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Maui on a budget

The view on a walk near Hana, Maui, at the end of a scenic drive renowned for its beauty, 620 curves, and 59 bridges.

pamela wright for the boston globe

The view on a walk near Hana, Maui, at the end of a scenic drive renowned for its beauty, 620 curves, and 59 bridges.

MAUI, Hawaii — Home to exotic gardens, lush rain forests, tumbling waterfalls, sun-drenched beaches, and unique culture, this island tops the vacation wish list for many travelers. With its upscale resorts and cosmopolitan dining, it can be expensive. But we have learned how to have a memorable time without busting the budget.

CHEAP DIGS  If you don’t mind roughing it a bit, consider camping at the 122-acre Waianapanapa State Park (www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/maui/waianapanapa.cfm), located near Hana. Campsites ($18 a night) overlook the rugged coastline with access to a fabulous walking trail with black sand beaches, blow holes, and ancient temples. There are also cabins for rent ($90 a night), sleeping up to six, with full kitchens and bath.

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Room rates at top resorts can be high; instead rent a room in a local home, or rent an entire house. Hundreds of lodging options are offered through websites like Homeaway (www.homeaway.com) and Vacation Rentals by Owner (www.vrbo.com). We recently rented a one-bedroom oceanfront condo with an updated kitchen and bath and pool for less than $1,000 a week. Another time, we snagged a studio in Kihei, with ocean views and within walking distance to town, for $130 a night. Added bonus: The owners pointed out hidden gems and some of their favorite spots on the island and even took us out fishing and snorkeling on their boat. Through the Airbnb community marketplace (www.airbnb.com) we found a lovely upcountry studio for $65 a night, and another, located two blocks from Kihei Beach, for $455 a week. If you do your homework — it takes some sleuthing through the sites to find what you want — the savings can be huge.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES  Maui has more than 80 beaches, encompassing 120 miles of coastline, and they’re all free and open to the public. Pack a beach bag and head to Kaanapali Beach, a bustling, 3-mile swath of white sand that’s great for sunbathing and people-watching. Big Beach in southwest Maui is the largest undeveloped beach on the island, where locals set up tent villages on Sunday and make a day of it. You can watch some of the wildest windsurfing in the islands at Hookipa Beach Park near Paia.

For snorkeling, skip the guided excursions and head to Honolua Bay or the Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve on the southern coast. Snorkel Bob’s (www.snorkelbob.com) has five locations on the island, and rents gear for as little as $9 a week.

Auau Channel, between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, is one of the best places to see endangered humpback whales. Some 12,000 humpbacks visit Hawaii from late September through April. The guided eco-trips with the Pacific Whale Foundation (800-942-5311, www.pacificwhale.org; $24.95 adults, $17 children ages 7-12)are worth it.

However, if the budget is tight, you can usually see migrating whales from several spots. For a great vantage point, climb the Puu Olai cinder cone overlooking Makena Beach. There’s also a public telescope along the Wailea coastal walk.

Head to Whalers Village (808-661-4567, www.whalersvillage.com), a shopping center along the Kaanapali Beachwalk, for daily, free lei-making and hula dance lessons, and arts and crafts demonstrations by local artisans. On several evenings during the week, there are free, live performances showcasing Polynesian and Tahitian music and dance. Also at the center is the small Whalers Village Museum (808-661-5992, www.whalersmuseum.com; $3 adults, $1 ages 6-18), where you can learn about humpback whales and Maui’s whaling history.

The town of Lahaina is a tourist hot spot, with a slew of restaurants and shops. It’s also one of the most historic towns on the island. Explore the self-guided Lahaina Historic Trail, highlighting 62 significant sites in town. You can pick up a free map at the visitors center in the Old Lahaina Courthouse.  

It’s only $5 a car to get into the beautiful and sacred Iao Valley State Park, with views of the picturesque valley and the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, a lush, plant-coated rocky outcropping overlooking Iao Stream.

A visit to Haleakala National Park (808-572-4400, www.nps.gov/hale) is top of the list of things to do in Maui, and well worth the $10 per car fee to get in. The spectacular dormant volcano, with a massive 7½-mile long, 3,000-foot-deep crater valley, dominates the landscape in east Maui. There’s an observatory and visitors center at the top of the 10,023-foot summit, and more than 35 miles of hiking trails in the park.

Also a must-do on the island is driving the scenic road to Hana. The excursion, on a slow-going road with 620 curves and 59 bridges, will take the better part of the day. Stop along the way at several outlooks, and to take short hikes through rain forests to waterfalls and swimming holes. There are several outfitters who offer guided trips along the Hana Highway and also to Haleakala National Park. But these excursions can run $100 or more per person. A better deal, especially for families, is to rent your own car. Check out Hawaii Discount Car Rental (800-292-1930, www.discounthawaiicarrental.com) for competitive rates.

DINING  You don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well on Maui. Road shacks and come-as-you-are restaurants serving traditional Hawaiian plate lunches offer some of the best local dishes. Aloha Mixed Plate (1285 Front St., Lahaina, 808-661-3322, www.alohamixed
plate.com) has a five-star waterfront setting and bargain- basement prices. Try the Hawaiian Plate, with kalua pig and cabbage, lomi lomi salmon, poi, and haupia, for $9.95. Coconut’s Fish Cafe (1270 South Kihei Road, Kihei, 808-875-9979, www.coconutsfishcafe.com) has the freshest and best fish tacos on the island for $11.95. Grab a piping hot, fresh-made bowl of noodles — like the fried saimin with kamaboko, spam, egg, bean sprouts and scallions — for around $9, at Star Noodle (286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina, 808-667-5400, www.starnoodle.com).

Farmer’s markets are good places to mix with islanders, sample foods, and pick up local produce, vegetables, preserves, and more. The south Maui market (61 South Kihei Road, Kihei) is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday until 5. The Honokowai market in west Maui (3636 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina, 808-669-7004) is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 7 to 11 a.m.

GETTING AROUND There’s a public bus system that runs between several popular towns and communities on the island (www.mauicounty.gov/bus; $2 per boarding, $4 daily pass), departing nearly hourly from about 6:30 a.m. until about 9 p.m. There are also several free shuttle services for help in getting around Maui.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@earthlink.net.
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