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TO ALL SACRAMENTANS WHO LOVE HAWAII: ADVICE ABOUT THE ISLANDS’ BEST BEACHES.
The first time I walked Kaiolohia Beach on the island of Lana’i, better known as Shipwreck Beach, even in the cool of morning, warm sand crept into my sandals with each step. The most deserted beach I’d ever seen seemed to undulate forever as I headed west along the shoreline. Just offshore, the rusting profile of an abandoned World War II Liberty ship on the reef anchored the eastern end of the 8-mile-long beach.
Across Kalohi Channel, the island of Moloka’i shone like an emerald. Behind me, across a wider swath of ocean, Maui’s western hills rose into the new day.
The man I love had brought me here to show me one of his favorite beaches on islands he began to explore in the late 1960s. We slowly walked Kaiolohia, the only two souls out there, examining detritus from ships long ago wrecked in these waters. “Look!” he’d say, circling a half-buried plank in the sand, rusty cleats still attached to a piece of a century-old shipwreck.
There’s plenty of newer beach junk, too. Lots of trash ends up on beaches, and Kaiolohia is a magnet for it. But surprising treasures show up above the high water line, too, like the large, spherical orange buoy I found with Japanese kanji embossed into it—likely an escaped float from a ship.
This is the joy of beach walking in Hawaii. Each has its own beauty and personality, from the white, sandy beach immortalized by the late Hawaiian songwriter Israel Kamakawiwole to the black sand beach created from new lava and the tan or even green sand beaches. They’re all there, sometimes wallpapered in humanity or on lonely stretches like Shipwreck Beach, perfect for people walking and people watching, for those who love the bustle and those who crave the quiet.
George Kam, ambassador of aloha for Quiksilver in Hawaii who is in his fifth decade as a surfer, believes that each beach has its own gifts that make it unique. But that’s only part of the experience.
“I say the ocean connects us all,” he says. “You definitely feel the energy, the mana. Every single day, I make sure I touch the water. Something about being in the water connects us with everything. The world is a better place when we can touch the water.”
When visitors come to Hawaii, he adds, by the third day, “Everyone’s had a great cleanse. By the fifth day, they become a changed person, the best versions of themselves.”
There is no doubt: Many of the world’s most beautiful, isolated, crowded, breathtaking beaches are in Hawaii. Here’s an admittedly biased list of some of our favorites. There are plenty more, equally special, on every island.
ONELOA/BIG BEACH/LITTLE BEACH
Maui is known for its fabulous beaches, so choosing one or two is a fool’s errand—everyone’s going to have a favorite, and we have several (Napili, Wailea, Maluaka). But for sheer size, the right conditions and water quality, you can’t beat Big Beach. For starters, it’s (as named) biiiiig, which is what its Hawaiian name, Oneloa, means—long sands: a whopping two-thirds of a mile long and more than 100 feet wide. Hippies occupied it in the 1960s and renamed it Big Beach, which has stuck. At its north end is Pu’u Ola’i (Earthquake Hill). If you take the short trail from Big Beach over that hill, you reach its smaller cousin, Little Beach, known for its fine swimming, boogie boarding, snorkeling and body surfing. Be warned that although nudity is illegal on beaches in Hawaii, you may see some folks on Little Beach practicing the clothing-optional custom. Give ’em a smile and try not to stare.
PU’UHONUA O HONAUNAU
Not only is this a national historical park; this fine beach with great offshore snorkeling and scuba is also the loveliest example of a place of refuge in all the Hawaiian Islands. In ancient times, wrongdoers who made it to a place of refuge were given asylum and their acts forgiven. Though there is an entrance fee, this 420-acre site still feels like a sanctuary, a special place to walk and reflect at the Hale o Keawe temple site and to admire the Great Wall, built in the 1500s and 1,000 feet long. It is so peaceful here that honu (green sea turtles), themselves endangered, haul out daily on beaches to bask in peace. It’s illegal to harass honu on land or in the sea. Sit or stand a respectful distance and watch ’em snooze.
KAHALU’U BEACH PARK
Two religious structures sit next to this beach south of Kona town on Ali’i Drive: tiny blue St. Patrick’s Church and the Ku’emanu heiau, the only Hawaiian temple known to be associated with surfing. According to Andrew Doughty in his guidebook, “Hawaii, the Big Island Revealed,” it’s where ali’i (royalty) used to pray for gnarly waves. “They usually got them, too,” he adds. But Kahalu’u is also a premier snorkeling spot. We love to roll up with our own masks and fins and, when conditions are right, watch busloads of older folks offload and make their way into the water for their first snorkeling experiences. Join them, and you’re likely to see the most varieties of Big Island fish life about 100 feet offshore.
The tutu (Hawaiian for “grandparent”) of all beaches, Waikiki has a 1.5-mile swath of sand that may be the most famous in the world. Deservedly so. It’s the place to people watch—and thousands show up daily to swim and sunbathe, surf, sail, paddle and frolic. Made up of smaller, locally named beaches, it stretches from Kahanamoku (as in Duke, the famous Hawaiian swimming champion and goodwill ambassador) Beach on the west end to Sans Souci (Kaimana) Beach on the east end near the foot of Diamond Head. In between lies all manner of humanity, even if the fish count is minimal for snorkelers and divers. That’s not the point. If Oahu, the island, is the Gathering Place in the islands, Waikiki is its dance floor. Get out there and boogie.
We think of this spot on the north shore of Oahu as “that secret cove near Turtle Bay,” and someone had to show us how to get there. But if you walk the beach from Turtle Bay Resort toward Haleiwa, past the old concrete bunker on the point and around to the next bay, you’ve reached Kawela. It feels like old Hawaii there—a curving scythe of sand, sweet water that may or may not yield good snorkeling (conditions vary widely, and swimming there in winter is generally not recommended because of big wave conditions), and you can spend as much or as little time as you like there, often having the place to yourself. A sweet tropical spot.
KE’E BEACH PARK/HAENA BEACH PARK/TUNNELS BEACH
Though they’re considered three different beaches, we think of them as a triple-tiered reward where the road ends on the north shore of Kauai. In season (usually late spring and summer), there’s some of the best snorkeling on the island off these beaches. In winter, some of the biggest waves that gather steam out in the Pacific can slam into this area, obliterating the beaches. But they’re usually accessible and friendly. We love walking north from Tunnels toward Haena with the iconic Mt. Makana peak (which doubled as Bali Hai in the 1958 movie “South Pacific”) rising like a great, green, mystical pyramid from that angle. These are great beaches for everything: swimming, snorkeling, walking, sunbathing. Enjoy the sweet lagoon at Ke’e, picnic tables and camping at Haena, and the wide reef around Tunnels that keeps the fishies in and the big waves out . . . usually. Always keep an eye out for rogue waves in any season.
POIPU BEACH PARK
On Kauai’s south shore at this popular beach park is an unusual phenomenon called a tombolo: a sandbar that comes and goes, depending on conditions, and sometimes connects to an offshore islet. Waves rush from opposite directions toward the tombolo with often-spectacular splashes. You don’t see these just anywhere—though the Rock of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean and Morro Rock in California also have tombolos. Snorkeling to the right side of the Poipu tombolo can be terrific, and to the left is a protected area perfect for keiki (kids) and shy swimmers. There are lifeguards here, so behave yourself. Winter months typically provide the best conditions at Poipu.
HULOPO’E BEACH/MANELE BAY
Though it sits below one of the two major resorts on Lana’i, you can walk the vast Hulopo’e Beach and feel like it’s all yours. There’s everything to love about this golden sandy beach and stunning blue waters. Some of the best snorkeling in all of Hawaii lies just offshore near the tide pools at the east end of the beach, and spinner dolphins often perform their acrobatics just to keep things interesting. You might see humpback whales, which, like many humans, leave their cold-weather homes to winter in Hawaii. The bay is a marine life conservation area with abundant fish and impressive coral formations. Hulopo’e Beach Park, just behind the sand, provides picnic tables, barbecue grills, restrooms and showers (as does adjacent Manele Bay Park). Take the short hike on the cliffs southeast of the tide pools for a glimpse of Pu’u Pehe, Sweetheart Rock, just offshore in Manele Bay. Sunsets here can be gorgeously romantic, burnishing the old lava with colors reminiscent of its fiery origins.
You can get free guides to good snorkeling spots at places where snorkeling gear is rented, and there’s lots of free literature with information about popular beaches on all the major islands. But for detailed specifics on beaches, check Wizard Publications’ “Revealed” series (hawaii revealed.com). Each of the four books and apps (Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island) has extensive listings about beaches carefully checked out (on sand and in the water, where possible) by author and longtime resident Andrew Doughty.
The best news about beaches in Hawaii? They’re all public. There are no private beaches in the whole state. Thanks to a Hawaii Supreme Court decision in 2006, anyone is welcome on all stretches of oceanside sand and rocky shoreline. But you have to access beaches legally, which means looking for public paths (usually well marked and mandated by state law) adjacent to private properties.
Hawaiian beaches can be notoriously fickle—calm and lovely one moment, treacherous and choppy the next—and Hawaii is the drowning capital of the United States. It’s easy to be distracted by beautiful surroundings and be less aware of potential ocean hazards. Well-populated and lifeguarded beaches typically have signs posted if conditions are dangerous. Heed them. Always look to see what’s happening oceanside before you enter the water. If you’re a novice or an occasional swimmer, never get in the ocean unless it’s dead-flat calm. Ask other beachgoers about conditions, too.