IT’S A CHALLENGE for me to open up about cool places in Hawai’i because that’s essentially the opposite of how things are done here; you don’t give up the good spots to tourists and just lay out everything in the open. Hawai’i is one of those places where you have to take the time, respect, and energy to discover and appreciate its best secrets yourself because no one is just going to tell you. In fact, after living on Oahu for 7 years, I still don’t know where some places are and I won’t until I venture out to find them on my own. That being said, there are many beautiful spots that I’m happy to talk about. Whether you are looking for a classic white sand beach, a pounding surf break, a camping adventure in the wilderness or want to explore a rocky volcanic coastline, these islands have something for everyone.
An important side note:
The number one rule in Hawai’i is to malama aina or to respect the land. Do not leave your trash or recycling behind on beaches or hikes, do not smoke cigarettes on the beaches (it’s illegal at any state park or beach) and pick up and remove any trash you may see on your visit. Respect the locals and do not enter areas where there are signs that say kapu or ‘keep out’. This essentially means no trespassing because it is a sacred area. You can also sometimes identify these areas if there is a heiau [temple] made from lava rocks. Often times these can take on the appearance of small rock walls. Do not enter the space of the heiau, do not sit on or touch the rocks, and do not leave trash here or use this area as a bathroom. Following these simple rules and acting with respect to the aina and the Native Hawaiian people will ensure that cultures are respected and that our fragile island ecosystem is kept alive for many generations to come.
1. Punalu’u Beach, Big Island [Hawai’i Island]
Catch a flight to the Big Island to see some lava and feel the mana [supernatural power] of rural Hawai’i. Located on the East Side of the island, Punalu’u Beach is the place to go to see some out-of-this-world black sand that was created by hot lava flowing into the ocean, where it cooled and broke down over time. And you can often find the endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle resting here. Please remember that it is the law to give honus [turtles] a 6-10 feet distance minimum and not touch them.
2. Big Beach (Makena Beach), Maui
This beach is one of my favorite spots on Maui when I want to get a patch of sand with a path straight to the ocean all to myself. Located in South Maui, Big Beach stretches over two-thirds of a mile in length and is over 100-foot wide. Aside from being a great walking or running spot, the water here is perfect for taking a dip when the shore break is calm or to go bodyboarding when the waves are breaking. However, there’s not too much to see snorkeling here as it’s mostly all sand at the bottom (i.e. no reef for fish).
3. Waikiki Beach, Oahu
Waikiki is the place in Hawai’i that everyone has heard of and where almost every tourist stays when they’re on Oahu. It’s famous in both its history as a favorite surfing spot for Hawaiian royalty and its towering hotels, shops, and restaurants all lining up along the sand and sea. It is packed with tourists from every corner of the world and the surf lineup and the beaches will both get very crowded, but Waikiki should not be missed. Start out your day with a relatively easy early morning hike up to Diamond Head Crater (you can take the bus, drive, bike or walk to the entrance from hotels in Waikiki) and catch the bird’s eye view of the beaches and reefs you’re about to spend the day exploring. Later on, relax on the beach, take a surf lesson from any one of the beach vendors, and end your day with a drink — and the sunset at Duke’s.
4. Poipu Beach, Kauai
As an island, Kauai is small, lush, and just ridiculously cute. If you’re not into big surf or golf resorts, make your way to the South Shore to this crescent-shaped beach. The sand is golden-colored, the shore break won’t break your neck and there’s plenty of fish and, usually, a honu or two to snorkel with on any given day. Poipu is the perfect spot for people of all ages and all swimming abilities to appreciate the ocean.
5. Lanikai Beach, Oahu
You’ve probably seen this beach — with the silhouettes of the Mokes (aka Mokulua Islands) in the background — on Instagram, the Travel Channel, or any given travel blog or magazine doing a feature on Hawai’i. If you haven’t, you’ll find out when you get there why this little beach on the outskirts of Kailua town has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s best beaches. Parking is usually extremely tight but the pristine white sand and turquoise waters will thrill you. Make sure to check the tide forecast before you go, as the beach tends to disappear during high tide.
6. Hanauma Bay State Park, Oahu
One of the busiest tourist spots on the island of Oahu, Hanauma Bay is never uncrowded, but it’s worth taking a morning to go here because it offers a unique educational experience in a protected ecosystem. Get here early to try and beat the crowds as they won’t let people in once parking gets full. The entrance fee is $7.50 for tourists 12 years and older (free for locals and active military). You will also be required to watch a 9-minute video before being allowed to head to the beach to snorkel. It’s an excellent place to educate yourself and then snorkel with hundreds of different Hawaiian reef fish — and some honus, if you’re lucky. Be sure to stop and take in the view at the entrance above the bay before or after your visit.
7. Waimea Bay, Oahu
This gorgeous bay on Oahu’s famed North Shore has it all. In the summer, the waves are virtually non-existent and tourists can enjoy walking the long beach and going snorkeling. During the winter months, however, this bay has some of the largest big wave surfing in the world and in turn, you have the chance to see pro-surfers ripping it in the water at some of the breaks at Waimea. Local tip: If you’re going to jump off of the rock there, make sure that the water is calm and deep enough for your jump (i.e. do not jump if no one else is jumping and/or if the waves are pounding) and respect the lifeguards if they start yelling at you.
8. Polihale State Park, Kauai
The longest beach in the state of Hawai’i at 17 miles, this remote stretch of wilderness technically requires a vehicle with four-wheel drive to access it. I’ve done it in a beater minivan so it’s really up to you and whether you want to risk getting stuck or ruining your car. But once you get down that bumpy road, it is beyond worth it. Located on the edge of the Napali Coast, Poihale is true Hawai’i wilderness, with sweeping sand dunes, good mana and seriously stunning sunsets. If you have the time and energy, camping is definitely the best way to appreciate this place. It’s easy to get a permit online and there are plenty of camping rental stores on Kauai where you can grab a tent and a couple of sleeping bags for the night. Like everywhere in Hawai’i, anything that you bring in with you must leave with you; no trace should be left behind.
9. Lahaina Beach, Maui
Lahaina is like a quaint, less-crowded version of Waikiki with no tall buildings. It has plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants. Lahaina Beach is the place for people who like being close to the action of a small town and maybe want to spend an afternoon splitting time between the streets and the sand. Plus Lahaina is the site of some killer sunsets. If you prefer to spend your day at Maui’s other beaches, your best option for Lahaina is to grab a pau hana [after work/happy hour] drink or two at one of the oceanfront restaurants or bars around 5 PM and wait for the sun to go down.
10. The North Shore, Oahu
The fabled North Shore of Oahu is one of the most famous stretches of coastline in the world and has this positive vibe that makes you just want to forget all of your worries, go for a surf, dive around with some honus and end every day with a beer, some poke, and a sunset on the beach. The North Shore hosts a slew of surf competitions in the winter months as the pros battle it out on some of the best waves on Earth; and in the summer months, the snorkeling and diving conditions are jaw dropping. The energy at events such as the Billabong Pipe Masters is incandescent — the crowds are huge and everyone is super into it regardless of whether they surf or not. For snorkeling in the summer, head to Shark’s Cove for some cool underwater caves and plenty of sea life.