Hawaiian Luau on a Shoestring

Words by Dorian Mode and photography by Lydia Thorpe

Waikiki is pricey but if seniors know where to look you can do it on a budget

Waikiki is pricey but if seniors know where to look you can holiday in Hawaii on a budget. You may have noticed the plethora of low fares to Hawaii. But paradise ‘don’t’ come cheap. You need to know where to go, if you want to escape the winter blues and enjoy a week in the balmy Hawaiian sun without cashing in your Super!

Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands and a pleasurable mix of mountain ranges, twitching palms and curling surf. The town centre, Waikiki, is about 30 mins from the Honolulu Airport. If there’s a gang of you, it will be cheaper to jump a cab to your hotel (about $35US plus tip but more if there’s traffic). We chose the Shuttle Bus (round trip only $10 per person) but you will go via Mars as your fellow passengers are dropped at their various beachfront hotels. But, what-the-hell, it’s an interesting way to see the island.

The Vive budget hotel punches above its weight

Accommodation is the most important consideration in any budget sojourn. We found our digs in a yarn on cheap accommodation in Hawaii in our weekend newspaper, so we were prepared to be underwhelmed. But we were overwhelmed. The Hotel Vive (cheapest rate in the aforementioned article) flanks the Hilton but it’s a budget hotel that punches well above its weight. Being only a lei toss from the beach, the rooms are clean, with chic furnishings and ocean views. The breakfast is generous with delicious local fruit and fresh pastries. And the staff is welcoming.
We loved the glass of pineapple juice and a soothing wet flannel on arrival. After our 10-hour flight from Sydney, it teased weary smiles from us. Vive even offer guests boogie boards (if you can be bothered – hey, just bring me a mai tai and an umbrella) and deck chairs. So, we were delighted with our accommodation – as were the many Aussie seniors staying there, too.

This was the real Hawaii - a ukulele jam session!

Forget the luau
I love the ukulele. There’s something endearing about a big man playing a tiny guitar. But you don’t need to splurge on the clichéd fire-dancing Hawaiian luau. These Vegas-style shows with their Polynesian theatrics, cordial mai tais and tired smorgasbords cost an arm and a leg (indeed on the menu in Cook’s day). There’s always an authentic Hawaiian experience somewhere for free, if you look hard enough.
Diagonally across from the Vive is the Royal Grove Hotel. Monday nights they hold a fabulous free ukulele/hula jam session in the courtyard. This was such a genuine Hawaiian experience I wanted to cry. This is the real Hawaii. Later the musicians and hula dancers were joined by Mr Fong – the nonagenarian hotel owner who sang pretty island songs from the 1930s and 40s. An unforgettable experience.

Book 'em Danno! Honolulu Parking cops on patrol

Our first night we had a what-the-hell moment and ate Mexican at La Cucaracha across the road from our hotel. The food was overpriced and appalling but you only have yourself to blame for eating at a restaurant called “The Cockroach!”
We often save money on holidays by cooking for ourselves but groceries are as dear as poison in Hawaii. Why? Because 85% of Hawaii’s food is imported. But their own produce is superb. Island-grown papaya, guava, pineapple even fresh seafood is quite affordable. You can take food back to the Vive and eat it in the breakfast area – indeed we saw many guests doing just that.
There are also numerous cheap roadside diners (like the Rainbow Drive-Inn where the locals eat). There is also pop-up food stands all over Waikiki. We ate garlic shrimp (“prawns”) with two scoops of rice and salad for $7US each.
Another way to save money on food is being old. As we get older we like to eat earlier. Soon, I’m sure we’ll end up eating at 2am. So, pau hana (‘stop work’ in Hawaiian pidgin) is their version of ‘happy hour’. Discounts on booze and food at this time makes eating affordable at beachfront eateries.

Mrs Pictures on our 'stroll' to Diamond Head

Pearl Harbour
Think Deborah Kerr cavorting in the surf with Burt Lancaster and it will come flooding back to you. But you don’t really need to spend hundreds of dollars on the Pearl Harbour Tour/Experience/Package/etc. The National Park Service gives away over 1,300 free walk-up tickets each day on a first come, first serviced basis. But be sure to arrive about an hour early for these walk-up tickets. The Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre opens at 7am but do get there at 6:15 for the freebies.

Diamond Head State Monument
Tip: If you’re over 50 never ask anyone sporting a pink Mohawk if a “walk is easy”. This is where we let ourselves down. The concierge at Vive clearly thought we were Olympians.
Diamond Head crater (Lē‘ahi) sits prominently near the eastern edge of Waikiki’s coastline and is Hawaii’s most recognized landmark. Indeed, if you want to know why locals call the fiftieth-state “Hawai’i” instead of “Hawaii,” that’s the sound of you make on the third vowel of the triphthong whilst having a stroke climbing Diamond Head. After a laborious trek to the summit with a never-ending conga-line of panting tourists, a red-faced woman coming down the crater with a Bayou accent said, “it wasn’t really worth it!” Upon that we instantly turned on our heels to make our descent, buckled over and gasping for air. Hey, we’re old. Who cares?

Surfing was invented at Waikiki - me and the Duke at Waikiki beach

Waikiki Beach
I guess our favourite Hawaiian activity was to simply lie on the beach at Waikiki. If you are chary of the surf – as my wife is – there’s turquoise-blue sea pool for you to loll about in. So, you don’t need to sell the second car to enjoy Hawaii. Mahalo!

Handy websites and links
City Taxis offer a flat rate of $28 from Honolulu Airport


  • Jan Feb March is winter in the States and June/July are US school holidays, so you’ll find the cheapest room rates during the American shoulder months of May, September and October when temperatures are still pleasant in Hawaii.
  • If booking five nights or longer be sure to haggle for a discount. Do haggle!
  • Base yourself in just one place on each island and take day trips. Skip the $$$ for an ocean-view hotel room, where you might need a telescope to glimpse the sea. Mountain-view rooms are cheapest, and even if you end up looking at a parking lot, how much time are you going to spend in your room anyway?
  • Hire a car and see the rest of the island. Once you are out of Waikiki the prices drop faster than the skirt of a hula dancer with no hips.