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What’s one of the biggest draws the Hawaiian Islands have to offer? Beautiful beaches, of course. But with such a diverse array to choose from, how do you know which ones to hit? These stretches of sand are some of the very best you’ll find in the Aloha State.
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This nearly two-thirds of a mile long, 100-foot-wide beach may be the ultimate spot in the islands to watch the sun go down. The sunsets at Makena, with its silky soft golden sands and crystal clear turquoise waters, are renowned as some of the most glorious on the planet. Separated into two distinct areas, “Big Beach” and “Little Beach,” Big Beach is a great place for body surfing and bodyboarding. As there is a little reef in the area, the sandy bottom shines up through the water, making for an especially breathtaking scene. Little Beach is the place to go if you’re looking for more of an offbeat scene where you’re likely to encounter nude sunbathers, drum circles and professional fire dancers.
Made up of tiny olivine crystals from the surrounding lava rocks that are trapped in the nearly 50,000-year-old Pu’u Mahana crater near the waters of Mahana Bay, this is one of the world’s rare green sand beaches. As magma is rich in olivine, and it tends to be one of the first crystals to form as the lava cools, the mineral is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian Diamond.” The crystals are particularly dense which helps them to accumulate on the beach without being washed away. As Papakolea is very remote, you probably won’t run into many other people here either. It requires a two-hour drive to the trailhead followed by a challenging two-mile hike to the emerald-hued sands.
The classic 1958 film “South Pacific” was shot here, and the moment you lay eyes on this beach you’ll understand why. Backed by lush palm and ironwood trees, this postcard-perfect beach on Kauai’s northern shore is the place to go on the island for snorkeling and diving. It gets the name Tunnels thanks to several lava tubes that form caverns under the water—creating havens for tropical fish. Experienced divers can head to the outer reefs, while beginners can stay closer in to the shore. But don’t plan on heading out into the water here during the winter – at this time of year, conditions can be especially hazardous for swimmers, divers or snorkelers.
A visit to this beach requires a long drive on the famous Road to Hana, although that’s not a bad thing, just be sure to bring your adventurous spirit with you. The twisting road extends 52 miles along Maui’s northern coast from Kahului to Hana, and Hamoa is close to Hana on the far eastern shore of the island. The highway winds around nearly 600 curves, passing black sand beaches and gorgeous ocean vistas, waterfalls and lush jungle along the way. The crescent-shaped beach with salt-and-pepper sands is located about a half-mile past mile marker 51 and is popular for snorkeling, surfing, swimming and body surfing in its clear azure waters.
What makes this beach such a standout is its sea glass. Located on the southern shore of Kauai in the middle of an industrial area near Port Allen Harbor, visitors can thank the nearby industrial garbage dump for its existence. Over the years, the ocean waves that pound the shore have transformed broken bottles and other trash like windows and even car windshields into stunning smooth, rounded bits of glass. The glass is quite a bit more round than what’s found on most other beaches with sea glass due to the huge waves here, and it’s also more unique than most as it contains more shades of blue along with many other colors, like brown, clear and red.
A series of three white crescents lined with gently swaying palms at the edge of clear cerulean waters, this is the kind of place that seems to cry out for a hammock – and you enjoying a snooze in the Hawaiian sun, though it’s not just for lounging and enjoying the scenery. It’s a great place for spotting endangered Hawaiian monk seals (just 1,200 of the creatures remain), who also like to find their perfect spot on the shoreline for soaking up the sunshine, as well as for all sorts of water sports. Ideal for families, the typically calm waters here are suitable for little ones who want to splash around as well as beginning swimmers, and there’s also a lifeguard on duty seven days a week.
The Big Island is home to practically endless impressive beaches, including Punaluu, located on its southeastern Kau coast near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. One of the state’s most famous black sand beaches, its amazing jet black sands are made up of basalt, a common igneous rock that’s formed when lava cools rapidly. The intense black color is offset by brilliant blue cresting waves and a grove of coconut palms, while the underwater volcanic vents ooze magma that cools before rapidly exploding as it touches the ocean waters, creating the shards of basalt that line on the beach. With the addition of the Hawaiian green sea turtles who come to bask in the sun on the sand, the entire combination is absolutely mesmerizing.
Situated on the less-developed north shore of Oahu, this beach is one of the island’s most famous big-wave surfing beaches. If it looks familiar, it might be because it starred in the popular television series “Lost” as the beach where Oceanic Flight 815 crashed. During the winter months, the ocean swells are transformed into awe-inspiring monsters that draw the pros – in fact, this is one of the first spots surfers began to ride giant waves. Today, it hosts the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in February each year. In the summer, the swells subside, providing outstanding snorkeling and swimming.
Nestled in the jaw-droppingly beautiful valley of the same name on the northeast coast of the Big Island, this true “Shangri-La” as it’s often called, is almost cut off completely from the outside world. The fact that it’s so difficult to get to, also makes it one of the most incredible stretches of sand on the planet, and one that you’re likely to be able to enjoy all to yourself. To get there requires hiking down a treacherously narrow, steep road. Your reward is a mile-long, volcanic black sand beach bordered by towering 2,000-foot cliff walls backed by dense rainforest with Waiulili and Kaluahine waterfalls cutting into the cliffs at the beach’s south end.
Technically, Hanalei Bay is several beach parks that are rolled into one incredible two-mile swath of sand on the north shore of Kauai. Frequently found among rankings of the very best beaches in America, it’s a nearly perfect semi-circle of striking white sands. The magnificent bay is backed by 4,000-foot-high emerald mountains, with peaks that are often enveloped in the mist. It’s this spectacular scene that led it to being featured in the George Clooney film, “The Descendants.” During the winter season, it draws the surfing crowd, while the summer months that tranquil waters call to those who want to enjoy a relaxing swim. No matter what time of year, just before the sun goes down, head to the pier and gaze out over the Pacific – as the colorful sky begins to glow, you’ll feel as if you’ve truly entered some sort of fantasy world.
The Big Island may be most famous for its black sand beaches, but it also hosts a number of impressive white sand beaches like Hapuna. This half-mile stretch of sand on the Kona-Kohala Coast is almost always sunny, though it’s lined by trees that offer a nice shady respite from the heat. In the winter, wild, crashing waves pound the shoreline, while summer brings calm, clear waters that make it ideal for frolicking, swimming and boogie boarding. With an abundance of colorful fish and coral, it’s also a great spot for snorkeling.
One of the lesser-visited Hawaiian islands, Molokai is a great place to go if you want the best chance to enjoying the sands all to yourself. Located on its western end, Papohaku, AKA, a three-mile beach, is one of the largest stretches of white sands in all of Hawaii – and, on a clear day, you can even see Oahu across the channel.