Hawaii's Best Beaches

Do the wave—or simply applaud—for the islands' most spectacular sand and surf.

Beaches are indefinite places, neither land nor sea, but thin, shifting strips between worlds. We leave footprints quickly erased by wind and tide, build castles that disappear by morning, daydream impossibly sunny realities, and bring sorrows to melt away as surely as our castles.

Water smarts
Hawaiian beaches are so beautiful, it may be hard to convince yourself they can be dangerous. But even expert swimmers can get into trouble in high surf, powerful shore breaks, and rip currents. Remember, this is midocean swimming, and many beaches do not have lifeguards. Obey all posted warning signs.

  • Never swim alone.
  • Stay out of high surf.
  • Don't attempt to jump over a large breaking wave: Dive beneath and through it.
  • Sharks are rarely a problem. To minimize risk, swim only during daylight hours and avoid murky water.
  • If caught in a rip current, go with it until it loses its power, which usually happens not far offshore. Then swim parallel to the beach until you've escaped.
  • If you are cut on coral, wash the area immediately with clean water—not salt water—and apply an antiseptic such as iodine. These injuries are prone to infection.
  • Apply protective sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply every two hours. Also consider wearing SPF-rated clothing and a hat.

Any beach can invite us to swim, perhaps to sleep in the shade of a drowsy palm. What sets Hawaii's beaches apart is their location in the middle of the Pacific, where they are cooled by the trade winds. The air, scoured by thousands of miles of open ocean, is pure and soft upon the skin. You ease into clear water that is neither too warm nor too cold, ranging from 73 degrees in winter to 80 degrees in summer. Without any continental shelf, the seafloor drops off abruptly into blue infinity. Reefs protecting the shore are home to myriad wondrous sea creatures. The sands kissed by these numinous seas come in shades of white, gold, ebony, salt-and-pepper, garnet, and even green.

In selecting these beaches as Hawaii's best, we had plenty to choose from—all of the state's beaches are public. We consulted experts, but the instant a list is compiled, passionate protests arise from lovers of the hundreds of other beautiful Hawaiian beaches; great sighs emanate from dreamers of other dreams. We hope one of our picks matches your own reveries.

MOST BEAUTIFUL KE‘E BEACH, KAUAI Sitting at the end of the last road, on the border of solitude, is a strip of gold called Ke‘e, which signifies "great distances," and in some translations "trouble." Both meanings are apt. The sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast parade away from Ke‘e in towering green ramparts. Only the most intrepid venture beyond.

Ancient drums once summoned Pele, goddess of volcanoes, to the hula temple still well tended in the verdure above the beach. Here Pele fell in

Quick Facts
Ke‘e lies off Kuhio Highway at the eastern end of Haena State Park, seven miles west of Hanalei on Kauai's North Shore. The reef affords the best snorkeling on this end of the island love with the handsome Lohiau, a chief of Kauai. But when he displeased her, she incinerated him with flames and lava.

In the 1960s, the brother of a modern goddess—Elizabeth Taylor—set up a hippie colony in the area and presented his famous sister with a necklace of shells gathered from the beach. She wore it and the puka shell craze was born, a token of Ke‘e's beauty spread round the world.

BEST SNORKELING KAHALUU BEACH PARK, HAWAII (BIG ISLAND) Snorkeling at this small beach is a psychedelic experience, like swimming into one of those old black-light posters. The sand is a salt-and-pepper mix, the water is exceptionally clear, and the circus-hued reef fish ride the currents in chorus lines of vivid color. Sun rays beaming through the sea illuminate sparkling bits of sand, so the fish seem to swim in bright spangles against a black bottom. Cool.

Quick Facts
Kahaluu is 4.5 miles south of Kailua-Kona on Alii Drive. Snorkeling equipment is available for rent on the shore.

All of Kahaluu Bay was once enclosed by an ancient breakwater nearly 4,000 feet long, called Paokamenehune. Local residents still fish from the shore, casting their nets with grand, sweeping gestures. Rest assured, they rarely catch snorkelers.

BEST CULTURE WAIKIKI, OAHU What?! Culture in Waikiki among the high-rises, plastic tikis, and slushy coconut drinks? Surprise—Waikiki, the queen of resorts, takes pride in its rich history.

This two-mile lei of a dozen beaches on the southern shore of Oahu features a walking route on Kalakaua Avenue with surfboard-shaped signs marking historic spots. While strolling along, you can discover that:

Quick Facts
World-famous Waikiki stretches from the Ala Wai Harbor to Diamond Head, the extinct crater that serves as the island's most recognizable landmark.

Duke Kahanamoku (the Olympic swimming champion acknowledged to be the father of modern surfing) once rode a 35-foot summer wave for a mile and a quarter. . . . A majestic coconut grove of nearly 10,000 trees once stood where the famous "Pink Palace," the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, sits today. . . . At a temple on Diamond Head, the priests flew kites to alert villagers to surf conditions. . . . The last human sacrifice in Waikiki occurred during the reign of Kamehameha the Great (around 1795)—although some people viewing the sunburned bodies of tourists sizzling on the beaches might dispute this.

BEST SURF BANZAI PIPELINE, OAHU There was no record of anyone surfing the waves off Ehukai Beach on Oahu's North Shore until 1957, when two men tried and wiped out. Finally in 1961, Phil Edwards, considered the top surfer in the world, successfully rode the totally tubular phenomenon known worldwide as the Banzai Pipeline.

Quick Facts
Ehukai Beach is about five miles north of Haleiwa on Kamehameha Highway. Look for Sunset Beach Elementary School on the right. From there, you can park and walk toward the ocean; the Pipeline is about 250 yards to the left.

Today the Pipeline is one of surfing's greatest tests, home of the annual Pipeline Masters, the longest-running professional surfing competition in the United States (December 8 to 20 this year). Spectators are welcome.

Stories of how the Pipeline got its name vary. As for the word itself, the Japanese go-for-broke war cry "Banzai!" is also, oddly, a wedding toast that signifies "May you live 10,000 years." Then let's say "Banzai" to some of the best waves in the world, but be advised: Surfing here may reduce your chances of surviving the full 10 millennia.

BEST SWIMMING PAUOA BEACH, HAWAII Picture swimming in a languid lagoon, the water temperature perfect, sunshine lighting the shallows, with dazzling fish for companions. You are swimming slowly, deliciously, when suddenly you are spritzed from beneath by jets of icy water that cause you to bubble with laughter and delight.

Quick Facts
All beaches in Hawaii are public. The Mauna Lani Resort is on Mauna Lani Drive, 25 miles north of Kailua-Kona off Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The Fairmont provides limited public parking in its employee lot; you can also park at Holoholokai Beach Park, north of Mauna Lani, and walk to Pauoa Beach along the shore.

Pauoa Beach, at the Fairmont Orchid Hotel in the Mauna Lani Resort, is infused by natural freshwater springs that gurgle beneath the ocean's surface. White sands stretch wide along the shore; rocky arms protect the lagoon. Surf may be raging outside, but Pauoa remains serene.

In an unusual arrangement, the hotel has partnered with the Oceanography Department of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to monitor the coral reef ecosystem while still allowing swimmers to admire the site's natural jewels. Grab goggles and go meet a parrot fish, a spotted eagle ray, or even a pair of lau-wiliwili-nukunuku-oi-oi fish, which mate for life.

BEST FOR FAMILIES HAPUNA BEACH STATE RECREATION AREA, HAWAII Local families drive for hours to spend a day at Hapuna. They come down from the cool Kohala Mountains or from the miles of thirsty black-lava coast to an oasis of pure white sand yawning voluptuously beside a teal sea.

Hapuna has something for everyone—shore breaks for body boarders, fish for anglers, and in summer, calm water for swimmers. Diving schools coax novices into the shimmering sea.

Quick Facts
Hapuna is 30 miles north of Kailua-Kona on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Its amenities include six screened A-frame sleeping shelters, available for $20 per night.

Teens jump, shrieking and laughing, from Ihumoku, the lava promontory, probably not realizing they are engaging in the ancient Hawaiian sport of lelekawa, cliff jumping. Children splash in the small, safe cove at the north end of the beach, across the lawn of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. Sea turtles often join them.

Hapuna is reliable for picnics. It gets only 10 inches of rain a year and is bordered by a ribbon of green park with shade, picnic pavilions, showers, and walkways. To do it right, bring a cooler, a portable grill, and big Tupperware bowls full of macaroni salad, poke, and Spam musubi.

BEST SAND ONELOA BEACH, MAKENA STATE PARK, MAUI Lawrence of Arabia would have loved this beach. It dazzles, almost hurting the eyes. The sands run 3,300 feet long and over 100 feet wide. The name Oneloa translates to "long sands."

Quick Facts
From the Shops at Wailea, drive south on Wailea Alanui Road for almost four miles. Look for a sign that says makena state park (big beach) parking area 1. Just after the sign, turn right into the lot.

The beach is so white, vast, and empty, it hushes the soul and turns the body to putty, to be remade in a quieter, surer, grander form. Dunks in the crystal clear ocean can feel sacramental.

Advocates of flower power set up a tarp town here back in the 1960s, perhaps recognizing the place's transformative powers—or maybe just taking advantage of a free place to crash. They called Oneloa "Big Beach," a name that stuck like sand in a swimsuit.

Pu‘u Olai, the last volcanically active cinder cone on Maui, rises 360 feet on one end, and Haleakala's peak towers behind, lending Oneloa a stark and dramatic beauty.

BEST SUNRISES HULOPOE BEACH PARK, LANAI Dawn surges from the sea in a swell of scarlet and peach on this small, less-frequented Hawaiian isle. You can walk hand in hand with someone you love through a wash of rosy waves reflecting the color of the sky and watch the sun come up behind Pu‘u Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock.

Quick Facts
Hulopoe Beach is at the end of Manele Road, eight miles south of Lanai City. Hulopoe is also Lanai's best spot for swimming and snorkeling.

Sharks Cove at the base of Sweetheart's red rock cliff is forbidding in both appearance and name. Much friendlier are the sunny white sands of adjacent Hulopoe. Dolphins roam the bay, enchanting swimmers. Because the beach has a steep slope, local children play in the protected tide pools.

A controversy erupted here in 1994 when Bill Gates got married near Hulopoe and, in a bid for privacy, rented all the cars and hotel rooms on the island, effectively closing the area to the public for the day. Some sweetheart.

This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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