Kauai’s nearly 70 beaches include some of the most beautiful in the world, and all are open to the public, as required by state law. They are also in the middle of the vast, powerful Pacific, where currents and surf patterns are often quite different than those of Mainland beaches. The North Shore sees the highest surf in winter (Oct–Apr), thanks to swells originating in the Arctic that can also wrap around the West Side and turn the East Side’s waters rough. In summer, Antarctic storms can send large swells to the South Shore that wrap around the West Side and churn up the East Side.
The good news is there’s almost always a swimmable beach somewhere: You just need to know where to look. Start by asking your hotel concierge or checking the daily ocean report at Kauaiexplorer.com to find out current conditions. Nine beaches—all of them county or state parks—have lifeguards, who are keen to clue you in on safety.
Below are highlights of the Garden Isle’s more accessible beaches. For detailed listings, including maps and videos, of virtually all strands and coves, see www.kauaibeachscoop.com.
Safe Swimming on Kauai
“When in doubt, don’t go out” is the mantra of local authorities, who repeat this and other important safety tips in public service announcements. That refers to going into unsafe waters, walking on slippery rocks and ledges that may be hit by high surf, or other heedless acts, such as disregarding BEACH CLOSED signs in winter. Many of the unguarded beaches have waters that should only be enjoyed from the sand or during calm conditions, which can change rapidly; large waves may come in sets as much as 20 minutes apart. Although you might see locals seemingly ignoring the warning signs that note hazards such as strong currents, steep drop-offs, dangerous shorebreak, and the like, keep in mind they’ve had years to acclimatize. Don’t be afraid to ask for their advice, though, since they’ll tailor it for newcomers—no one wants injuries or worse in their home waters. Do go out to Kauai’s beaches; just use prudence before going in or near the ocean.
Deadly Beauty: Queen’s Bath
With so many lovely places to hike, swim, or snorkel in relative safety on Kauai, it’s hard to understand why so many visitors put themselves in jeopardy at Queen’s Bath, an oceanfront “pond” in the lava rocks below the Princeville cliffs, where 29 recorded drownings and numerous injuries have occurred. The site is most dangerous from October to April, but even on seemingly calm summer days, rogue waves can knock the unwary off ledges, or surge across the pond and pull swimmers into the open ocean, where they can drown long before help arrives—if they’re not battered to death on the rocks. Others receive broken limbs by falling on the steep, rough trail—which is extremely slippery when wet—or while trying to enter the rocky pond. Unlike the many blithe reviewers on TripAdvisor who happened to experience tranquil conditions, I cannot in good conscience direct visitors here. If nothing else will dissuade you, know that parking is tight and illegally parked cars can and will be booted.
Stargazing -- Any Kauai beach is great for stargazing, almost any night of the year. Once a month, on the Saturday nearest the new moon when the skies are darkest, the Kauai Educational Association for the Study of Astronomy sponsors a star watch at Kaumakani softball field. For information on the next star watch and directions, contact KEASA, P.O. Box 161, Waimea, HI 96796 (808/332-STAR ; www.keasa.org).
Keep Out: Pacific Missile Range Facility
At the end of Kaumualii Highway (Hwy. 50) lies the 42,000-square-mile Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF), which is technically run by the Navy. Lately it seems as if everyone on the base, from the military to federal agencies, works on "national defense." According to their website, PMRF "supports a variety of training exercises and developmental tests involving space, air, surface, and sub-surface units," such as missile and submarine tracking information. For years, the base shared its beaches with the people of Kauai, but the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks stopped all that. They still have a (very complex and convoluted) system whereby local residents gain clearance (through a long series of checks by the military and police department) to get a pass to the base's beaches, but it is impossible for visitors to do so. For more information, call tel. 808/335-4229 or go to www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/pmrf.htm.
Kalapaki Beach -- Any town would pay a fortune to have a beach like Kalapaki, one of Kauai's best, in its backyard. But little Lihue turns its back on Kalapaki; there's not even a sign pointing the way through the labyrinth of traffic to this graceful half moon of golden sand at the foot of the Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club. Fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, Kalapaki is protected by a jetty, making it very safe for swimmers. The waves are good for surfing when there's a winter swell, and the view from the sand -- of the 2,200-foot peaks of the majestic Haupu Ridge that shield Nawiliwili Bay -- is awesome. Kalapaki is the best beach not only in Lihue but also on the entire east coast. During certain times of the year there are strong currents and dangerous shorebreaks. From Lihue Airport, turn left onto Kapule Highway (Hwy. 51) to Rice Street; turn left and go to the entrance of the Marriott; pass the hotel's porte-cochere and turn right at the SHORELINE ACCESS sign. Facilities include free parking, restrooms, and showers; food and drink are available nearby at Kalapaki Beach Hut. There is no lifeguard.
Ninini Beach -- If you are looking for a good snorkeling/swimming beach off the beaten track, this small beach, consisting of two sandy coves separated by lava, is a great place to get away from the crowds. Some local residents call this Running Waters Beach due to the former irrigation runoff when sugar was in production here. Located at the northern end of Nawiliwili Harbor and hidden behind some cliffs, this beach is generally protected from the wind and currents. However, high surf can kick up, and southern storms can charge in suddenly. The small northern sandy cove has good snorkeling and swimming most of the year. Follow the trail down from the dirt road to the beach. Occasionally a few nudists show up here, but remember -- nudity is against the law in Hawaii and you can be prosecuted for lewd and lascivious behavior. We prefer the larger beach because of the gentle sandy slope (great for sunbathing) and because the sandy bottom makes for great snorkeling. When the surf does roll in here, the bodysurfers will be in the water. To get here, take Ahukini Road toward the airport; when the road appears to end, veer left (still on Ahukini Rd.) and head for the ocean. When the road meets the ocean, turn right on the dirt road that circumnavigates the airport with the ocean on your left. Travel about 2 1/2 miles on this dirt road to the Nawiliwili Lighthouse. Look for the two trails down to the ocean. Ninini Beach has no facilities and no lifeguard.
Niumalu Beach Park -- This is a great place to stop in the middle of the day for a picnic. It's located close to Lihue; you can pick up lunch and wander down to this 3-acre quiet area, which has campgrounds. Bordered by Nawiliwili Harbor on one end and the small boat ramp on the other, Niumalu sits next to a very profound archaeological area -- the Menehune Fishpond. The pond (also called Alekoko) on the Huleia River was an aquaculture feat built hundreds of years ago. The builders of this 2,700-foot-long stone wall (that cuts off a bend in the river) were believed to be the mythical people who inhabited Kauai before the Polynesians came here. The fishpond is located in the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge, 238 acres of river valley that is a habitat for endangered Hawaiian water birds (ae'o, or Hawaiian stilt; 'alae Ke'oke'o, or Hawaiian coot; 'alae 'ula, or Hawaiian gallinule; and Koloa maoli, or Hawaiian duck). Although you can see the fishpond and the refuge from the road, the area is not open to the public. Various small boats, kayaks, jet skis, windsurfers, and water-skiers use the river. You can spend the day watching them ply their crafts up and down. From Lihue, take Rice Street to Nawiliwili Harbor. Turn left on Niumalu Road and follow it to the beach park. The beach does not have a lifeguard, but it does have picnic tables, showers, and restrooms.
Hanamaulu Beach Park -- This large bay is not only close to Lihue but is protected from the open ocean. It's a great place to have a picnic. However, it's not a good swimming beach due to the dirt (mainly silt) in the water entering the bay from Hanamaulu stream. The waters outside the bay are cleaner. This area is very popular with scuba divers and with fishermen, who flock here when akule and other migratory fish are schooling in the bay. Camping is allowed in this 6 1/2-acre park. From Lihue, take the Kapule Highway (Hwy. 51) north, and turn right on Hehi Road to the beach park. Hanamaulu has no lifeguard, but it does have free parking, restrooms, showers, and a pavilion.
The Poipu Resort Area
Mahaulepu Beach -- Mahaulepu is the best-looking unspoiled beach in Kauai and possibly in the whole state. Its 2 miles of reddish-gold, grainy sand line the southeastern shore at the foot of 1,500-foot-high Haupu Ridge, just beyond the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa and the McBryde sugar-cane fields, which end in sand dunes and a forest of casuarina trees. Almost untouched by modern life, Mahaulepu is a great escape from the real world. It's ideal for beachcombing and shell hunting, but swimming can be risky, except in the reef-sheltered shallows 200 yards west of the sandy parking lot. There's no lifeguard, no facilities -- just great natural beauty everywhere you look. (This beach is where George C. Scott portrayed Ernest Hemingway in the movie Islands in the Stream.) While you're here, see if you can find the Hawaiian petroglyph of a voyaging canoe carved in the beach rock.
To get here, drive past the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa 3 miles east on a red-dirt road, passing the golf course and stables. Turn right at the T-intersection; go 1 mile to the big sand dune, turn left, and drive a half mile to a small lot under the trees.
Poipu Beach Park -- Big, wide Poipu is actually two beaches in one; it's divided by a sandbar, called a tombolo. On the left, a lava-rock jetty protects a sandy-bottomed pool that's perfect for children. On the right the open bay attracts swimmers, snorkelers, and surfers. And everyone likes to picnic on the grassy lawn graced by coconut trees. You'll find excellent swimming, small tide pools for exploring, great reefs for snorkeling and diving, good fishing, nice waves for surfers, and a steady wind for windsurfers. Poipu attracts a daily crowd, but the density seldom approaches Waikiki levels except on holidays. Facilities include a lifeguard, restrooms, showers, picnic areas, and free parking in the red-dirt lot. Plus, Brennecke's Beach Broiler is nearby. To get here, turn onto Poipu Beach Road, then turn right at Hoowili Road.
Prince Kuhio Park -- This tiny park, across the street from Ho'ai Bay, marks the birthplace of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who was born March 26 (now a state holiday), 1871. Kuhio's mother died shortly after his birth; he was adopted by his mother's sister, Kapiolani, and her husband, Kalakaua. When Kalakaua became king in 1874, Kuhio became prince. However, he did not become king because his aunt, Liliuokalani, ascended to the throne upon Kalakaua's death. In 1893, her reign was overthrown by the U.S. government. However, in 1902 Kuhio was elected as Hawaii's delegate (nonvoting member) to Congress, where he served until his death in 1922. This park is across the street from the ocean, where the rocky drop-off into the water is not very convenient for access (although snorkeling offshore is great). We suggest that you go a bit further east to Keiki (Baby) Beach, a small pocket of sand off Hoona Road, where swimming is generally safe. To get to Prince Kuhio Park, take Poipu Road toward the ocean and veer right at the fork in the road onto Lawai Beach Road. To get to Baby Beach, turn onto Hoona Road.
Spouting Horn Beach Park -- One of Hawaii's most famous blowholes, Spouting Horn gets its name from the loud roar created when the surf rushes to the lava shoreline and gets funneled up in the narrow chimney, which then spits out the water. (Legend attributes this moan to Mo'o, a giant female lizard who once fiercely guarded the island before she became trapped inside the blowhole;) Don't be so distracted by this intense display of Mother Nature that you get too close to the blowhole; not only are the rocks slippery, but people have been killed here when large waves swept them into the ocean or into the blowhole. The main attraction here is the blowhole, as the shoreline is mainly rocks. There is a small sandy beach (most of the year) to the west, which does have good swimming when the waters are calm. However, when the surf comes up, the sandy beach disappears. If you look offshore, you can see several boats bobbing in the water; commercial dive and snorkel tour operators frequently bring their tour groups to this area. Facilities include a paved parking lot, restrooms, and vendors. Take Poipu Road toward the ocean, and veer right at the fork in the road onto Lawai Beach Road. Follow the road for about a couple of miles to the beach park.
Salt Pond Beach Park -- Hawaii's only salt ponds still in production are at Salt Pond Beach, just outside Hanapepe. Generations of locals have come here to swim, fish, and collect salt crystals that are dried in sun beds. The tangy salt is used for health purposes and to cure fish and season food. The curved reddish-gold beach lies between two rocky points and features a protected reef, tide pools, and gentle waves. Swimming here is excellent, even for children; this beach is also good for diving, windsurfing, and fishing. Amenities include a lifeguard, showers, restrooms, a camping area, a picnic area, a pavilion, and a parking lot. To get here, take Hwy. 50 past Hanapepe and turn onto Lokokai Road.
Polihale State Park -- This mini-Sahara on the western end of the island is Hawaii's biggest beach: 17 miles long and as wide as three football fields. This is a wonderful place to get away from it all, but don't forget your flip-flops -- the midday sand is hotter than a lava flow. The golden sands wrap around Kauai's northwestern shore from the Kekaha plantation town, just beyond Waimea, to where the ridgebacks of the Na Pali Coast begin. The state park includes ancient Hawaiian heiau (temple) and burial sites, a view of the "forbidden" island of Niihau, and the famed Barking Sands Beach, where footfalls sound like a barking dog. (Scientists say that the grains of sand are perforated with tiny echo chambers, which emit a "barking" sound when they rub together.) Polihale also takes in the Pacific Missile Range Facility, a U.S. surveillance center that snooped on Russian subs during the Cold War, and Nohili Dune, which is nearly 3 miles long and 100 feet high in some places.
Be careful in winter, when high surf and rip currents make swimming dangerous. The safest place to swim is Queen's Pond, a small, shallow, sandy-bottomed inlet protected from waves and shore currents. It has facilities for camping, as well as restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and pavilions. There is no lifeguard. To get here, take Hwy. 50 past Barking Sands Missile Range and follow the signs through the sugar-cane fields to Polihale. Local kids have been known to burglarize rental cars out here, so don't leave tempting valuables in your car.
The Coconut Coast
Lydgate State Park -- This coastal park has a rock-walled fishpond that blunts the open ocean waves and provides one of the few safe swimming beaches on the Coconut Coast and the best snorkeling on the eastern shore. The 1-acre beach park, near the mouth of the Wailua River, is named for the Rev. J. M. Lydgate (1854-1922), founder and first pastor of Lihue English Union Church, who likely would be shocked by the public display of flesh here. This popular park is a great place for a picnic or for kite flying on the green. It's 5 miles north of Lihue on Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56); look for the turnoff just before the Kauai Resort Hotel. Facilities include a pavilion, restrooms, outdoor showers, picnic tables, barbecue grills, a lifeguard, and parking.
Wailua Beach -- This popular beach includes Wailua River State Park and Wailua Bay. The draw here is the 100-foot-wide beach that runs for about a half mile from the Wailua River to a rocky area north. Surfers love this area for its generally good surfing conditions. However, when the high swells kick up in winter and into spring, the conditions can become dangerous, with strong rip currents, sharp shorebreaks, sudden drop-offs, and high surf. At the Wailea River end of the beach you can see boats being launched into the river for water-skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, and outrigger canoeing. Located where the river meets the ocean is one of the best archaeological sites in the state -- a series of Hawaiian heiau (temples) and other sacred sites, identified with markers within the state park. Wailua Beach is located just past the intersection of Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56) and Kuamoo Road (Hwy. 580), across the street from the now-closed Coco Palms Resort. There is a part-time lifeguard, but no public facilities.
Anahola Beach Park -- Local residents, who love this park and are here almost everyday, say this is the safest year-round swimming beach and great for small children. Tucked behind Kala Point, the narrow park has a shallow offshore reef that protects the sandy shoreline from the area's high surf. Another plus is that board surfing is prohibited in this area. Surfers have to head to the north end of the beach to the sandbar where surfing is allowed. To get here, take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56 N) to Anahola. Turn right onto Anahola Road and right on Manai Road. There are no facilities, but there is a part-time lifeguard.
The North Shore
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 Hwy. 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 -- not 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 Hwy. 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. To get here, take Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56), which becomes Hwy. 560 after Princeville; Kee is about 7 1/2 miles past Hanalei.