Hawaii Bargains?
A Sometimes Thing
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2021 -- Hawaii's car rental rates hit $250 a day this summer, but they aren't the only costs that will send your credit card bill into orbit from the Aloha State.

The least-expensive bottle of wine at the stylish restaurant inside the Andaz Maui hotel was $85. Most vintages on the list were comfortably in triple digits. A mid-sized container of fresh pineapple was $20 in a local Safeway, more than three times higher than a larger portion at a Safeway in San Francisco.

On the other hand, Hawaiian Airlines was selling a roundtrip coach fare from SFO to Maui's Kahului Airport (OGG) in mid-October for an astounding $200. I snagged it, then upgraded to the airline's version of premium economy for an extra $130. It's a stretch to find a roomy seat on a Bay Area-to-Southern California flight for $330, so scoring one on a transpacific run is extraordinary.

Want more good news? A funky Maui saloon in Kihei called Moose McGillycuddy's pours $6 double margaritas at its 4-to-7pm "happy hour" and sells monster tacos at half price.

What gives with Hawaii's yo-yo pricing? For once, you can't blame the much-chronicled kinks in the nation's supply chain. Maui's Port Kahului and the Port of Honolulu are only reporting minor delays compared with the harbors in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But I have a theory. In late August, Hawaii Governor David Ige publicly asked tourists to stay away, fearing a logjam of Coronavirus cases that would overwhelm the state's limited number of hospital beds and intensive care units. He even threatened another lockdown. One press wag dubbed Hawaii the "Ah-no-ah state."

The warning worked. Maui arrivals fell 18% in September, according to preliminary numbers from the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Hawaiian Airlines promptly dropped its coach fares in October to the aforementioned $200 roundtrip from the West Coast. Alaska, United, Delta and Southwest airlines followed suit. At one point, quick-hit sales lowered prices to $66 one-way.

Then Ige reversed his position. He sent out the Hawaiian equivalent of an "all clear" to pump up visitor flows. Fares followed. Earlier this month, Hawaiian was quoting $388 plus tax for a midweek roundtrip. First class was fetching $718 plus taxes. United Airlines, which also flies nonstop to OGG from SFO, started charging even more: $394 plus taxes for coach and $1,193 up front. One-stops via Los Angeles were priced even higher, sometimes absurdly so.

The good news? Hawaiian's roundtrip for that fabulous $200 fare was five star on both legs of the trip. Hawaiian runs an Airbus A321 out of SFO and the plane looked spotless and smelled showroom-fresh. It was only about 80% full in both directions.

Cabin crews were exceptionally attentive, helpful and courteous on both legs. No sniping, no snark, no grumbling, no perfunctory answers. (Ticket and check-in agents were equally top-notch.) Every coach and premium economy passenger received a meal, although they weren't exactly generous for a nearly six-hour-long flight. Still, a gratis rum punch was handed out on afternoon flights.

Up front, the food was more bountiful and creative. In fact, it resembled first class cuisine of decades past. No chintzy snack boxes that some mainland-based carriers pass out even on long haul flights.

Maui, no surprise, has no shortage of restaurants from gritty with good deals to touristy and super-pricey. Most are housed in resorts or hotels although locals know where the great standalone places are located.

A popular spot for visitors is the 5 Palms Restaurant in the Mana Kai Resort. My poke was sensational, but a friend's mahi mahi with eggplant was miserly portioned and overcooked. What's more, the staff--with the exception of our personable server--was dispirited. It seems that legendary Hawaii chef Peter Merriman will take over and renovate the restaurant and bar next year. Employees are naturally uneasy about their future, of course, but they aren't helping themselves with the service they now offer.

The short-term future for Hawaii travel? The sun and the surf are always there. But who knows what lies ahead now that the Omicron variant has raised its ugly, mysterious head? Will the governor shoo travelers away again? What will that do to tourism and pricing?

Airlines seem to be taking steps to keep their Hawaii-bound aircraft filled, however. Alaska Airlines recently served up a one-day post-Black Friday sale on certain Hawaii routes for as low as $89 one-way.

Keep your eyes peeled for the bargains. Even over Hawaii's usually busy winter months, it looks like they'll be there.