Brett Atkinson has 10 top tips for exploring Hawaii.

With regular airfare bargains and a flying time of less than nine hours from Auckland, it's not surprising Hawaii is becoming popular with New Zealand travellers. While a hotel or resort stay around Oahu's Waikiki Beach is relaxing and enjoyable, Hawaii's also a destination that's perfect for discovering on a self-drive holiday. Follow these tips to explore Hawaii's other islands independently, and be surprised at how affordable it can be for travelling Kiwi families.

1. Definitely rent a car

Loads of competition keeps rental car rates relatively cheap in Hawaii. Shop around online and it's possible to rent a car including full insurance for about NZ$60 a day. Your New Zealand licence is all you need, and it's worth asking about last-minute upgrade deals to secure a more comfortable SUV for a discounted price.

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2. Don't worry about driving on the other side

Hawaii may be one of the world's best places to drive a left-hand-drive car. The speed limit never exceeds 100km/h, and on many roads it's significantly lower. Traffic is light outside Honolulu, especially on other islands like Maui and Hawaii (the Big Island), and roads are usually well signposted. Hawaiian drivers are also uniformly laid-back.

3. Pick up a local SIM card to avoid roaming fees

When you first arrive, visit Honolulu's Ala Moana Shopping Center and sign up for T-Mobile's Tourist Plan — US$30 for unlimited data across 21 days — and let Google Maps be your friend. Just make sure you've also got a dashboard mount for your smartphone to comply with local traffic regulations.

4. Hit the road for Hawaii's top drives

On Maui, the Road to Hana is a spectacular procession of jungle-clad curves, waterfalls and one-way bridges — if you've driven the Coromandel Peninsula or around the South Island's West Coast you'll be just fine — while the Big Island's Chain of Craters drive meanders through massive lava fields to the spectacular Holei Sea Arch.

Sunset at Haleakala National Park. Photo / Getty Images
Sunset at Haleakala National Park. Photo / Getty Images

5. Foodland is your friend

Self-catering is a great option in Hawaii, and supermarket food prices are reasonable. Look out for the Foodland chain — there's usually a big branch near airports and car rental outlets — and load up on produce like fresh pineapples for under a dollar. The Whole Foods store near Maui's Kahului Airport has a great deli section, including made-to-order sandwiches and salads.

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6. Airbnb is the answer

From a bush-clad studio in the forested Big Island village of Volcano (search "Studio w/Private Lanai") to a breezy garden flat in sleepy Hana in eastern Maui (search "Cozy cottage in beautiful Hana"), Airbnb offers plenty of great Hawaii accommodation. A good value option for travelling families is Nona Lani Cottages (nonalanicottages.com) beachfront at Kihei on Maui. Make sure you book somewhere with a barbecue to take advantage of Hawaii's great climate.

Hawaiian green turtles relaxing at Punaluu Black Sand Beach. Photo / Getty Images
Hawaiian green turtles relaxing at Punaluu Black Sand Beach. Photo / Getty Images

7. Maximise your holiday budget

Incorporate free and cheaper sights like the sea turtles on the Big Island's black sand Punalu'u Beach, or a spectacular sunrise or sunset atop Mt Haleakala on Maui. National park entrance fees of US$25 per car and US$12 per person do apply at Haleakala, but the views high above the clouds are stunning. From around 5pm, most bars offer happy hour for drinks and bar snacks — coconut shrimps are a menu staple — and there's often free live music as well. Just look for the signs advertising "Pau Hana", (literally Finished Work).

8. Eat local

For more good-value eating, look for places serving "plate lunches", usually a frisbee-sized selection of rice, salads and a choice of protein like Hawaiian-style kalua pork, Japanese katsu chicken or Korean beef short ribs. Poke rice bowls crammed with fresh seafood are also very popular. With everything on the menu under US$12, Umekes is regarded as one of the Big Island's best poke and lunch plate spots.

Hawaiian salmon poke bowl. Photo / Getty Images
Hawaiian salmon poke bowl. Photo / Getty Images

9. Search out Hawaii's markets and food trucks

The best of Hawaii's farmers' markets is the Saturday morning KCC market held in the shadow of Diamond Head in Honolulu, but other markets big and small dot the other islands. On Maui, there's a weekly street party with music and food trucks held at a different place every Friday night. Locations could include Lahaina's heritage waterfront or the upcountry ranching town of Makawao. Check mauifridays.com for what's scheduled for when you're visiting.

10. Don't forget your coffee plunger

Hawaii produces decent coffee — especially from the organic and biodynamic Kona estates on the Big Island — and what Americans call a French press will ease you into another tropical day on the lanai (patio) of wherever you're staying. With a bit of luck, you can track down a local spot for deep-fried malasadas (Portuguese-style doughnuts). If you're staying at Nona Lani Cottages on Maui, it's just a short bike ride to the Sugar Beach Bake Shop where they're made to order from 6am to 9am every morning.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand and Hawaiian Airlines fly direct from Auckland to Honolulu. Hawaiian Airlines offers connections to the other islands.

DETAILS
gohawaii.com