Do Hawaii Like a Local

National Geographic Expeditions Marketing Manager Sarah Muenzenmayer shares tips on planning a Hawaii trip that’s budget-friendly and full of local color.

As avid travelers in our early 30s, my husband and I like to plan trips that will challenge us–language barriers and exploring foreign cultures are the aspects of travel we find both adventurous and memorable. But with the hubby currently in grad school, we wanted a trip that was slightly easier to plan, not to mention easy on the wallet. Drawn to Hawaii’s natural beauty, we decided to skip the resorts and instead to camp along the spectacular coastline. Here are a few tips on how we kept our trip to the Big Island and Kauai challenging, and kept the total cost pretty darn low.

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Camp — What’s not to love about camping? You will save money, avoid tourists, and get to know more locals as you explore your surroundings. We woke up to a beautiful Hawaiian sunrise every morning, and by being mobile, we were able to experience as many different areas of the islands and linger as long as we liked. The Hawaiian Islands are full of low-cost campsites, and many are right on the beach. A little planning is necessary however, as you need to purchase permits for some sites. We chose to let our vehicle be our home while on the Big Island, and rented a VW Westfalia from the friendly owners of Happy Campers. In this photo, we navigated our van, “Wiki Wiki,” through Volcanoes National Park.

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Eat as the locals do

— If you can, avoid hotel restaurants at all cost. It’s so much cheaper to do a little online research before you go, or ask the locals where they like to eat. Make a lunch out of the delicious homegrown or home-prepared foods from the Hilo Farmers Market (above); partake in delicious poke offered by fellow beachgoers; slurp saimin at a communal table in Lihue; and stop for a pineapple-topped, roadside burger in at Duane’s Ono-Char Burger in Anahola. Ono!

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Get out there early (or late)

— You’ve got an advantage if you’re camping, as you’ll be up with the sunrise (and the turtles, above) and can sleep within a 10-minute drive of the tourist hot spots. Because let’s face it, these places are popular for a reason and can’t be missed even by those of us who claim to travel “off the beaten path.” We were out on the water and paddling our way to the Captain Cook Monument in Kaelakekua Bay State Historical Park by 7:30 a.m., which meant that we could enjoy fantastic snorkeling of Kaelakekua Bay all to ourselves before the other kayakers and boatloads of people descended around 10:00 a.m.

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Go the extra mile (or more) — It’s a win-win situation if your body allows it: the deeper you go and harder you try, the more of Hawaii’s natural beauty you’ll actually experience, and the further you’ll get away from the other tourists. So hike down into the amazing Waipio Valley (above), even though the hike back up lies at an insane 25 percent grade. Make the time to hike the Kalalau Trail of the Na Pali coast, named one of National Geographic Adventure’s top 11 classic hikes in the world.

Photos: Sarah Muenzenmayer