LIHUE, Hawaii — I received my mission shortly after landing on this luscious, 553-square-mile island, a 30-minute puddle-jump west of Honolulu. It was contained in a tourist booklet I picked up at the airport in Lihue, Kauai's main town. The booklet was full of discount coupons for everything from luaus to motorcycle rentals. Particularly well represented were deals on helicopter tours.
I'd been to Kauai, a favorite of many Hawaii aficionados for its laid-back atmosphere and refreshing lack of overdevelopment, twice before. Although I'd sampled several of its tourist draws, as a budget traveler I'd passed up expensive helicopter rides. Some consider them dangerous; others say they are the best way to see parts of the island that are inaccessible by car-the rugged Na Pali coast, for instance. But they can cost as much as $200 an hour.
So this time my mission-and, of course, I chose to accept it-was to book the best and cheapest helicopter tour I could in a quest to spend an enjoyable week on Kauai without breaking the bank.
Hawaii in general can be expensive, with hotel and restaurant prices that make you gasp. But on Kauai, I discovered, all you need to do to get a good deal is turn over a few stones. Before I left home, I consulted guidebooks, cruised the Internet and made some calls. This resulted in the following itinerary:
* Three nights, at $95 each, in the biggest suite at Poipu Plantation, a B&B and condo enclave near Poipu Beach, on the island's sunny south coast.
* Two nights, at $65 each, in a cabin at Kahili Mountain Park, about 10 miles north of Poipu.
* And, finally, two nights in a two-bedroom, garden-view unit at Hanalei Colony Resort on the lush north shore, at $137.50 (which included a 10% auto club discount).
Rates were already at their low-season nadir when I went in January. But there was a catch. Winter brings dangerously high surf, especially to the west and north coasts. So you have to be careful about where you swim.
No matter the season, it's no sweat to find excellent, inexpensive places to eat on the Garden Island. At Bubba's, with locations in Kapaa and Hanalei, juicy $2.50 hamburgers come with a special ketchup-relish sauce that was concocted from a 1936 recipe. At Island Teriyaki in Koloa, the massive teriyaki chicken dinner is only $6.95. And at the coffee-shop-like Tip Top Cafe in Lihue, a $6.50 Japanese-style bento box includes chicken wings, teriyaki chicken or beef, egg roll, sausage, potato salad and pickled vegetables.
An affordable helicopter tour posed a stiffer challenge. On the afternoon I arrived, I claimed my Alamo rental car (I'd booked a compact car for $175 a week but was upgraded one class for the same price), then visited Island Helicopters and Air Kauai, whose offices are near the airport, to check out prices. They offered hourlong rides for $148 and $165, respectively.
Next, I drove about 20 miles on the Kuhio Highway to Kapaa, the island's busy commercial center. At a Safeway there, I stocked up on chocolate, peanut butter, rice cakes and other groceries, intending to prepare some meals at the lodgings that included kitchenettes.
Across the road from the market I noticed a Snorkel Bob's. I'd rented snorkel gear at Snorkel Bob's outlets on Maui, so I stopped in and discovered that they also book tours-including helicopter rides.
A young, sandy-haired man who fitted me for flippers offered a week's use of snorkeling gear and a boogie board, with a helicopter ride thrown in, all for $149. He said I could even take the gear now and call him back later if I decided to book the deal. (If not, I'd pay $55 for the equipment only.)
I continued on to the resort area of Poipu, severely damaged by brutal Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Along the way, I found that the tunnel of eucalyptus trees along Maluhia Road has grown back gloriously and the Poipu waterfront is still scalloped with swimmable beaches.
Tiny Brennecke's Beach, a fine spot for novice boogie boarders, and Poipu Beach Park, with its long sandbar extending into the sea, are a five-minute walk down the hill from where I stayed, at Poipu Plantation. A modest but comfortable split-level house, Poipu Plantation has a screened-in front porch where breakfasts are served. Sometimes exotic fruits are featured, such as spiny rambutans and delicate star fruit. The house has three bedrooms for B&B guests, plus nine newer condo-type units tucked into the backyard. My large room had a king bed, TV, ceiling fan, window air-conditioning unit and private bath, but its decor was nothing fancy.
In fact, apart from a handful of ritzy resorts, like the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency, Poipu is mostly nothing fancy. Old folks in jogging suits take morning constitutionals, and families lug lawn chairs to pretty Poipu Beach Park.