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Details About Car-Camping in Hawaii

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

GETTING THERE: All flights from Washington to Maui or the Big Island are connecting. Round-trip fares to either island start at about $700. For Maui, you will want to fly into Kahului; for the Big Island, fly into Hilo. If you want to visit both islands, Hawaiian Airlines offers frequent service, with one-way fares from the Big Island to Maui starting at $74.

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CAMPER RENTAL: To date, only two companies rent campers on the islands: Happy Campers Hawaii (888-550-3918, http://www.happycampershawaii.com) on the Big Island and Aloha Campers (808-281-8020, http://www.alohacampers.com) on Maui. Both own a fleet of Volkswagen Westfalia campers, which sleep up to four people and come with kitchens. (Although there is a fridge, the companies ask guests to use it to store dry goods and use the cooler for iced items.) Aloha Campers charges $115 per night and includes basic necessities, such as pots, utensils and a cooler. For $25 more per trip, you can purchase the camping kit (linens, pillows, towels, etc.), and for another $25, a portable toilet. Three-night minimum. The Happy Campers daily rate is $115; price includes all living essentials, including towels and bedding. Five-night minimum April-September, seven-night minimum October-March. For both companies, a daily rental car surcharge of $3 and a 4 percent tax are additional. Unlimited mileage, but driver must return the tank full.

CAMPSITES: Both islands have a number of drive-in campgrounds in a variety of natural environments (beach, volcanic rocks, ocean cliffs, etc.). The owners of the camper companies are longtime Hawaii residents and can suggest overnight spots, driving routes and attractions.

Although this may seem like a wing-it vacation, some planning is needed. Several campgrounds require reservations and a permit (you can book online), which might necessitate a visit to the county parks and recreation office in Maui (fortunately, only a block away from the Aloha Campers office). A few places are first-come, first-served.

Amenities at the sites can be spare (just porta-potties, for example) or generous (hot showers, laundry, barbecue pits, etc.). Some of my favorite overnight spots on the Big Island were Ho'okena Beach Park (808-961-8311, http://www.hawaii-county.com/parks/parks.htm; $5 a night), on the coast of South Kona; and Namakanipaio Campground (808- 985-6000, http://www.nps.gov/havo; up to seven nights with $10 park admission), a eucalyptus-shaded area in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In Maui, I could have set down roots at the YMCA Camp Keanae (808- 248-8355, http://www.mauiymca.org/keanae_amenities.html; $17), along Hana Road and above the Keanae Peninsula. Equally lovely was the Kipahulu campground in Haleakala National Park (808-248-7375, http://www.nps.gov/hale; up to three nights per month with $10 park admission), near the visitor center and overlooking the crashing ocean.

TIPS: Even though you are car-camping, there is still an element of adventure, so be prepared. Always have extra drinking water in the car; some campgrounds don't have potable water, and after hikes and beachgoing, you will need liquids. Never let the gas tank veer toward empty. Drive times can be longer than anticipated, and the availability of gas stations may be spotty. Sleep only in designated areas. Roads can be narrow and curvy, and rain squalls often blow through, so drive with prudence. (On Hana Road, be kind to the drivers behind you and pull over to let them pass.) For packing, best to use duffels or soft luggage, so you can store your items and keep your camper tidy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 800-GO-HAWAII, http://www.gohawaii.com.

-- A.S.


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