A Hawaiian Getaway – Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu and Maui

November 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Are you looking for sun and fun adventure during the winter season? Load up on family fun without unloading your wallet! First time visitors to Hawaii and their families will want to keep this travel list handy for free and nearly free things to see and do on the islands of Maui and Oahu, Hawaii.

Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority – Tor Johnson

Free and Nearly Free Activities in Maui


1.   Tide pooling – A wonderful early evening activity – don’t forget to bring your camera, as the spectacular sunsets are free, as well!  There are several protected tide pool areas around the island of Maui, including the Wailea area near Ulua Beach.  Take a flashlight and water shoes and prepare to find anemone, brittle stars, crabs, eels, sea cucumbers, shrimp and maybe even a baby octopus!

2.   Hiking – Maui is blessed with many hiking trails that run the gamut from highly advanced to easy, family-friendly strolls.  A favorite hike through Ko’olau Forest Reserve starts in a bamboo forest and over the course of a few miles, you’ll find yourself crawling over rocks, crossing streams and swinging from vines.

Hawaii Sunset3.   Take in a sunset – Sunset viewing is a time of gathering with family (ohana) and friends (hoaloha) to toast the close of a day. Maui’s colorful sunsets are best viewed from the south side of the island, including parks such as Kamaole III.  Residents and visitors gather on the grassy knoll and watch for the infamous green flash!

4.   First Friday – As part of the revitalization of Wailuku Town, First Friday, held the first Friday of each month, is a street festival with live music, a beer garden, local crafts and food. The banana lumpia is not to be missed!

5.   Eco-adventures – Voluntourism, as it’s been coined, offers not only free fun for the family but a sense of fulfillment and a greater understanding of the island.  Visitors may work as a farm hand on an organic farm in Kula, collect invasive species at the top of a volcano, or assist in reconstructing an ancient fishpond. You won’t get paid for your work, but the memories are priceless. For more information, check out gohawaii.com.

Hawaii Snorkeling6.   Snorkeling and scuba diving activities right off Maui’s shores – this counts as FREE only if you happen to have the equipment. However, I think it’s good to note that you don’t have to pay a lot of money for a boat dive when shore dives are easily accessible.

7.   Whale watching during the season (December- March) – the Maalaea area is best for viewing whales. They have pullouts for whale watching along Honoapiilani Road.

8.   Hookipa Lookout – It’s free to watch top windsurfers, surfers, and kiteboarders take on strong winds/waves.  (Near Mama’s Fish House)

9.   The Boo Boo Zoo – or East Maui Animal Refuge – you have to call in advance and they ask for donations but it’s free. The Boo Boo Zoo is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals.

10.   Some resorts offer Outrigger Canoe paddling – such as Fairmont Kea Lani and Four Seasons Maui –  free for guests. Makena Beach Resort charges $30 for 1 hour excursions.


Free and Nearly Free Activities in Oahu


Oahu is an affordable, family-friendly tropical destination with hundreds of exciting things to do, see and experience for FREE or for less than $10 per person. Visit Oahu and discover the energizing sights, sounds, art, culture, history, nature, and adventure of the island.

Photo by Polynesian Cultural Center


1.   Visit the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa on any Friday to experience its weekly Aloha Friday” Polynesian show featuring Tahitian drummers, hula dancers, lei making, and music.

2.   Stop in at the lei stands that line Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown and see firsthand how these intricate lei are created.

3.   On the first Friday of every month, art galleries in downtown Honolulu open their doors from 5-9 p.m. at no charge. This event is popular with art enthusiasts of all ages.

4.   Walk the booths at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet for affordable made-in-Hawai‘i souvenirs on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m.-3 p.m.

5.   Enjoy locally-grown produce and meats, fragrant flowers and tasty treats at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

6.   Watch the fireworks explode on Friday evenings in remembrance and celebration of King Kalakaua’s Jubilee at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Photo by Oahu Visitors Bureau

7.   Drive to the North Shore for Matsumoto’s famous shave ice, a Kua Aina hamburger and garlic shrimp from a roadside shrimp truck.

8.   View the work of local artisans at the Art on the Zoo Fence along the fence of the Honolulu Zoo.

9.   Visit Ward Warehouse for free hula lessons on Thursdays, country line dance classes on Tuesdays and live Hawaiian music every first Sunday of the month. While there, check out Ward Centers’ locally-owned boutiques for affordable Hawaii souvenirs.

10.   Meet Hawaii’s local fishermen at the early morning Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38, where the fresh catch is displayed and auctioned off to island chefs and merchants daily at 5 a.m.

Hawaii Sunset

For more information:

Maui Visitors Bureau – Information on sights, activities, events, accommodations and more.
Oahu Visitors Bureau – Information on how to plan your trip to Honolulu and the island of Oahu.
California Tours Hawaii Vacation Packages – California Tours can arrange flights and hotel accommodations in Honolulu and Maui, as well as the Big Island!

About the Author:

Nancy Brown is a lover of all things travel-related.  She has combined her passion for travel with her professional writing career. Aside from writing for California Tours, Nancy has her own travel blog, www.Nancydbrown.com and writes the “What a Trip” newspaper column for the Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun, a publication of Media News Group.  She is the Lodging Editor for Uptake.com and the on-line Travel Editor for Diablo magazine.  Horse lovers will find her on the Writing Horseback blog.

An Interview with Tour Guide Alison Merrill – Southwest Specialist!

November 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm

California Tours features a series of interviews with the tour guides who lead our tours around the US. They’ll share funny stories, travel tips, and details about the destinations that they visit so often.

We begin our series of tour guide interviews with Alison Merrill. Alison has been a tour guide for 13 years and is in it for life! She specializes in tours of the American West in both English and French, and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I am university educated, with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and French Literature. I went to graduate school for many, many years, in French Literature.

So how did you get started as a tour guide?

When I moved to California, I needed to work, and my background was kind of limited to academia, fine languages, and personal travel. I knew about teaching and lecturing, which is similar to leading tours. Since San Francisco is a hub for tourism, I thought I could use my language skills as a tour guide.

What do you like about being a tour guide?

I like the flexible schedule—that fits my personality. I love not being in an office, and not having to commute. I work with a lot of foreign people, so I enjoy acting as an interpreter of American culture and politics. People are somewhat familiar with American life because of movies and the media, but I can give them a very different perspective and really teach them a lot.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

What are your favorite kinds of tours to give?

I work in the American West, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. California is famous the whole world over, and the tours around the Southwest and Canyon country are so unique and stunningly beautiful.

When is the best time of year to go to the Southwest?

Every season has its advantages. Summertime is the most convenient for families, but it’s also the hottest time of year, so you can’t do as much hiking. Springtime is nice but there are a lot of tour buses on the road so it can get crowded. September and October are beautiful because of the fall colors. And while it snows in the winter, that too can be really beautiful. All the parks stay open in the winter so it’s a great way to see them without the crowds. It’s beautiful all year round, so I would just recommend trying to go in the off-season to get lower plane ticket prices.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in the winter

What are the must-see destinations in the Southwest?

The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion Canyon, and Arches are the most popular. Many people spend 8-10 days doing a circle starting and ending in Las Vegas—they might take day trips to Death Valley or the Valley of Fire from Vegas and then continue on to the Grand Canyon and the rest. There’s a lot of driving, sometimes 250-300 miles a day, but people on my tours often say they don’t get bored because the scenery changes from morning to afternoon and is just so beautiful. So no napping on the bus!

Lake Powell

View of Lake Powell from above

What activities do you recommend?

In Moab, Utah (near Arches), there is a wonderful Hummer tour that goes off-road and is really fun. In Monument Valley many people take the jeep tour as it’s the only way to get into the valley. If you’re looking for adventure, rafting out of Moab can be fun. Horseback riding is great in Bryce and in Page, near Lake Powell. The best way to see Arches is on a scenic air tour from Moab—very small planes with 4-9 passengers, on a 50 minute flight. Another great air tour is over Lake Powell. These are fantastic ways to see these huge places that you can’t see from a photo stop in your car, or even a hike won’t give you the perspective. In Lake Powell you get to see the contrast in colors of this turquoise blue ribbon cutting its path through the ochres and reds of the American desert.

What’s the best way to enjoy the Southwest while traveling with kids?

A great thing to do with kids is a Western-themed dinner. There will be singing cowboys on stage, and it’s a great family activity. There is one in Bryce and one in Moab. You can also get your kids cowboy hats and sheriff star badges, that makes for adorable pictures as well!

What are some good souvenirs you can find in the Southwest?

I always recommend people buy from Indian Country because many things are handmade—there is an endless selection of turquoise and silver jewelry, which are great souveniers and really unique. They also have handmade Indian dolls, pottery, baskets, statues, great wall hangings.

Do you ever get tired of working in the American West?

I’ve been doing it for 13 years, and must have seen the Grand Canyon over 150 times, but I don’t get sick of it. To me it’s the most beautiful place in the world, and I never get tired of seeing my passengers’ faces—I love watching how much pleasure they get out of their trip.

We love these travel blog posts about the Southwest — click for more!

My Perfect Day in LA

October 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm

People seem to either love Los Angeles or hate it, and in the past I’ve always been a bit overwhelmed by the seemingly endless snarls of freeways that run through it and the blonde, beachy beauties that inhabit it. But a recent weekend spent in Los Angeles visiting family revealed to me some of the highlights of living there: a beautiful beach, endless sunshine, great shopping … and food trucks!

Beach Day

My perfect Los Angeles day began as my boyfriend and I met up with my cousin and her 18-month-old baby for a trip to Santa Monica Beach. The white sands stretched out before us as we trekked along, looking for the perfect spot.  The beach was fairly empty since for Los Angeles the 75 degrees was a little chilly. I kept Baby Lila entertained by hauling buckets of seawater back to our picnic spot so that we could play in the wet sand together, methodically creating and destroying drip castles. Finally, I could resist no longer–the warm waves of Southern California’s Pacific Ocean called to me and I spent nearly an hour bodysurfing and splashing in the water.

Next, finished with the beach, we took a long walk from Santa Monica Beach to Venice Beach, one of the most popular and scenic walks in Los Angeles. Though we were on foot (or in a stroller, in Lila’s case), many people whizzed by on roller blades or bicycles as we made our way along a concrete path lining the beach. Our arrival in Venice Beach was marked by stands hawking Bob Marley t-shirts and henna tattoos, beachfront shops selling surf-wear and plenty of ice cream places.

We briefly explored the beautiful canals that give Venice its name, and then shopped our way back to where the car was parked in Santa Monica, ambling along Main Street and stopping in boutiques and quirky art stores. In between purchasing a pack of Big Lebowski playing cards at a toy store and trying on summer dresses at a boutique, we happened upon what must have been a budding reality TV star. She beamed at the camera following her around as she pranced down the street; later we saw her happily eating a cupcake for the (presumed) viewers at home. What an LA experience!

A Night Out in Los Angeles

After a day in the sun, we were pretty drained, but we cleaned ourselves up, put on appropriately trendy outfits and headed out to Elysian Park for Los Angeles’ popular Outdoor Cinema Food Fest. Food trucks serving unique, gourmet food have grown in popularity around the US, even snagging their own reality TV show, but they were born in Los Angeles. This festival was a great way to experience Los Angeles: we got to try Los Angeles’ own multicultural culinary invention, Korean tacos, and we got to see a classic movie, LA Confidential, projected onto an outdoor screen with the skyline of downtown LA in the background.

Though full from all the food truck goodies, and tired out from a full day of fun, we had to make one last stop before heading home. We cruised by a few late-night Pasadena taco trucks before deciding on the one with the longest line. After a few tongue, brain and chorizo tacos scarfed down in a dark parking lot, we were ready to call it a night, but we resolved to return someday soon to Los Angeles for more fun!


Visit Los Angeles:

A weekend in Los Angeles is difficult without access to a car. If you don’t want to rent a car while you’re there, you can join tours that will transport you to all the famous sightseeing spots. California Tours offers a 3-day tour to Los Angeles from San Francisco that visits Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Santa Barbara and more. If you’d rather go on your own, staying in Universal City or Anaheim is a great choice for travelers with children, as these locations are walking distance from two great theme parks. The Los Angeles airport area is the most budget friendly while still being centrally located, whereas staying in Santa Monica can get pricey.

For more on loving L.A., check out Fall in love (or at least like) with Los Angeles on A Little Adrift!