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Beach vacation first timers

The husband and I want to plan our first ever beach vacation to somewhere warm and relaxing this winter. We do not want the traditional crowded all-inclusive resort experience, or the spring break partier experience. We would much rather have a very chill meet the locals, toss a frisbee, hike around, check out local markets, see the wildlife type experience. Accommodations need to be clean and serviceable, but not fancy. We are not highly experienced travelers, so we still need somewhere relatively safe, with some English speaking folks around in case of emergency. We are from Minnesota, so everything tropical is far away, but preferably somewhere we can get to within 8 hours flight time. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Posted by
5697 posts

Minnesota friends love Christmas in Hawaii -- Kauai, Maui, Oahu, Big Island -- warm, happy, English widely spoken. Beautiful landscapes and only as touristy as you want. Rent a condo, slow down and watch the sunsets.

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you, I hadn't thought of Hawaii but I'd love to go. I've heard it can be quite expensive and our main concern is that we don't want to spend so much on lodging that we have little left for other things. Do you have any suggestions on where to stay that is reasonable?

Posted by
2897 posts

Since as you say you're not experienced travelers then getting your feet wet with a trip to Hawaii might be just the thing. Christmas, however, would not be a good time to go since the high season (and high rates) typically kick in the day after Christmas. Anything before that is considered the shoulder season and rates tend to be much more reasonable.
If your dates are flexible enough to consider early to mid-December, then booking a vacation rental on the Kona side of the Big Island might be just the thing. Lots to see and do - day trips up to the Kilauea National Park, Mauna Loa & Mauna Kea, over to Hilo to see the flowers - yet back on the sunny side in the evenings. Suggest looking at to see if anything strikes your fancy...and your budget.
Staying in a vacation rental is typically much cheaper than a hotel and provides a lot more privacy and freedom of movement than a B&B. Also, having cooking facilities will save you lots of money versus eating out all the time, plus will provide added incentive for hitting the local farmer's markets.
Each of the islands has its unique charms. Know before booking that the south and west sides are the sunny sides due to the effect of the (nearly) perpetual trade winds, which make the north and east shores a bit rainier. Check the historical rain totals for Hilo and Kona to see what I mean.

Posted by
334 posts

This might be right at your flight time limit, but check out Barbados. Delta has regular flights from ATL and with the frequent connections between MSP and ATL, they should be able to get you there in about 8 - 9 hours. Other airlines will take much longer.

The high season in Barbados runs from December through mid-April. You can still find deals if you are looking early enough in December, but expect things to be more expensive and more crowded once the calendar rolls over to January. Barbados does have several all-inclusive resorts, but the majority are clustered on the western side of the island. The nighttime party atmosphere is found in St. Lawrence Gap which is just to the south of Bridgetown. Just stay somewhere outside of these two areas and you'll have a quieter vacation.

Being a former British territory, the primary language is English, although the accent might take a couple days to get used to. The island is small enough that you can get to anywhere with an easy day trip and there are plenty of interesting things in the interior. There's a wildlife reserve, rum tours, and the eastern/northern beaches have largely been left alone and are good for hiking, etc.

Posted by
5837 posts

Yes, Hawaii. The biggest (by surface area) state of the union. A lot of ocean.
Kauai is the oldest in geologic terms of the major islands, Hawaii (Big Island) the youngest and still growing. Oahu is the biggest in terms of population the the Big Island the biggest (and tallest) in terms of land area.

Some thoughts starting with Oahu, "The Gathering Place". Think Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head. By the way, compass direction in Honolulu are "Diamond Head" vs. "Ewa" and Mauka (mountain) vs. Makai (ocean).

Transit (The Bus) is good on Oahu and if you are basically hanging in Waikiki, you don't need a rental car except for a day or two for excursions away from Waikiki. Gas is expensive per gallon but distances are short. (But traffic is big).

Waikiki - good beaches, plenty of tourist and nightlife. (If you want quite, go to Kauai instead). Young people like the nightlife and the gathering. Beach/swim in the mornings (cooler, sun less intense), sight-see and shop (Ala Moana Shopping Center is a moderate walk/short bus ride from Waikiki, and party at night. Take in a luau banquet and show with Friday evening fireworks display:


Historic Honolulu:^newCustomSearch:false

North Shore Haleeiwa - Matsumoto Shave (not shaved) Ice.
The place for shave ice before POTUS popularized the place in Kailua.

North Shore is also popular for big wave surf. Pay attention to the surf warning signs.

Pearl Harbor. Tora tora tora. Visit the monument. Also visit Punchbowl, the Arlington of the Pacific and a view of Honolulu but be respectful. If you drive out to Pearl (you can take a tour bus or even The Bus), time it for the swap meet:

Bodysurf Bellows Beach.

and more....

Posted by
5837 posts

Part 2: Da Big Island (Hawaii, Hawai'i)

The youngest island and the tallest. Volcano's are active the the big reason for me to visit the Big Island.
Lodging in the Volcano NP or in nearby town/village of Volcano. Hilo town isn't that far away, but lodging is dated. We spent four nights (one in Hilo, three in Volcano) to visit and hike the Volcano and put on less than 100 miles on the rental car.

Old town Hilo:
Fresh fruit and local food at the farmer's market:
or eat a Loco Moco: (or a Super Loco Moco for those with a big appetite)

If hiking a active volcano, perhaps skiing a volcano is more your thing:

For those more into beach rather than volcano, man made beaches on the Kona (dry side) would be more your thing:

The sunny Kona District stretches for about 60 miles from Kona
International Airport to beyond Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii Island’s
lava-lined western coast. Along this expansive area, you’ll find
everything from coffee farms to historic Hawaiian landmarks.

In fact, King Kamehameha actually spent his final years in
Kailua-Kona. Today, Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona) is a
bustling, gathering place in the heart of the district, just a
15-minute drive south of Kona International Airport. Home to shops,
restaurants and nightlife, you can conveniently take a walking tour of
Kona’s history at places like Hulihee Palace, Mokuaikaua Church and
the Ahuena Heiau.

Other significant historic places include Kealakekua Bay to the south,
where Captain James Cook first set foot on the island in 1778 and
where he was eventually killed. Nearby is Puuhonua o Honaunau National
Historical Park, a well-restored Hawaiian “place of refuge.” North of
Kailua-Kona is the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, a
1160-acre park that lets you explore early heiau (temples), fishponds
and petroglyphs.

Shielded from winds by Maunaloa, south Kona’s calm and clear waters
are perfect for snorkeling, diving and spotting dolphins and honu
(Hawaiian green sea turtles). One of Kona’s most memorable experiences
is going on a manta ray boat tour to scuba or snorkel with these
gentle, graceful sea creatures. Kona is also famous for its deep-sea
fishing, hosting the International Billfish Tournament (August) every
year. And on land, don’t forget to travel to the cooler upland slopes
of towns like Holualoa, where you can sample the distinctive flavors
of 100% Kona coffee. On the versatile Kona coast, you’ll find the
adventures are as big as the island itself.

And then there's the black sand beach:

Have you ever seen a beach with black sand? Because of constant
volcanic activity, you'll find white sands, green sands and black
sands on Hawaii Island. Located on the southeastern Kau coast, Punaluu
Black Sand Beach is one of the most famous black sand beaches in

Posted by
3 posts

Thanks so much for all the great suggestions! Hawaii definitely has proud supporters! Your wonderful descriptions makes me wish, just a little, that it was winter already...

Unfortunately, it is the busiest season at my job in November and December, so I won't be able to travel then. Looks like we may be paying some of the higher prices of the busy season, unless I can stand waiting until mid-April or May. Not sure I can do it.

Any suggestions for finding best airfare? Is it best to book early, or hold off and hope for sales?

Posted by
334 posts

Everyone has their favorite flight tool, but I use Google Flights ( when I have inexact dates and destinations in mind. I find it one of the easiest to plug in multiple departure airports, multiple arriving airports, and have it find the best routes in terms of either time or money. It also handles multi-city itineraries well. There are plenty of filters to limit your searches to specific airlines/alliances as well as time of day, as well as other preferences. It has been invaluable in getting initial ballpark estimates pretty quickly.

As far as timing the market, the best time to buy is when you feel that you have a good deal on a ticket. We tend to stress over getting the best deal, but if we try to play the market, we tend to get burned. At least I have gotten burned enough to know to not try to play that game. Traveling somewhere new is trickier because we don't have a baseline to judge a price against to know if it's a good deal or a bad one. I wish I could give a more definitive answer, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling on whether it is a good deal or not.

Posted by
5837 posts

Hawaii Part 3: Maui no ka oi (da Best)

Oahu is the most populated island of the State of Hawaii and popular with foreign tourist. This could be the reason why many American (as in USA) tourist prefer Maui. It's been over a decade since I last visited Maui, but even back then Maui was becoming more crowded with both permanent residents and visitors.

We preferred condos in Kihei over destination resorts in Lahaina partly because Kihei is more central (on the isthmus of the figure 8 shaped island. Partly because Kihei is or at least was more of a hang loose community.

While Maui is or was a place to hang out, there is plenty to do and see. Beaches are not as good meaning white (coral) sand as Oahu or Kauai, tourism has brought sand to beaches that where historically rough coral pebbles.

Snorkel tours are popular. Swim with the fishes and sea turtles. A lot of tour providers ranging from big (over 100 passenger boats) to six packs (6 paying passengers max and different coast guard rules apply). Our first snorkeling trip was on a sailing six pack.

Haleakala National Park is a must in my opinion. (Hale means house or home with Haleakala meaning house of the sun). The sunrise visit is one option, but some on holiday doing want to start driving at 4 am to beat the sunrise from 10,000 feet ASL. Those staying beyond sunrise, or arrive at a more vacation like time can or should hike about including adventures down into the crater.

The road to Hana can easily use a full day.

The Hana Highway (HI-360) has 620 curves and 59 bridges. The road
leads you through flourishing rainforests, flowing waterfalls,
plunging pools and dramatic seascapes. There are plenty of
opportunities to stop and enjoy the lovely views, so get an early
start and take your time on your drive.
In the old days, locals driving the Hana road would use the full width and honk when approaching blind curves hoping not to hear a return honk.

Lahaina use to be a sleepy former whaling village after we stopped killing whales for oil. Lahina and West Maui isn't sleepy anymore.

Posted by
3392 posts

How about Belize? It's an English speaking country with a vibrant culture, lots of lovely small resorts or hotels on the beach or even out on the islands, and beautiful nature!
Costa Rica is also a very easy place to travel. We love the Pacific Coast - it gets more rustic the further south you go but many of the beaches are pleasantly uncrowded, the food is amazing, and there are plenty of English speakers around. One of the most relaxing places I've ever spent a vacation. The jungle goes right down to the ocean and there are parrots, sloths, coatis - more wildlife than you can shake a stick at. I love anything south of Manuel Antonio...north of there and it's pretty touristy and built up.

Posted by
2897 posts

If you're restricted to traveling over the Christmas break then you're going to be paying full freight for airfare and accommodations wherever you go. Airfares to Hawaii will be heavily discounted right up to Christmas Day but then revert to High Season rates after that.
Might still be able to find a fare that suits you however. Just need to search around. I use to start my own searches but there are many other engines to choose from.
If you're thinking about a vacation rental I'd suggest booking something within the next month or so - things do tend to book up quickly over the holidays.

Posted by
5837 posts

Hawaii Part 4 of 4: Kauai, the Garden Isle

My only trip to Kauai was many decades ago prior to Hurricane Iniki that remodeled the island. In addition to being the "Garden Isle", it is also the quite isle in comparison to the big four (Oahu, Maui and the Big Island being the others). Smaller population, lest tourist than Oahu and Maui, and in the past (my past) not much night life. Much of that could have changed over the past few decades.

Day 1: Drive C'clockwise from Lihue to the end of the road. The wet (windward) side of the island. Check out the Fern Grotto:
And scout beaches for return trip.

Day 2: Drive clockwise touring the leeward dry side of the island. Enjoy the small towns (Hanapepe). Then to the Waimea Canyon overview.

Then beaches, rest, beaches, rest and perhaps a helicopter or Zodiac adventure and more rest.

Posted by
361 posts

Hi Melissa, I follow a Minnesotan couple, Mary and Bruce Kelly who are working towards retirement, currently in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. They have found a way to live, work and play in Mexico affordably. Puerto Vallarta is my favourite sun destination , much less expensive than Hawaii , a favourite for many American and Canadians. Lots of hotels and some resorts offer non-all-inclusive options. So many great restaurants of all prices and flavours that taking AI option would be a shame. There are many out of the way villages to explore by bus for experiences less touristy. They publish a new segment every Sunday. Check them out. Hope that this helps. Feel free to PM me with questions. Sherry

Posted by
5697 posts

Regarding high season in Hawaii -- my recollection is December 15 to January 15, then calming down a bit until spring break around Easter. Check out airfare and condo costs for the time that fits your schedule. Kauai is my favorite precisely because it has less "action" but I would go to any island ... anytime.

Posted by
9363 posts

How about Costa Rica? Unbelievable wildlife, beautiful beaches, and it's inexpensive. Flight time is only about 90 minutes from Miami, if I recall correctly.

Posted by
1806 posts

Puerto Rico (no need for a passport), Costa Rica, St. Martin, Cayman Islands, Turks & Caicos - all fit your requirements and not quite as pricey as Hawaii can be.

There are parts of Mexico that I really like which are far from the all-inclusive resorts most go to in Cancun and other popular places, but if being around a lot of English speaking people is important, they won't fit the bill.

Posted by
2145 posts

Here's another vote for Grand Cayman... Amazing snorkeling right off the beach, even if you've never snorkeled you will quickly pick it up. And stingray city ... Make your first beach vacation a memorable one.

A close second would be Caye Caulker, Belize. It's a tiny island off the coast ... Not great beaches but such fun. No cars on the island. You walk barefoot everywhere. A truly unique place.

Posted by
2531 posts

"Yes, Hawaii. The biggest (by surface area) state of the union. A lot of ocean." Huh? Alaska has over 100 times the land mass of Hawaii and 32 times more shoreline.

Posted by
5837 posts

The US state of Hawaii now occupies the archipelago almost in its entirety (including the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), with the sole exception of Midway Island, which is instead an unincorporated territory within the United States Minor Outlying Islands.
The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was proclaimed by President George W. Bush on June 15, 2006. The monument covers
roughly 140,000 square miles (360,000 km2) of reefs, atolls, and shallow and deep sea out to 50 miles (80 km) offshore in the Pacific Ocean—an area larger than all of the national parks in the U.S. combined.

Posted by
2531 posts

So, add the national monument area of 140,000 square miles to Hawaii's declared area of 6,422 square miles and you still are a bit shy of Alaska's 663,300 square miles (and not counting vast stretches of adjoining ocean like the monument occupies). I have an urgent message into Governor Ige's office to have staff update official publications pronto.