The most spectacular beaches in Hawaii

In a bid to escape the bleak mid-winter, we take our minds (and, one day soon, our all-too-pale bodies) to the remotest beaches of the Hawaiian archipelago, seeking heat-soaked sands and tropical surroundings underscored by panoramic Pacific blue. There are over 100 picture-perfect beaches split among Hawaii’s eight main islands, no two ever the same thanks to the region’s diverse topography and (in areas) volcanic explosivity. Discover the best beaches Hawaii has to offer with our rundown below.

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Waikiki Beach, Oahu | Photo: Aussieactive

1. Waikiki Beach, Oahu

Mahalo to Oahu for its second-to-none beach offerings, led by the infamous Waikiki Beach, on the calm southern section of the island near the capital of Honolulu. Well-placed for luxury vacations, the paradisical Waikiki Beach with its crescent-shaped stretch of golden sand has been known as one of the best beaches in Oahu since the early 1900s when vacationers would arrive by steamboat! While those days are long gone, tourist development remains, making for an action-packed vacation centred on the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where a mai tai overlooking Diamond Head is an absolute must. Landmarks to watch out for include the Duke Kahanamoku statue (celebrating the Hawaiian father of surfing) and views of Diamond Head Crater in the distance.

Not coincidentally, Waikiki Beach is also the epicentre of gay life on Oahu, close to the city’s nighttime entertainment and many upscale oceanfront resorts. Summer on Waikiki is when most of the action happens, allowing for surfing instruction from beach boy groups, as well as canoe paddling and bodyboarding. Technically speaking, nude sunbathing is illegal in Hawaii but plenty of people flout the rules and do it anyway, particularly in the more secluded parts, such as at the “gay section” on Diamond Head Beach Park (down Kalakaua Avenue and through the park following signs to Diamond Head ). Other beaches along the Waikiki stretch include Fort DeRussy in the west, Kuhio Beach (along Kalahaua Ave.) and Queen Surf Beach (in Kapiolani Park), though Sans Souci, Ala Moana Regional Park and Magic Island Lagoon are all calmer and shallower options for unconfident swimmers.

Oahu | Photo: Jess Loiterton

Photo: Brenner Oliveira

2. Waimea Bay Beach Park, Oahu

The entire island of Oahu has approximately 180 kilometres of coastline to discover, but Waimea Bay Beach Park on the North Shore’s wilderness front is known among the surfing community to hold the best. If – that is – you like monster waves to ride or gawp at. Pro surfers would flock to Waimea Bay as early as the 1950s to ride the giant winter waves (from November to February) and today a number of top surfing competitions are held here, including the Vans Triple Crown. Outside of winter, Waimea Bay remains popular for both swimming and snorkelling, though, as you can imagine, the crowd differs somewhat!

Also on the pro-surfing radar are Ehukai Beach (Nanzai Pipeline) and Sunset Beach, both close to the Turtle Bay Resort where all the cool surfer folk stay in winter. Ehukai Beach is the more dangerous of the two, with sharp reefs only a couple of feet below the surface of the water. Haleiwa Alii Beach State Park also sees 7-metre waves in winter, though it is one of the calmer beaches in the area alongside Chun’s Reef, a popular family spot with its own freshwater pond. For other calmer waters, try travelling to the north of Haleiwa to Oahu’s northeastern tip, where Kawela Bay and Turtle Bay (known as Turtle Beach Oahu to some) come protected from the wild waves of the west making for great snorkelling among Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Photo: Jake Houglum

3. Hanalei Bay, Kaua’i

Warming you to the wonders of Kaua’i island is first and foremost Hanalei Bay, one of the largest bays on the north shore playing host to 3 kilometres of beach and plenty of space for bathing. Jump off Hanalei Pier in the busier part of the bay or head to the opposite end for more remote spots, always remembering to take your eyes off the surf for a moment to appreciate epic views of Kaua’i’s 1,200-metre high cliffs, inlaid with rainforest and valleys. As is the theme in Hawaii, Hanalei Bay is popular among surfers during the winter months, becoming infinitely more tranquil come summer for swimming and paddling. To try the action, stay in the centre section known as the Pavilions, where surfing, bodyboarding and swimming are popular. Walking the bay end to end is equally worthy, making sure to eye up all the hot lifeguards and rich boat owners along the way.

Hanalei Bay, Hawaii | Photo: Jason Weingardt

4. Po‘ipū Beach, Kaua’i

After exploring Hanalei Bay, Kaua’i still has around 80 kilometres more beachfront to seduce you with, including the ever-sunny Po’ipū Beach, down towards the south of the island. Great for families and beginner surfers, Po’ipū has a full-time lifeguard and still waters that are filled with marine life. To see for yourselves, get down under with a snorkel or scuba tour to see sea turtles, otherwise sailing, canoeing and whale watching in the surrounding area. Then, come ashore for afternoon games of volleyball, staying until sundown for some spectacular peachy skies.

Beyond Po’ipū, visitors to the south can also take some time lounging on the grass at Kalapaki Bay (surfing, boogie-boarding and sailing also encouraged!) or go local with a trip to the secret cove of Kalihiwai, between Kapaa and Princeville. Backgrounded by two impressive cliffs, Kalihiwai is the perfect spot for a picnic (bring your own!) followed by bodysurfing or a dunk in the kid-friendly lagoon. Otherwise, to get some perspective along the western shore, sign up to a 4X4 tour (or rent your own) and drive out towards Polihale State Park. Once here you’ll be granted access to 27 kilometres more windswept shorefront, accented by the Napali cliffs and the once-forbidden island of Niihau. If considering camping, you’ll need a permit and plenty of provisions (including sunscreen and water).

Photo: Derek Owens

Kauai | Photo: Braden Jarvis

5. Beaches of Maui

Not short of pristine world-class beaches, Maui runs the risk of being a little bit extra. Before travelling then, it’s good to know her top spots so you can save yourself some effort on the day! Of our favourites, the “Big Beach” (otherwise known as Makena at the centre of Makena Beach State Park) in South Maui is a real crowd-pleaser, its white sands running one kilometre in length and 30 metres wide all the way. As well as roomy bathing opportunities with views out over Molokini island, Big Beach is also good for swimming, snorkelling, bodyboarding and fishing, with an on-duty lifeguard for your safety and delicious food trucks to quell your post-swim hunger. A volcanic cone formation named Puu Olai separates Big Beach from the 200-metre Little Beach Maui, and though this second smaller cove is easier to get crowded, it is also where all the nudists hang out.

If the height of luxury is what you’re looking for, Maui’s Wailea Beach will please you, host to a range of high-end resorts such as the Four Seasons, which look out over tranquil azure waters. Kapalua Bay is a nice alternative, home of Ritz-Carlton and Montage resorts as well as an impressive array of water sports, while the 5-kilometre stretch at Kā’anapali Beach has a choice between the Hyatt, Marriott, Westin or Sheraton. More than just a cluster of nice hotels, however, Kā‘anapali Beach also allows for snorkelling with sea turtles and watching humpbacks from the shore (in certain seasons). The daily cliff jumping ceremony is also a highlight at Kā‘anapali, taking place at sunset on Puʻu Kekaʻa (aka Black Rock).

The best red sand beach Maui has to offer, Kaihalulu Beach is unlike anywhere else on Maui, thanks to its otherworldly setting cut deep into a rusty red Ka’uiki Head cinder cone, a cooled lava formation supplying the beach with its deep red colour, in beautiful contrast with the azure ocean in front. Black lava rock shields the cove from wind and birds of prey glide above, a great sight if you can brave the steep hike down from the road (a challenge made harder due to a landslide that saw part of the trail wiped away). Alternatively, if you’re looking for the ultimate black sand beach Maui, look no further than Honokalani, just north of the town of Hana within Waianapanapa State Park. For more fun on the island, see our guide of things to do in Maui.

Kaihalulu Beach | Photo: James Wheeler

Mr. Hudson highlight image

The best red sand beach Maui has to offer, Kaihalulu Beach is unlike anywhere else on Maui thanks to its otherworldly setting cut deep into a rusty red Ka’uiki Head cinder cone

6. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Hawaii

The glory of Hawaii is in its variety and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Big Island shows this off to stunning effect with its runway of smooth volcanic shores, deep black against a contrast of white surf. Shirking old fashioned white-sand beauty standards, Punalu’u is confident in its ability to turn heads, running 48 kilometres close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Visitors to the southern Kona-Kohala Coast will want to stop off here to sunbathe alongside adult sea turtles on the sands, careful to avoid the rocks and strong freshwater currents when entering the water to cool off. Investing in some water shoes is a good idea if swimming on any Kona beaches and around the volcanic park, sheltering from the scorching heat under palm trees that line the sand. As well as your usual beach basking, Punalu’u Beach is also great for snorkelling, coastal hiking and camping overnight (with the correct permit).

Maui Hawaii Beach

Punaluʻu Beach, Maui | Photo: Eric Frankum

Photo: Marvin Meyer

7. Papakōlea Beach, Hawaii

Another contender for the best beach on the Big Island is Papakōlea, with a unique green sand beach Hawaii is famous the world over for. One of only four of its kind worldwide, this green-tinted beach lies slightly further south of Punalu’u within the Ka’ū district, a district hosting a great many other attractions, including the South Point. The stunning Papakōlea Beach comes carved into a 49,000-year-old crystallised cinder cone, formed after an eruption from Mauna Loa volcano and since eroded to create the olive-hued sands we see today. On parking up, visitors must hike down the lava cliffs that edge the road (between Kona and Volcano Village), but the steep descent is surely worth it, passing by ancient temples (Heiau) and other culturally significant landmarks along the way. Though it can be tempting, don’t attempt to drive down to the beach (or accept a ride) as this is damaging to the land and prohibited by the owner.

Papakōlea Beach, Hawaii | Photo: Michael Olsen

Mr. Hudson highlight image

Another contender for the best beach on the Big Island is Papakōlea, with a unique green sand beach Hawaii is famous the world over for.

8. Hapuna Beach, Hawaii

You’ll have to traverse the entire island to reach our third mention on Hawaii’s Big Island, but the drive up the west coast (passing myriad Kona beaches), or, up the east coast (passing the capital city of Hilo with a detour down the Kohala Coast), won’t feel like a task at all. Eventually, you’ll come to Hapuna Beach, a sight for sore eyes with its dazzling white sand made for sunbathing and cobalt blue waters made for swimming, bodyboarding and snorkelling equally. Lucky visitors arriving in the early part of the year may also get the chance to spot migrating whales breaching in the distance, though the winter waves are again reserved for experienced surfers. The vendors and island restaurant offerings that line this 600-metre stretch are key selling points of Hapuna, as are the facilities that include picnic areas, restrooms and showers. Hapuna is in fact the largest white sand beach on the Big Island, crowned by the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel which lies adjacent. Those searching for more tranquillity can go south to Waialea Beach (Beach 69).

On the Kohala Coast detour, there are three names to remember; the romantic Kauna’oa Beach, the high-octane Anaehoomalu Bay and the family-friendly Holoholokai Beach, not far from the ancient carvings within Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve. Conversely, if riding up the west coast from Kailua-Kona, consider making a stop at both Kailua Beach and Makalawena Beach, taking it slow through Kīholo State Park for a number of black sand beach Hawaii favourites lined with more lava pools and luxury resorts than you’ll know what to do with, such as the Four Seasons Hualalai. For more excitement on Hawaii split across 10 days, see our great Big Island itinerary.

Hapuna Beach, Hawaii | Photo: Simon Hurry

9. Lanai Beaches

Once a pineapple plantation and now a secluded island retreat with 28 kilometres of coastline all yours for the taking, Lanai is certainly a location to add to your itinerary. Splitting the island in two for convenience; South Lanai is where you’ll find the crescent sands of Hulopoe Beach Park, one of the top Hawaii beaches with clear water and tide pools perfect for snorkelling adventures. Stay at the Four Seasons Manele Bay for a vacation to remember, watching the waves closely to see spinner dolphins and even humpback whales in the cooler months. North Lanai meanwhile may be the harder to reach of the two sides but the hour-long 4X4 ride from Lanai City to Polihua Beach is very much worth it. After being bombarded with paradisical island views from the passenger seat, arrive at Polihua to find a long stretch of quiet, unblemished coast pummelled by waves too big and mighty to swim among.

Photo: Dmitry Shamis

Photo: Logan Armstrong

10. Pāpaōhaku Beach, Molokai

Go north across the channel from Lanai and you’ll be rewarded with our final island offering of Molokai. While most people see Molokai as a picturesque pinprick on the sea view from Maui or Oahu, we say this smaller island is equally deserving of your visit, giving all Hawaii beaches black sand, red sand or otherwise an easy run for their money. Relatively few visitors to Molokai means that its beaches remain nearly untouched, and our favourite of Pāpaōhaku on the western side is one of them. The white sand at Pāpaōhaku Beach runs 5 kilometres and spans 90 metres across, with little to no development along the shore. While there are picnic facilities and camping grounds, there won’t be any lifeguards. Don’t let that stop confident swimmers from entering the water (outside of winter), however, as the snorkelling here is top-notch. Stay until late to see why Pāpaōhaku ranks so high on the Hawaii beaches sunset leader board when the skies turn peachy over O’ahu in the distance.

Other beaches to appreciate on Molokai include the protected cove at Kapukahehu Beach (AKA Dixie Maru), the snorkelling paradise of Kumimi Beach Park and the secluded Kawili Beach, at the mouth of the lush Halawa Valley. A royal favourite meanwhile is One Alii Beach Park (east of Kaunakakai) favoured for its picnic facilities, restrooms and parking.

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Hawaii | Photo: Ganapathy Kumar

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