Best Beaches of the Big Island, Hawaii

Kekaha Kai cove

If you’re a beach lover like me, taking a trip to the beach is one of the most relaxing vacations. Sink into a beach chair, curl your toes into soft sand, and watch the surf roll in.

Whenever I go to a place with beaches, I always want to find the “best” beach. But I don’t want to stay in one place all the time either. I like to explore different areas of an island or coast.

Recently I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. Here are the best beaches on the island.

Hapuna beach
A local girl catching some rays on Hapuna Beach.

Hapuna Beach State Park

This is the best beach on Hawaii. It is located on the northwest coast of the island in an area called the Kohala coast. The beach is hundreds of yards long, with soft white sand. Entrance to the water is sandy, smooth, and fairly shallow. It is an excellent beach for families with children. The surf break is relatively mild and is good for easy body surfing. There is no shade at this beach so bring an umbrella if you have one.

Kekaha Kai beach
An empty beach at Kekaha Kai early in the morning.

Kekaha Kai State Park

This state park is just north of the Kona International Airport on Queen Ka’ahumananu Highway. There are actually two separate beaches. The access to the first beach (the one farther north) is via a paved road whose entrance is across the highway from the Veteran’s Cemetery. It has soft white sand and park facilities, but no shade. Snorkeling is good along the rocks on the left side of the beach (facing the ocean). A local told me that dolphins are frequently seen in the shallow waters just off the beach.

Kekaha Kai cove
A secluded cove at Kekaha Kai State Park.

The second beach (the one farther south than the first), is accessed from the highway over a rough, unpaved road across a lava field. The road twists and turns for a mile or so from the highway to the beach parking area. Drive slowly or be prepared to lose a muffler if you aren’t driving a high clearance vehicle. From the parking area, it is a short hike of about two hundred yards to a pristine curved beach fringed by trees. This beach is typically less crowded than the others, probably because of the rough drive to get to it. It is a fine place to spend the day because there is shade.  Bring a beach chair, a cooler full of food and drink, and forget about the rest of the world.

White Sand Beach
The magic sands of White Sand Beach.

White Sands Beach Park

White Sands is located a few miles south of Kailua town on Ali’I Drive. It is a small beach, but it has soft white sand and is known for its surf break. Locals and tourists alike come to White Sands to ride boogie boards in the surf. A couple of days I was there, the surf was high and rough. I only managed a few rides on my boogie board before I was done getting tossed around and ground into the sand. To the right of the beach are reefs with lots of fish for good snorkeling and resident turtles. The beach is also known as Magic Sands Beach because winter storms sometimes make the sand disappear.

big fish
I went fishing and all I caught was this one…

 

Kahuluu Beach Park

This beach is a few hundred yards south of White Sands Beach on Ali’I Drive. This is a popular snorkeling spot. The beach has ugly gray sand and is generally unimpressive, but the snorkeling is superb. There are a lot of reefs spread around the bay in shallow water. The inexperienced snorkelers tend to stay close to the left side, but I found that the best snorkeling is farther out into the bay near the reef line. This is the only beach that I visited that had any food or drinks for sale. At Kahuluu there was a food truck parked near the facilities, selling ice cream, snacks, and sodas.

black sand beach
Hot on the feet!

Punaluu County Beach Park

Punlauu Beach has Hawaii’s famous black sand. The sand is crushed black lava. This beach is on the southeast side of Hawaii. If you are taking a driving tour of the island, it is about 67 miles (and 1 hour and 45 minutes) from Kailua-Kona.

It is definitely worth the drive to see this beach. It is spectacular. However, the black sand gets very hot! Wear water shoes or flip flops instead of going barefoot to walk across this beach. Also, the surf is rough and there are lots of rocks in the water at the shoreline. So it is not a good beach for swimming or lounging, but it is an amazing sight.

After previously visiting Oahu, Maui, and Kawaii, I think I like the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii the best.

golf course view on Hawaii
Tropical paradise on the Big Island, Hawaii.

The End of the Road on Kauai

Start of the Na Pali Coastline

The dark clouds rolled down from the top of the mountains in the interior of the island. The rain pelted the deserted beach. So that’s why it’s so green here. It rains. When on a beach vacation, what is there to do when it rains? Stay indoors and play Parcheesi? Watch reruns of Family Guy or a Star Wars marathon?

Start of the Na Pali Coastline
Na Pali Coast, from Ke’e Beach

“OK, I have an idea.” I said. “Let’s drive up the west coast of the island. That’s supposed to be the hot and dry side of the island, away from the trade winds. I know where there is a beach at the end of the road. Maybe it’s not raining there.”

“Will we have to go to the end of the road or walk to the end of the beach?” asked my daughter.

“Absolutely!” I said.

I have been known to have to get to the top or end of something when traveling. I had to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Notre Dame. I had to get to the end of the beach on Cayman Brac, the end of the volcanic trail on Maui, a round trip from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capital and back. I wouldn’t call it an obsession, merely a desire to achieve something, even it if it involves climbing or walking or while on vacation. Why go 90% of the way there without reaching the top or the end? It would be unfinished business I would dwell on when I am old and sitting in a rocking chair at the rest home.

We piled into the Jeep. It had the appearance of a rugged SUV, without having four wheel drive or actually being rugged. We set off from Poipu on the south side of Kauai, Hawaii and wound our way through the small coastal towns. We stopped at the Kauai Coffee Plantation, bought some coffee beans, and stretched our legs.

Kauai's rugged coastline
The rugged coastline of Kauai

By lunchtime we were in the tiny town of Hanapepe and the rain had stopped. After quickly surveying the one block stretch of the old town and eating, we got back on the main road. The road that goes to the end of the island.

There is no road that goes completely around Kauai. The Na Pali cliffs make it impossible. The road along the north shore of Kauai stops at Ke’e Beach. The road along the west shore stops near Polihale State Beach. The end of the road. That was our goal today.

We had gone there once before years ago when the children were small. I remembered leaving the paved road and driving on red dirt roads for several miles through isolated farmland until even the dirt road ended. After walking through the woods we emerged onto a large beach that stretched as far as the eye could see to the left. To the right in the distance were the Na Pali cliffs. The place was deserted. We had the beach to ourselves.

After playing on the beach for a while I started my trek. I had to get to the end of the beach and touch the rock cliffs at the start of the Na Pali coastline. The place where the Pacific Ocean meets the rock face and you can walk no more. I walked for a half hour and finally touched the cliff. It was a magnificent sight to see the waves crash into the cliff face. I had done it. And I had to do it again.

Kauai view from the Grand Hyatt Hotel
Kauai on a sunny day

We got to the end of the paved road to find several cars waiting on the side of the road. We wondered what was going on because it seemed like an odd place to be waiting. There was nothing around but empty fields. We stopped next to the first car and I lowered the window.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” I asked the driver of a small sub-compact rental car.

“We’re not sure we can get through,” said the man, as he motioned to the left.

There was now a red lake where there is normally a red dirt road leading to the beach. The lake was of unknown depth, but sure to have a bottom of extremely squishy red mud. The lake was 50 yards across and reached the fields on either side of the road. The road appeared to be clear beyond the lake. There was a sign at the corner that warned of dangerous flooding in the area and that continuing down the road was prohibited during rains.

“Let’s do it Dad! We can make it through there,” yelled the three risk-seeking young adults crowding the back seat. The voice of reason responded.

“This is the spot on the island where the map clearly states that going beyond this point voids the rental car contract. We’re miles from the nearest town and tow truck. The tow charge would be outrageous. We have five cell phones and no service. It’s after 3pm. If we get stuck it is going to be a very long way to walk. It will get dark. We may have to sleep overnight in the Jeep and eat left over Doritos for breakfast. I will get a backache and then be cranky for the rest of the trip.”

“Oh, come on Dad, where is your sense of adventure?”

Logic and prudence told me to turn around right there and head back to civilization. However, I did want to make it to the end of the road and the end of the beach. What accomplishment was ever truly achieved by turning back early? The scales of risk and reward tipped back in forth in my brain.

“OK, here is what we are going to do. We are going to send out a scout party. Peter, you walk out there and find out how deep it is.”

This is the person who never missed a mud puddle as a child. Peter gladly jumped out of the Jeep and ran over to the lake as a small crowd of bystanders gathered from their rental cars.

He slowly walked out into the lake. He went only a few feet in and lost his flip-flops in the mud. The water rose up to his knees and then back down to his shins before he emerged barefoot on the other side. He then repeated the journey back to the car.

“It’s not very deep. We have a Jeep, come on!”

I looked at my wife. She gave me The Look. Not the Look that said what are you thinking, you crazy man, let’s go back to the condo while we still can, but the Look that said let’s go for it, don’t be such a worrier, let’s do something exciting that we’ll talk about to our grandchildren someday in the far off future, and besides, you always have to get to the end.

Trying to preserve my masculinity and without thinking any further I turned the Jeep to head into the lake and punched the peddle to the floor. We hit the lake with a giant splash as the red water flooded over the windshield and front of the car. My passengers screamed like they were in the front car of the rollercoaster at Six Flags. I quickly turned the windshield wipers on in order to see as the tires started to bog down in the mud. The Jeep tossed back and forth as I gave it more gas to keep our forward momentum going. We were crashing through the waves with red mud splattering everywhere when the right rear tire caught some gravel and propelled us down the right edge of the road and out of the lake. We had made it.

Everyone cheered and I looked back to see three young adults making a video of our wild ride on their cell phones. Next stop, YouTube!

“That wasn’t so bad.” I said. “Let’s keep going.”

The road looked clear ahead as we got underway. We drove on red dirt and gravel for a couple of hundred yards until we got to a bend in the road. Around the bend the conditions changed again. For as far as we could see the road was under water. I had to be the responsible party.

“There is no way we are going to make it all the way through that lake. It is too long. We have to turn around.”

Without debate I made a three point U turn and gunned the Jeep back down the way we had come. We successfully barreled through the lake again back to the main road. The bystanders gawked at the red mud completely covering our vehicle.

I made some progress that day. We had fun and didn’t get stuck, but for once I didn’t make it to the end of the road. It was ok.

A Day at Poipu Beach, Kauai

A View of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kawaii, Hawaii

The turtle slowly grazed among the rocks along the shoreline. It was a big sea turtle, with a shell about three feet long. It was mostly submerged. Once in a while it would come up for a breath, look around at the sunburned tourists lying on the beach, and duck back down to continue its late afternoon snack. The beachgoers walked by, oblivious to its presence only three feet offshore in two feet of water.

A View of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
The gentle waters of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kauai

I had snorkeled in the waters all around the sandbar at Poipu Beach that day, searching for turtles. A guy I talked to in the pool at the condo complex told me that there were typically a dozen turtles in that area. I saw lots of fish while I was snorkeling, but no turtles.

Snorkeling in Kauai is a little different than in the Caribbean. The water visibility is much lower. The water is full of bubbles from the powerful surf and it mixes with the sand and red dirt runoff from the recent storm. In the Caribbean, most fish that one sees are small. The locals have caught and eaten a lot of the larger specimens. However, here in Kauai I saw many larger fish very close to shore.

There were Naso Tangs more than one foot long. I saw several Humuhumunukunukua’ua’a (the Hawaiian state fish and my personal favorite) that were also approximately one foot long. Pairs of Moorish Idols glided along the rocks, pecking away at algae. A very large Unicorn Fish boldly sailed within a few feet of my head. I think he was wondering what I was doing on his surf and turf.

After a long time fighting the surf to get to the outer edges of the reef, I gave up and collapsed in a heap on the beach. It was time to take a nap. The soft strains of Hawaiian ukelele music from a stereo at a local family’s picnic lulled me into sleep.

Beach next to Poipu Beach, Kauai
A walk along Kiahuna Plantation Beach, Poipu, Kauai

Later, parked on the beach, I scanned the ocean for any sign of whale activity. Just when my eyes started to get tired, I saw a whale spout. It was almost to the horizon line and at the very edge of my long range vision. After a few seconds I saw a whale rise up out of the ocean and then crash back down.

As the sun was starting its daily descent to the horizon, I wandered the beach where the ocean meets the sand. As I walked, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to see the turtle catching a breath five feet away from me. It winked at me, and then dived to rejoin its family.