the word "aloha" -- the greeting hawaiians almost sing when they welcome visitors or meet one another -- means love. and from the moment one arrives, it's hard not to feel the love. hawaii is a land of powder-sugar sand, lush palms, majestic pacific ocean views, and laid-back living. the state's diverse landscape includes volcanoes, snow-capped mountains (yes, there's skiing in hawaii ) rain forests and a unique local culture with polynesian, tahitian and asian influences. it's the kind of locale many spend their day fantasizing about, which is probably why baby boomers rated hawaii their top choice when asked where they'd want to live other than their home state, according to a recent harris poll.
after a look at the prices in hawaii, boomers might find themselves rethinking that fantasy. according to sperling's best places, hawaii's cost of living is 77% higher than the national average and the median home will set you back $495,700. (don't expect to see the ocean for that price.) and forget about the ultimate in a hawaiian retirement paradise, the lovely beaches of kaanapali on maui. with a cost of living that's 163% higher than the national average and median home prices that are over $1 million, kaanapali makes even ultra-pricey mainland favorites like nantucket and kennebunkport look affordable. plus, trips back to the rest of u.s. are pricey and time-consuming (a round-trip ticket from honolulu to los angeles routinely costs upwards of $500 and each leg of the flight takes about five hours). quality health care also isn't easily within reach for those who don't live in honolulu or a larger city, says kaleialoha cadinha-pua'a, president of financial advisory firm chadinha & co.
but before putting hawaii on the "never going to happen" list, consider that there are some significantly cheaper -- notice we didn't say cheap, but rather cheaper -- options for retirees that include easy access to the beach, plenty of outdoor activities and unique cultural attractions. here are four places worth a look.hilo: for the star-gazing explorer
many retirees flock to the islands of maui and oahu, often overlooking hawaii's "big island" -- and with it, some gems like the town of hilo. the lifestyle on hilo is a bit like honolulu of decades past before the flood of tourists and developments, some advisers say. the cost of living here is relatively affordable -- 47% higher than the national average, compared to 77% higher for the state overall.
located on the eastern side of the island between hilo bay and the slopes of the mauna loa and mauna kea volcanoes, hikers and casual walkers won't tire of the area's diverse terrain. one hundred and fifty miles of hiking trails cross through the nearby hawaii volcanoes national park, which is full of scorched earth and lava rock formations left behind from active volcanoes. by way of contrast, just off the coast is an especially lush rainforest with pounding waterfalls. more casual strollers can head to one of the area's striking volcanic-formed black sand beaches.
hilo is also a prime destination for both professional and amateur astronomers. the university of hawaii at hilo operates two observatories on the 14,000-foot on the mauna kea volcano, and the large imiloa astronomy center, which offers plenty of starry exhibits and a planetarium, showcases the latest in astronomical research and has plenty of volunteer opportunities. there's even an astronomy club in town.
but hilo may be even better known for its mellow lifestyle, says aaron geerlings, a broker at hilo realty. this is a place where life moves slowly and locals like it that way, he says. once a sugar-producing hub, hilo's downtown is lined with old wooden storefronts and unique early 1900s architecture as well as a number of buildings on the national register of historic places. hilo residents celebrate and protect the local heritage. the annual merrie monarch hula festival may be one of the biggest hula competitions in the world, says geerlings, and the active east hawaii cultural center focuses on preserving traditional island art. what's more, it's easy to meet people in this little town. volunteer opportunities with the numerous festivals are plentiful and residents frequently make the trip to the renowned farmer's market, where they know the sellers by name and chat with their neighbors. despite the small-town atmosphere, hilo doesn't lack convenience. it sports a major airport, several hospitals and two major shopping areas.
the downsides are few but formidable. hilo is the rainiest city in the country with more than 130 inches per year, though most of the rain happens at night, so this is bearable. and, it is vulnerable to tsunamis because of its location on the hilo bay. there's even a tsunami museum .getty images kailua-kona: for the aging phil mickelson
head west from hilo until the ocean comes into view and you'll find yourself on the kona & kohala coasts, home to the beach-side town of kailua-kona. although only a 90-mile journey, it feels a world away. typically, only about 10 inches of rain falls per year in this area, which is dominated by burnt-orange and black lava rocks. sometimes the only evidence of life is one of the area's heavily irrigated golf courses.
the sunny warm weather and spectacular moon-like landscape in the town of kailua-kona inspired hawaiian royalty to build lavish vacation residences here in the 1800s. today this town and the neighboring coastal region are a golfing mecca thanks to the year-round good weather, dramatic ocean views, jagged lava-rock hazards and towering palms on award-winning courses such as mauna kea, mauna lani and the hualalai golf course. the area also has courses that are open to the public, says larry hull, a broker for the clark realty office in kailua-kona.
the best part: the cost of living in kailua-kona (not to be confused with the kailua in oahu and maui) is lower-than-average for hawaii and far lower than some of the nearby elite resort towns. and non-golfers still will have plenty to do including shopping along the famed alii drive. if the shopping district is overrun with tourists descending from cruise ships in the nearby port, head to the beautiful beach for snorkeling, kayaking and scuba-diving. or take a page from the town's uber-fit residents (kailua-kona is home to the ironman world championship) and go for a run, swim or bike ride. despite its increasing popularity as a tourism destination, kailua still feels like a small seaside village with few high-rises and chain stores, though it does have an airport and hospital.getty images paia: for the t-shirt and flip-flop experience
we'd be remiss if we didn't include at least one spot on the island of maui, the 17-year winner of conde nast traveler's "best island" award, and well-known retirement haven. while many locales in maui (like lahaina and wailea) can be overly touristy, paia, on the northeastern side of the island, is virtually free of trinket shops and tourist-trap restaurants. in fact, it's where many local islanders go to get away from it all.
paia may be tiny, with just a few dozen shops and a handful of restaurants, but that's part of what makes this coastal escape affordable, or at least below average for the state. plus, it's a place where everyone stop to say "aloha" to one another on the streets, locals say. the beaches are world-class, offering a mix of adventure and relaxation. hookipa beach park, for instance, is one of the leading windsurfing destinations in the world, hosting a number of professional competitions each year, while baby beach on the west end of baldwin beach, offers gentle waves and soft sand.
admittedly, it rains more in paia than it does on the populated west side of the island and the winds -- which allow for excellent wind and kite surfing -- can get a little intense on the beach, according to mo montoya, a broker at whaler's realty on maui. on less than perfect days, residents take refuge in the adorable town, which is lined with wooden plantation-style buildings (a remnant of its past as a hub for sugar cane plantations) that house antique shops, bakeries and tiny clothing stores. the art scene, nearly nonexistent just a few years ago, has bloomed recently, attracting the attention of a few major museums and deep-pocketed benefactors. if the town and the galleries get old, it's just eight miles from kahului, the main town on the island, which offers nearly 200 restaurants and plenty of shopping options. maui's main airport and major medical centers are also located in kahului.getty images kaneohe: for the urbanite who wants to take it down a notch
nestled at the foot of the ko'olau mountains on the island of oahu, sits one of kaneohe's main cultural destinations, the byodo-in temple. this replica of a 900-year-old japanese buddhist temple, complete with reflecting pools that house 10,000 fish, wandering flocks of vibrant peacocks, and a meditation chamber watched over by a nine-foot buddha is a fitting attraction for this town. like the temple it houses, kaneohe offers both a respite from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and easy access right back into it.
visitors marvel that kaneohe is just 25 minutes from honolulu -- as the town is separated from the city by mountains and is a mostly residential spot with lots of greenery. but that doesn't mean kaneohe is a sleepy town, says greg miyashiro, owner of kahala financial advisors. situated on hawaii's expansive kaneohe bay but close to the mountains, kanehoe offers plenty of hiking, fishing and boating. retirees also like the three public golf courses and proximity to hawaii pacific university, which offers an adult learners program. unlike in honolulu, where the population of nearly one million can be overwelming to some, getting involved in the kaneohe community is easy as area volunteer opportunities are plentiful.
of course, it's the proximity to honolulu -- long a staple on best places to retire lists -- that helped land kaneohe on this list. with good reason: not only does honolulu offer the biggest airport in hawaii, a number of high quality hospitals, more than 2,000 restaurants, a giant aquarium and other attractions, it also has what most of the rest of hawaii doesn't: jobs. working retirees should keep in mind that commuting into and out of honolulu from kaneohe isn't always a breeze as traffic can get annoying and parking in honolulu sometimes proves difficult.