One of the many reasons we love Hawaii — aside from an incredible mai tai, fresh seafood, and laid-back surf culture — is that it can easily lay claim to having the most beautiful beaches in the world. Why is that? For starters, they come in every size, shape, and colour there: wide, calm expanses that are perfect for families and little ones who just want to dip their toes in the Pacific; tiny, secluded coves where honeymooning couples can get away from the crowds; and red, white, black, and green sandy stretches that provide the ultimate photo-op for Instagram. Best of all, you can access every single one of them, since all of Hawaii’s beaches are public. By Jacqueline Gifford
Better still, you’re not limited to experiencing these beaches on just one island. Like many travellers, you can visit Hawaii on a multi-island itinerary, and spend each day of your sun-filled vacation hitting up a different shoreline. Oahu, home to world-famous Waikiki Beach, is known for having some of the widest golden stretches — and the best surfing — in all of Hawaii.
Kauai is nicknamed the Garden Island, and with good reason: the tropical forests here are lovely and lush, and have served as a backdrop for films such as Jurassic Park. But the coastline is also blessed with many reefs, which in turn create best beaches for snorkelling in Hawaii. Tiny Lanai, famous for having two luxurious Four Seasons resorts, has one of the best beaches in the world for spotting spinner dolphins.
Hawaii, which also goes by the name Big Island, may be best known for its lunar-like volcanic rock landscape, and can also lay claim to having some crowd-pleasing white-sand beaches, including the photographic gem Punalu’u black-sand beach. A secluded island off-the-beaten tourist path, Molokai has some of the most pristine stretches, where you’re likely to run into mainly locals.
So how to pick from all these spectacular stretches of sand?
Here are some of the best beaches in Hawaii where you can get a slice of that paradise.
Waikiki Beach, Oahu
Travellers have been flocking to this calm, golden, crescent-shaped stretch of sand on the island of Oahu since the early 1900s — when Hawaii first popped up on the tourist radar, and visitors would arrive only by steamship. Today, it’s a bit more crowded, but the scene is still fun: grab a mai tai at the iconic Royal Hawaiian hotel, built-in 1927; kick back; and watch locals mingle with tourists, all with impressive Diamond Head as a backdrop.
Ko Olina Beach, Oahu
If you have kids, get to this placid beach on the west side of Oahu right away. The clear blue water is shallow enough for little ones to splash around in, and sitting just above the lagoon is Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. Another property not to be missed is the five-star Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina.
Waimea Bay Beach Park, Oahu
Set along the dramatic, less-developed north shore of Oahu, Waimea Bay is one of the island’s most famous big-wave surfing beaches. During the winter months, from November through February, the swells become awe-inspiring giants that draw the pro riders. Waimea, Sunset Beach, and Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline) play host to some of Hawaii’s top surfing competitions, like the Vans Triple Crown. You can stay at the nearby Turtle Bay Resort to be near the centre of the action.
Polihale State Park, Kauai
It takes some effort to get to this remote, 17-mile (27.3 kilometre) stretch on Kauai’s windswept western shore. And you’ll need a four-wheel drive in order to navigate a bumpy road and sand dunes. But the effort to reach to this beach in Hawaii is worth it. On this quiet, almost ethereal stretch, you can see landmarks like the Napali cliffs (which technically begin on Polihale’s northern end) and Niihau, Hawaii’s forbidden island. Also pack plenty of sunscreen and water, since there is limited shade.
Hanalei Bay, Kauai
A heart-stopping bay backed by 4,000-foot emerald mountains, Hanalei is technically several beach parks, rolled into one magnificent two-mile (3.2 kilometre) swath along Kauai’s north shore. During the winter season, the waves come out to play and attract the surf crowd. But in the summer months, the waters are more tranquil and suitable for swimming.
Poipu Beach Park, Kauai
This is the epicentre of Kauai‘s perpetually sunny south shore, a beach area that’s actually composed of three beautiful crescents. Poipu always draws a lot of families because the waters tend to be suitable for beginner swimmers, and there’s a lifeguard seven days a week. You can do pretty much anything here, from surfing to snorkelling to swimming and splashing around. Nearby, you’ll find top properties such as Ko’a Kea and the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa.
Kalapaki Beach, Kauai
A lovely harbour along Kauai’s eastern coast, Kalapaki Bay offers fun for all ages and all types of visitors. Kids can go boogie boarding and surfing; adults can try their hand at sailing or canoeing, and locals like to come here to play volleyball (you’ll usually see a court set up in the sand). Also, facing the bay is Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club and several other seaside restaurants, all offering great options for lunch.
Kalihiwai Beach, Kauai
Kalihiwai — an insider, mainly locals-only beach in Hawaii — sits just past Kapaa on the way to Princeville. The waves at this tiny cove, which is set off by two beautiful cliffs, are spectacular for body surfing. There’s also a shallow, freshwater lagoon that kids will appreciate. Pack a picnic and bring a cooler, as there are no concession stands (but there are benches where you can sit).
Hulopoe Beach, Lanai
Guests of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai have prime access to this stunning golden crescent, which is great for both swimming and snorkelling. You’ll often spy friendly spinner dolphins jumping and playing in the water, as well as humpback whales during the cooler winter months. On the eastern side of the beach, there are several large tide pools.
Polihua Beach, Lanai
This two-mile (3.2 kilometre) stretch along Lanai’s northeastern shore, just across the channel from Molokai, is not advisable for swimming due to strong currents. That said, it’s the perfect place to go for a little privacy and a long walk, and visitors often spot humpback whales come winter, and honu (green sea turtles) year-round.
Makena Beach, Maui
Nearly two-thirds of a mile (one kilometre) long and 100 feet wide, Makena, also called “Big Beach,” in Maui, is beloved by both locals and tourists. Tote along towels and sunscreen, park it on the sand, and enjoy impressive views of the tiny island of Molokini. And don’t worry, we’ve got lunch picked out for you: Jawz Fish Tacos, one of Maui’s most popular food trucks, parks on the side of the road near Makena, and is open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Chow down on fresh mahi-mahi, shrimp, or chicken tacos.
Wailea Beach, Maui
Some of Maui’s most impressive resorts — the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, the Andaz Maui at Wailea, and the Grand Wailea — face this beach, which has cobalt waters gentle enough for kids. Given the fancy digs in the area, you can expect to spot a celebrity or two — everyone from Kate Bosworth to Jennifer Aniston has been to Wailea.
Hamoa Beach, Maui
You’ll need to steel yourself for the drive to this beautiful cove since it’s close to Hana — a time-stands-still town set on Maui’s far eastern shore. Taking the twisty, curvy, Road to Hana, which runs past cliffs and waterfalls, is one of the state’s most popular attractions. Fuel up in Paia before setting out, and don’t forget to pack your swimsuits — and a sense of adventure.
Kapalua Bay, Maui
Close to both the Montage and Ritz-Carlton resorts, Kapalua Bay is one of the most popular spots in Maui for kayaking, boogie boarding, SUP-boarding, and swimming. There are reefs in the bay, so bring your snorkel mask and be prepared to spot turtles and parrotfish. You can also go for a jog along the Coastal Trail, which begins at Kapalua Bay and runs all the way to D.T. Fleming Beach Park.
Hapuna Beach, Hawaii
The Big Island has several impressive white-sand beaches — Hapuna, a half-mile (0.8 kilometre) stretch located on the Kona-Kohala Coast, is one of the best beaches in Hawaii. Even locals come to this beautiful spot to picnic and hang with friends. There’s also a lifeguard posted year-round, making it especially easy for families to visit.
Kauna’oa (Mauna Kea) Beach, Hawaii
When eco-tourism pioneer Laurance Rockefeller first saw this sugar-soft beach back in 1960, while touring the island with Hawaii’s governor, he immediately knew that it was something special. Rockefeller was there to scout locations for a potential hotel — and he found the perfect one. He chose Kauna’oa as the setting for his legendary resort, Mauna Kea, which still draws couples and families to the Big Island today. One of the best beaches in Hawaii, features pristine beauty with turquoise waters, gentle waves, and plenty of marine life, including turtles and the occasional manta ray.
Punalu’u Beach, Hawaii
The Big Island is home to eight climate zones, one live volcano, and countless impressive beaches— including Punalu’u, which is a heart-stopping black-sand beach close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (If you’re staying along the Kona-Kohala Coast, you should make this a stopover on your way to the park.) The shore can be a bit rocky, so proceed into the water with caution. Nevertheless, you’re really there for the novelty of seeing black sand — and sea turtles sunning themselves.
Papaohaku Beach, Molokai
Molokai receives far fewer visitors than Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island — which means you have a greater chance of having some of its standout beaches all to yourself. Located on Molokai’s western end, Papaohaku — also known as three-mile (4.8 kilometre) beach — is one of the largest white-sand stretches in the state. On a clear day, you can even see Oahu across the channel.