill an iPod with podcasts for long nights in the tent. Load the Jurassic Park soundtrack and kayak the Wailua River. Those four hours floating fly by fast if you’re paddling away from dinos.

You don’t need a fancy sleeping bag: I’m about as clueless camping as an REI salesman inside a Chanel store. I fared fine with an airplane blanket and a throw. Wear sweatpants and you’ll be swell during the night.

Portable charger: in between campsites this is a lifesaver. You can also stop by at a local library, but that’s wasted beach time.

Snorkel gear: don’t get suckered into renting gear. Grab some fins and a mask at the local Foodland and quietly smile at the haoles who are out $100.

Must See

Hanapepe Art Night: Every Friday from 6-9 pm. With Christmas lights lining weathered storefronts and artists shaking hands with passerbys, there’s a throwback sort of ease to this place. We even got sidetracked. We stayed so long, it got too dark to drive to camp. A local artist made some phone calls and got us a nearby hotel for a Kama’aina (AKA LOCAL) discount.

Garden Cafe: Just don’t leave Kauai without going here. Right before the Kilauea Lighthouse, this is a place from another world. It’s a hidden gem with tables perched on a farm and abundant tropical flowers. It is also BYOB, so feel free to take some champagne and OJ on the way up.

Anahola’s Farmer’s Market: Four words. Wild Boar. BBQ. Farmer’s Market is an overstatement. You can’t pick up your grocery list. But you can have some of the best plate lunch on the island, buy some homemade crafts, and grab a loaf of mango bread for that long haul to Waimea Canyon. It’s on Kuhio Highway right off Hokualele Road. Around mile post 14 you’ll spot the sign. Open Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Cristina RomentoCris Romento is an islander turned Entertainment TV Producer and Editor living in Arizona. She’s lived in Austin, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles and Sacramento, but Hawaii will always be home.

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