There is little doubt that many of the world’s most beautiful, isolated and breathtaking beaches are in Hawaii. The best news about beaches in Hawaii is they’re all public. There are no private beaches in the whole state. 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. 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. Well-populated and lifeguarded beaches typically have signs posted if conditions are dangerous so heed them.
Beautiful Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore may be the most beautiful beach setting in all of Hawaii. It is the largest bay on the island and a nearly a perfect semi-circle of white sand. Behind the beach is an utterly breathtaking backdrop of waterfalls and emerald mountain peaks wrapped in mist, soaring thousands of feet towards the heavens. The beach is two miles long, 125 feet wide, and bordered by the Hanalei River to the east and the Waipa River to the west. The ocean bottom slopes gently to overhead depths, and there are large coral reefs at both ends of the bay. Every ocean recreation activity you can imagine is available, from boating and windsurfing to kayaking up the placid Hanalei River and the bay is very popular with serious surfers.
The 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 generally have fun. Made up of smaller, locally named beaches, it stretches from Kahanamoku Beach as in Duke, the famous Hawaiian swimming champion and goodwill ambassador, on the west end to Sans Souci 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.
Maui is known for its fabulous beaches, so choosing one or two is almost impossible as everyone’s going to have a favorite. For sheer size, the right conditions and water quality, you can’t beat Big Beach. For starters, it’s Hawaiian name, Oneloa, means, long sands. A huge 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. 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.
This is a national historical park with this a fine beach, 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. 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 green sea turtles, themselves endangered, hang out daily on beaches to bask in peace. It’s illegal to harass them on land or in the sea. Sit or stand a respectful distance and watch them snooze.
Sitting 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.. Sunsets here can be gorgeously romantic, burnishing the old lava with colors reminiscent of its fiery origins.
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 legend it’s where surfers used to pray for gnarly waves and usually got them. But Kahalu’u is also a premier snorkeling spot. Show up with our own masks and fins and, when conditions are right, watch busloads of people 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.
This spot on the north shore of Oahu is often referred to as “a secret cove near Turtle Bay” and someone may have to show you how to get there. 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 with a curving scythe of sand, sweet water that may or may not yield good snorkeling as conditions vary widely, and swimming there in winter is generally not recommended because of big wave conditions. You can spend as much or as little time as you like there, often having the place to yourself. A sweet tropical spot.
Though they’re considered three different beaches, think of them as a triple-tiered reward where the road ends on the north shore of Kauai. In season, 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. Walk north from Tunnels toward Haena with the iconic Mt. Makana peak rising like a great, green, mystical pyramid from that angle. These are great beaches for everything: swimming, snorkeling, walking and sunbathing. Enjoy the sweet lagoon at Ke’e, picnic tables and camping at Haena and the wide reef around Tunnels that usually keeps the big waves out. Always keep an eye out for rogue waves in any season.
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 kids and shy swimmers. There are lifeguards here, so it’s quite safe.
Pretty and popular, Hanauma Bay is a victim of its own success. Formed thousands of years ago by the flooding of a volcanic crater, this nearly circular bay is home to an amazingly diverse and abundant population of fish life. It is one of the best and most popular snorkeling and swimming areas in the world. However, excessive swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving have threatened the bay’s marine residents. The area’s designation as a marine life conservation district in 1967 wasn’t enough protection, so in 1990 strict visitor limits were initiated. Hanauma Bay is another of Hawaii’s most beautiful bays, but to enjoy its treasures you’ll have to plan ahead and arrive early for a visit.