The Waikiki Coast
Ala Moana Beach Park
Gold-sand Ala Moana (meaning "path to the sea," in Hawaiian), on sunny Mamala Bay, stretches for more than a mile along Honolulu’s coast between downtown and Waikiki. This 76-acre midtown beach park, with spreading lawns shaded by banyans and palms, is one of the island’s most popular playgrounds. It has a man-made beach, created in the 1930s by filling a coral reef with Waianae Coast sand, as well as its own lagoon, yacht harbor, tennis courts, music pavilion, bathhouses, picnic tables, and enough wide-open green spaces to accommodate 4 million visitors a year. The water is calm almost year-round, protected by black-lava rocks set offshore. There’s a large parking lot as well as metered street parking.
One of Hawaii’s best spots for swimming, gold-sand Lanikai’s crystal-clear lagoon is like a giant saltwater swimming pool that you’re lucky enough to be able to share with the resident tropical fish and sea turtles. Too gorgeous to be real, this is one of Hawaii’s postcard-perfect beaches: It’s a mile long and thin in places, but the sand’s as soft as talcum powder. Prevailing onshore trade winds make this an excellent place for sailing and windsurfing. Kayakers often paddle out to the two tiny offshore Mokulua islands, which are seabird sanctuaries. Because Lanikai is in a residential neighborhood, it’s less crowded than other Oahu beaches, the perfect place to enjoy a quiet day. Sun worshipers should arrive in the morning, though, as the Koolau Range blocks the afternoon rays.
There are no facilities here, just off-street parking. From Waikiki, take the H-1 to the Pali Highway (Hwy. 61) through the Nuuanu Pali Tunnel to Kailua, where the Pali Highway becomes Kailua Road as it proceeds through town. At Kalaheo Avenue, turn right and follow the coast about 2 miles to Kailua Beach Park; just past it, turn left at the T intersection and drive uphill on Aalapapa Drive, a one-way street that loops back as Mokulua Drive. Park on Mokulua Drive and walk down any of the eight public-access lanes to the shore. Or take TheBus no. 57A or 57 (Kailua), and then transfer to the shuttle bus.
Windward Oahu’s premier beach is a wide, 2-mile-long golden strand with dunes, palm trees, panoramic views, and offshore islets that are home to seabirds. The swimming is excellent, and the azure waters are usually decorated with bright sails; this is Oahu’s premier windsurfing beach, as well. It’s a favorite spot to sail catamarans, bodysurf the gentle waves, or paddle a kayak. Water conditions are quite safe, especially at the mouth of Kaelepulu Stream, where toddlers play in the freshwater shallows at the middle of the beach park. The water is usually about 78[dg]F (26[dg]C), the views are spectacular, and the setting, at the foot of the sheer green Koolau Range, is idyllic. It’s gotten more and more crowded over the years—guess the secret’s out—but you can usually find a less-occupied stretch of sand the farther you are from the beach park.
Facilities at the beach park include picnic tables, barbecues, restrooms, a volleyball court, a public boat ramp, and free parking. To get here, take Pali Highway (Hwy. 61) to Kailua, drive through town, turn right on Kalaheo Avenue, and go a mile until you see the beach on your left. Or take TheBus no. 57A or 57 into Kailua, and then the no. 70 shuttle.
Kualoa Regional Park
This 150-acre coco palm–fringed peninsula is the biggest beach park on the windward side and one of Hawaii’s most scenic. It’s located on Kaneohe Bay’s north shore, at the foot of the spiky Koolau Ridge. The park has a broad, grassy lawn and a long, narrow, white-sand beach ideal for swimming, walking, beachcombing, kite-flying, or just enjoying the natural beauty of this once-sacred Hawaiian shore, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The waters are shallow and safe for swimming year-round (lifeguards are on duty). Offshore is Mokolii, the picturesque islet otherwise known as Chinaman’s Hat. At low tide, you can swim or wade out to the island, which has a small sandy beach. It’s also a bird preserve—so don’t spook the red-footed boobies.
O‘ahu’s most popular snorkeling spot is this volcanic crater with a broken sea wall; its small, curved, 2,000-foot gold-sand beach is packed elbow-to-elbow with people year-round. The bay’s shallow shoreline water and abundant marine life are the main attractions, but this good-looking beach is also popular for sunbathing and people-watching. Serious divers shoot “the slot” (a passage through the reef) to get to Witch’s Brew, a turbulent cove, and then brave strong currents in 70-foot depths at the bay mouth to see coral gardens, turtles, and even sharks. (Divers: Beware of the Molokaʻi Express, a strong current.) You can snorkel in the safe, shallow (10-ft.) inner bay, which, along with the beach, is almost always crowded. Because Hanauma Bay is a conservation district, you cannot touch or remove any marine life here. Feeding the fish is also prohibited.
Facilities include parking, restrooms, a pavilion, a grass volleyball court, lifeguards, barbecues, picnic tables, and food concessions. Alcohol is prohibited in the park; there is no smoking past the visitor center. Expect to pay $1 per vehicle to park plus an entrance fee of $7.50 per person (free for children 12 and under and Hawai‘i residents).
If you’re driving, take Kalanianaʻole Highway to Koko Head Regional Park. Avoid the crowds by going early, about 7am, on a weekday morning; once the parking lot’s full, you’re out of luck. Alternatively, take TheBus to escape the parking problem: The Hanauma Bay Shuttle runs from Waikīkī to Hanauma Bay every half-hour from 8:45am to 1pm; you can catch it at the Ala Moana Hotel, the Ilikai Hotel, or other city bus stops. It returns every hour from noon to 4pm. For information, call tel. 808/396-4229. Hanauma Bay is closed every Tuesday so that the fish can have a day off, but it's open all other days from 6am to 7pm in the summer and 6am to 6pm in the winter.
Sandy Beach is one of the best bodysurfing beaches on O‘ahu; it’s also one of the most dangerous. It’s better to just stand and watch the daredevils literally risk their necks at this 1,200-foot-long gold-sand beach, which is pounded by wild waves and haunted by a dangerous shore break and strong backwash. Weak swimmers and children should definitely stay out of the water here. Lifeguards post flags to alert beachgoers to the day’s surf: Green means safe, yellow means caution, and red indicates very dangerous water conditions.
Facilities include restrooms and parking. Go weekdays to avoid the crowds or weekends to catch the bodysurfers in action. From Waikīkī, drive east on the H-1, which becomes Kalanianaʻole Highway; proceed past Hawai‘i Kai, up the hill to Hanauma Bay, past the Halona Blowhole, and along the coast. The next big gold beach on the right is Sandy Beach. TheBus no. 22 will also bring you here.
Makapuʻu Beach Park
Makapuʻu Beach is a beautiful 1,000-foot-long gold-sand beach cupped in the stark black Koʻolau cliffs on O‘ahu’s easternmost point. Even if you never venture into the water, it’s worth a visit just to enjoy the great natural beauty of this classic Hawaiian beach. (You’ve probably already seen it in countless TV shows, from Hawaii Five-O to Magnum, P.I.) In summer, the ocean here is as gentle as a Jacuzzi, and swimming and diving are perfect; come winter, however, and Makapuʻu is a hit with expert bodysurfers, who come for the big, pounding waves that are too dangerous for most regular swimmers.
Facilities include restrooms, lifeguards, barbecue grills, picnic tables, and parking. To get here, follow Kalanianaʻole Highway toward Waimānalo, or take TheBus no. 22 or 23.
The North Shore
Malaekahana Bay State Recreation Area
This white-sand crescent, almost a mile long, lives up to just about everyone’s image of the perfect Hawaii beach. It’s excellent for swimming. On a weekday, you may be the only one here; but should some net fisherman—or a kindred soul—intrude upon your delicious privacy, you can swim out to Goat Island (or wade across at low tide), a sanctuary for seabirds and turtles (so don’t chase 'em, brah).
Facilities include restrooms, barbecues, picnic tables, outdoor showers, and parking. To get here, take Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 83) 2 miles north of the Polynesian Cultural Center; as you enter the main gate, you’ll come upon the wooded beach park. Or you can take TheBus no. 55.
Waimea Beach Park
This deep, sandy bowl has gentle summer waves that are excellent for swimming, snorkeling, and bodysurfing. To one side of the bay is a huge rock that local kids like to climb and dive from. In this placid scene, the only clues of what’s to come in winter are those evacuation whistles on poles beside the road. But what a difference a season makes: Winter waves pound the narrow bay, sometimes rising to 50 feet high. When the surf’s really up, very strong currents and shore breaks sweep the bay—and it seems like everyone on Oahu drives out to Waimea to get a look at the monster waves and those who ride them. Weekends are great for watching the surfers; to avoid the crowds, go on weekdays.
Facilities include lifeguards, restrooms, showers, parking, and nearby restaurants and shops in Haleiwa town. The beach is located on Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 83); from Waikiki, you can take TheBus no. 52.
Leeward Oahu: The Waianae Coast
Makaha Beach Park
When the surf’s up here, it’s spectacular: Monstrous waves pound the beach. This is the original home of Hawaii’s big-wave surfing championship; surfers today know it as the home of Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic (www.buffalosurfingclassic.com), where surfers ride the waves on 10-foot-long wooden boards in the old Hawaiian style of surfing. Nearly a mile long, this half-moon, gold-sand beach is tucked between 231-foot Lahilahi Point, which locals call Black Rock, and Kepuhi Point, a toe of the Waianae mountain range. Summer is the best time to hit this beach—the waves are small, the sand abundant, and the water safe for swimming. Children hug the shore on the north side of the beach, near the lifeguard stand, while surfers dodge the rocks and divers seek an offshore channel full of big fish. A caveat: This is a “local” beach; you are welcome, of course, but you can expect “stink eye” (mild approbation) if you are not respectful of the beach and the local residents who use the facility all the time.
Facilities include restrooms, lifeguards, and parking. To get here, take the H-1 freeway to the end of the line, where it becomes Farrington Highway (Hwy. 93), and follow it to the beach; or you can take TheBus no. C.
Where Farrington Highway (Hwy. 93) ends, the wilderness of Kaena Point State Park begins. It’s a remote 853-acre coastline park of empty beaches, sand dunes, cliffs, and deep-blue water. This is the last sandy stretch of shore on the northwest coast of Oahu. Sometimes it’s known as Keawalua Beach or Puau Beach, but everybody here calls it Yokohama, after the Japanese immigrants who came from that port city to work the cane fields and fished along this shoreline. When the surf’s calm—mainly in summer—this is a good area for snorkeling, diving, swimming, shore fishing, and picnicking. When the surf’s up, board surfers and bodysurfers are out in droves; don’t go in the water then unless you’re an expert. There are no lifeguards or facilities, except at the park entrance, where there’s a restroom and lifeguard stand. There’s no bus service, either.
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.