Hawaii’s Best Beaches

Choosing a "best" beach is like choosing a "best" breath. In Hawai‘i each one is necessary. Here are our picks in four categories, on four islands.

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Story by Judy Edwards | Photography by Bob Bangerter, Michael Neubauer & Douglas Peebles
Kam Beaches Maui

Best Family Beaches on Maui

Kama‘ole I, II & III

Weekends wouldn’t be weekends on Maui without families, trailing kids like confetti and toting burgeoning picnic coolers, setting up camp at one of the three Kama‘ole beach parks on Maui’s south shore. This triple strip of cream-colored sand with headlands between them leaves room enough for everyone, and the ocean lies down here most days like a lamb. The Kam beaches are Kihei’s best-kept secret, as people pass them in a quest for Makena’s wild beauty or head up the coast to historic Lahaina. Still, as a longtime swimmer addicted to workouts along these beaches, I can attest to the benefits of these undersung county parks. There’s great snorkeling on the sides of all three beaches, thanks to rocky outcrops on which the reef can grow. The water is fairly shallow, so small ones can venture gradually deeper as their confidence grows, and there are bathrooms, beach showers, lifeguards, picnic tables, lots and lots of lawn for running and games, shade for snoozing, and a whole world of food, drink, and other amenities just across the street. In winter, grab some burritos or panini melts when the hungries hit and eat while whale watching. Stay long enough, and the sunset crowd will join your family at the water’s edge, everyone relaxed and happy and ready for evening to commence. Cameras flash, hopeful dogs nose your hand as you pass by, and eventually the day, sun-soaked and a little rumpled, begins to think about putting itself to bed.

Lydgate Park Kauai

Best Family Beach on Kauaʻi

Lydgate Park

This is the kind of place you couldn’t get me to leave when I was a kid. An ocean pool created with lava rocks shelters beaucoup fish. No currents need disturb the intent snorkeler from a lazy meander behind a busy parrotfish. From the parental perspective, there is also the bonus of restrooms, lifeguards and picnic areas. From a kid’s perspective, there’s a playground with slides, lava tubes, bridges and mazes. Win/win.

Kailua Beach

Best Family Beach on Oahu

Kailua Beach

Talk about a sampler of delightful ocean distractions! This vast beach offers everything from good old swimming to rental kayaks, canoes and windsurfing lessons. The ocean is more like a peaceful blue-green lake until the wind moves in in the afternoon; and picnic areas, food stands and shady spots (near the parking lot side) make it tempting to stay all day, alternating naps and snacks with swims. Kailua Town is right behind you, ready to meet other needs after your expectations for fun have been met and exceeded.

Kahulu‘u Beach Park

Best Family Beach on Hawaiʻi Big Island

Kahulu‘u Beach Park

Located on the west side of the Big Island, Kahulu‘u was a popular family place in King Kamehameha’s day. Shallow near-shore waters seem to draw a mind-boggling tapestry of fairly fearless fish, and even very young sea turtles eagerly feeding on algae growing on the rocks (give them all plenty of room). Families can depend on lifeguards, bathrooms, a huge shaded picnic area, white sand, and the town of Kailua-Kona just down the road, if an unforeseen need (food, towel, replacement bucket and shovel) arises.

Most Iconic Hawaii Beaches

Kaihalulu Red Sand Beach Maui

Kaihalulu on Maui

The otherworldly loveliness of Hana’s red-sand beach, properly called Kaihalulu, defies description. It is tempting to think of it as guarded by the gods, since it is not easy to reach: via a slim and crumbly path along the always-disintegrating flanks of Ka‘uiki cinder cone; it is often isolated by landslides that erase the trail altogether. The great queen Ka‘ahumanu was born here. Imagine opening your eyes for the first time in this life and seeing blood-red sands banked in a crescent around the deep blue crystal waters in this relatively calm and astonishing little bay. The sands are smaller than gravel but larger than the powdery grains of Maui’s south and west shorelines; they are red because the iron in them is gradually oxidizing. Jagged lava teeth protect the bay from boisterous swells shoving up against Maui’s northeast shore; they stand like sentinels with their feet in the sea. I wish I had been born here, too, cradled between sea and sky in this timeless pocket of beauty. Someday, over millennia, the rain and relentless ocean waves will take this towering cone all the way down and spread the rough red sands up and down the coast. The sea always wins. For now, however, I will faithfully come back often, picking my way carefully, and be accepted once again into another world altogether.

Salt Pond Beach Park

Salt Pond Beach Park on Kauaʻi

It doesn’t get much more iconic than a beach where Hawaiian salt can be made. Uncounted generations of Hawaiian families have been using the iron-rich soil and evaporation ponds here to make enriched salt for their families. There is a great deal about Kaua‘i that seems to hold the sweet echo of an older time. This is one of them. Find it near Hanapepe on the west side of the island.

Kaʻena Point

Ka‘ena Point on Oahu

This natural area reserve on the absolute northwest tip of the island is not the most easily accessed spot on O‘ahu, but it may be the most stunning. From land’s end here you can look down two sides of the island and marvel at the solitude as well as the scenery. This state-owned reserve protects one of the last truly native sand-dune coastlines on the island and shelters native seabirds and plants, and the more-than-occasional Hawaiian monk seal.

Green Sand Beach

Green Sand Beach on Hawaiʻi Big Island

Green-sand beaches don’t come a dime a dozen. (The only other one we know is in the Galapagos Islands.) Volcanic rock can contain green crystals of olivine that eventually erode loose, as they have here. Drive down to Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the U.S., and park. Grab a hat and water and wander the last couple of windy miles to a place that glints like emerald dust, a semicircle enclosing a brilliant blue bay. If the ocean is flat and calm, enjoy one of the rarest swims in the world.

Best Snorkeling in Hawaiian Islands

Hawaii best snorkeling

Kahekili on Maui

Just north of teeming Ka‘anapali Resort lies an area of reef so rich that a public/private partnership bends over backwards to make sure it stays that way. Enticed? Park and pass through the beach pavilion. On the other side, a great big bank of soft beach slopes gently to the water. Aim left, and the sand stretches underwater for much of the southern half of the beach, creating a vast, sapphire swimming pool. Take a right at the water’s edge, however, and you will be two quick steps and a happy sigh away from a wonderland of fish and corals so extensive it goes right up to the water’s edge.

In 2009, declining marine life on this beloved reef spurred an education-and-outreach campaign that lead to the designation of the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. Researchers and citizen scientists have kept an eagle eye on the reef ever since. Local fishermen leave the area’s algae-grazing fish alone, since algae overgrowth signals a stressed reef. The result: glassy water, epic clarity, fish in abundance and an undulating landscape of ever-happier corals sheltering crabs, eels, shrimp, octopus, squid, and anything else small enough to hide in the serpentine contours of the reef.

Suspended in liquid crystal counting multitudinous colorful wrasse, parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish and anything else that cruises by. Sound like an okay way to spend a Saturday? The reef awaits!

Reef Reminders:

  • If you must stand, stand on sand. Everything underneath you is alive and squishable, even the stuff that looks like rocks.
  • The busy denizens of the reef are happily eating plants (and each other) and donʻt need strange human food.
  • The tradewinds can come roaring in after noon, so make yours a morning dalliance with the glorious sea. The view of Lāna‘i with the light rising on it across the channel, is best during the morning, anyway.
  • Want to become a citizen scientist? Contact Liz Foote of Project S.E.A. Link, Lfoote@coral.org; or Darla White of the Division of Aquatic Resources, Darla.J.White@hawaii.gov.

Hawaii best snorkeling

“Tunnels” on Kauaʻi (Ha‘ena)

Park just west of Tunnels to get to this rare wild beauty of a beach. Summer months are best for an expedition into the submerged wonderland of the reefs here. A sandy safe entrance is the starting place for a journey out to what seems a surreal submerged city. Depth is not an issue here, as most of the spectacular corals are in ten to twenty feet of water, but currents can be an issue, especially in winter.  Keep an eye out for monk seals, the rarest seals in the world.

Hawaii best snorkeling

Hanauma Bay on Oahu

Though a predictable choice, this nature preserve is world-famous for a reason. The arms of an ancient volcanic crater enclose the reef, and the water is flat, clear, and overflowing with everything ocean. Education is mandatory before you dip a toe in the water, to ensure a healthy reef. Rental gear is available, lifeguards are on duty, and wheelchairs can be had at no charge. The preserve is closed on Tuesdays to give the reef a chance to vacation, too.

Hawaii best snorkeling

Kealakekua on Hawaiʻi Big Island

Kealakekua roughly translates as “path of the gods.” You’ll likely feel you’ve died and gone to heaven once you slip into this sapphire water and make your lazy way along the shallow-to-deep drop-off fronting the iconic monument to Captain James Cook. Boats depart each morning from Keahou Harbor for trips to this underwater bliss. Kealakekua is home to some of the healthiest coral in the state, and such an abundance of fish that you’ll be nose-deep in the fish ID books for the too-brief boat ride back.

Most Romantic Beach Sunsets in Hawaii

best beach sunsets Hawaii

Oneloa at Makena State Park

In the cycle of the year, the sun tracks from left to right on the horizon and then back again. If you watch this from Oneloa, better known as “Big Beach” at Makena Beach State Park, and you are fortunate enough to be able to do this daily, you will see that molten orb set behind mysterious, hopeful Kaho‘olawe island during the winter, and behind the iconoclastic crescent cone of Molokini in the summer. And why wouldnʻt you be watching the sunset from the fat, gold sands of Oneloa? Nowhere else on Maui do the dunes bank so sumptuously, so invitingly. An intersection of coastline angle and ocean currents creates the perfect catcher’s mitt to nab and pile the creamy dunes here. The graceful curve of Pu‘u Ola‘i anchors the northern end of this wide swath of sand, while the view to the south is bounded by the dark arm of the ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u Natural Area Reserve. Behind you, the cinder-cone hills of Haleakala’s southwest rift zone stairstep curvaceously upslope.

Late-day light in Makena falls on everyone with equal grace: gleaming wet boogieboarders and handholding newlyweds, madly giggling little kids and contemplative beach walkers. In the winter, expect whales splashing around just offshore on whale business, backlit as the sun slides ever earthward. To exit the water here, dripping, and turn to watch our solar system’s only star kiss the horizon, as her last beams skip across the cobalt sea to land all over you . . . ah, now that is Maui no ka ‘oi.

best beach sunsets Hawaii

Polihale on Kauaʻi

You have to be a committed sunset-o-phile to make it down the long, bumpy road on Kaua‘i’s north shore to Polihale Beach. But if a seven-mile stretch of deep gold sand and a purpling sky sliding into a night of stars are your idea of a perfect evening’s destiny, well, hang in there. There are bathrooms and showers if you need them, but mostly you’ll just need a little sense of adventure to get you off the beaten path and into the arms of sweet, sweet, star-spangled night.

best beach sunsets Hawaii

Sunset Beach on Oahu

O‘ahu is so ridiculously blessed with long stretches of beach that it’s nearly impossible to tweeze out one candidate and call it “the best place for sunset.” That being said, think about, well, Sunset Beach. Show up after six, when the late shift of surfers is headed home (after stopping by Ted’s Bakery for anything you might need to top off your picnic basket), spread your cloth base camp du jour, and turn your attention to the waves — huge in winter, gentle kisses in summer — and raise a toast to the last light of the day.

best beach sunsets Hawaii

Waialea on Hawaiʻi Big Island

Locals call it “69s”; maps call it Waialea. It’s snuggled between famous white-sand Hapuna State Beach and the tiny neighborhood of Puako. A quasi-paved road takes you to a laughably small parking lot, out of which cars overflow into the red dirt of Kohala. Wander down to the beach and take your pick: right to the banked white sands and shore break, or left to the stretch of long gold beach broken by kiawe (mesquite) into small cove after small cove. Families, lovers, solitary dreamers, all find a place here to watch the big orb of sun drop silently into the sea.

 

 


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