Anini Beach County Park -- Anini is Kauai's safest beach for swimming and windsurfing. It's also one of the island's most beautiful. It sits on a blue lagoon at the foot of emerald cliffs, looking more like Tahiti than almost any other strand in the islands. This 3-mile-long, gold-sand beach is shielded from the open ocean by the longest, widest fringing reef in Hawaii. With shallow water 4 to 5 feet deep, it's also the very best snorkeling spot on Kauai, even for beginners. On the northwest side, a channel in the reef runs out to the deep blue water with a 60-foot drop that attracts divers. Beachcombers love it, too; seashells, cowries, and sometimes even rare Niihau shells can be found here. Anini has a park, a campground, picnic and barbecue facilities, and a boat-launch ramp; several B&Bs and vacation rentals are nearby. Follow Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56) to Kilauea; take the second exit, called Kalihiwai Road (the first exit dead-ends at Kalihiwai Beach), and drive a half mile toward the sea; turn left on Anini Beach Road.
Hanalei Beach -- Gentle waves roll across the face of half-moon Hanalei Bay, running up to the wide, golden sand; sheer volcanic ridges laced by waterfalls rise to 4,000 feet on the other side, 3 miles inland. Is there any beach with a better location? Celebrated in song and hula and featured on travel posters, this beach owes its natural beauty to its age -- it's an ancient sunken valley with eroded cliffs. Hanalei Bay indents the coast a full mile inland and runs 2 miles point to point, with coral reefs on either side and a patch of coral in the middle -- plus a sunken ship that belonged to a king, so divers love it. Swimming is excellent year-round, especially in summer, when Hanalei Bay becomes a big, placid lake. The aquamarine water is also great for bodyboarding, surfing, fishing, windsurfing, canoe paddling, kayaking, and boating. (There's a boat ramp on the west bank of the Hanalei River.) The area known as Black Pot, near the pier, is particularly good for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing. Facilities include a lifeguard, a pavilion, restrooms, picnic tables, and parking. This beach is always packed with both locals and visitors, but you can usually find your own place in the sun by strolling down the shore; the bay is big enough for everyone.
To get here, take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56), which becomes Highway 560 after Princeville. In Hanalei town, make a right onto Aku Road just after Tahiti Nui, then turn right again on Weke Road, which dead-ends at the parking lot for the Black Pot section of the beach; the easiest beach access is on your left.
Lumahai Beach -- One of the most photographed beaches in Kauai (it's where Mitzi Gaynor "washed that man right out of her hair" in South Pacific), this is a great beach for a picnic or for sitting and watching the waves. It is not a good swimming beach. The scenic beach is almost a mile long and extremely wide; the far eastern end occasionally is calm enough for swimming in the summer, but it can be very, very dangerous during the rest of the year. (The best reason to go to this beach is to picnic, inland, under the trees -- chow down on lunch and watch the waves roll in.) The reason for caution: Unlike other beaches on Kauai, Lumahai has no protective reef offshore, so the open ocean waves come rolling in -- full force. The force is so strong that the waves reshape the beach every year, moving the sand from one end to the other. When the surf is up there is a strong rip current and a powerful backwash, along with a dangerous shorebreak. There have been drownings here, so if the surf is up, do not go near the ocean (high surf has swept people out to sea).
Summer is the best time to enjoy this beach. On the eastern side (technically Kahalahala Beach), the surf is only calm enough for swimming on the few days when there are no waves -- even small ones. The western end appeals more to body and board surfers. To get here, take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 560); just after Hanalei, look for the wide turnoff for the scenic lookout, park here, and take the trail from the highway that leads to the beach below. Keep heading east for Kahalahala Beach. There is also a parking area at the western end of the beach, off the highway, just before you get to Lumahai River. Lumahai Beach has no facilities and no lifeguard.
Tunnels Beach & Haena Beach Park -- Postcard-perfect, gold-sand Tunnels Beach is one of Hawaii's most beautiful. When the sun sinks into the Pacific along the fabled peaks of Bali Hai, there's no better-looking beach in the islands: You're bathed in golden rays that butter the blue sky, bounce off the steepled ridges, and tint the pale clouds hot pink. Catch the sunset from the pebbly sand beach or while swimming in the emerald-green waters, but do catch it. Tunnels is excellent for swimming almost year-round and is safe for snorkeling because it's protected by a fringed coral reef. (However, the waters can get rough in winter.) The long, curving beach is sheltered by a forest of ironwoods that provides welcome shade from the tropical heat.
Around the corner is grainy-gold-sand Haena Beach Park, which offers excellent swimming in summer and great snorkeling amid clouds of tropical fish. But stay out of the water in winter, when the big waves are dangerous. Haena also has a popular grassy park for camping. Noise-phobes will prefer Tunnels.
Take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56), which becomes Highway 560 after Princeville. Tunnels is about 6 miles past Hanalei town, after mile marker 8 on the highway. (Look for the alley with the big wood gate at the end.) Haena is just down the road. Tunnels has no facilities, but Haena has restrooms, outdoor showers, barbecue grills, picnic tables, and free parking (no lifeguard, though).
Kee Beach State Park -- Where the road ends on the North Shore, you'll find a dandy little reddish-gold beach almost too beautiful to be real. Don't be surprised if it looks familiar; it was featured in The Thornbirds. Kee (kay-ay) is on a reef-protected cove at the foot of fluted volcanic cliffs. Swimming and snorkeling are safe inside the reef but dangerous outside; those North Shore waves and currents can be killers. This park has restrooms, showers, and parking -- but no lifeguard. To get here, take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56), which becomes Highway 560 after Princeville; Kee is about 7 1/2 miles past Hanalei.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.