The Waikiki Coast
Ala Moana Beach Park ★★
Gold-sand Ala Moana (meaning “path to the sea” in Hawaiian) 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 Wai‘anae 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.
Waikiki Beach ★★
No beach anywhere is so widely known or so universally sought after as this narrow, 1 1/2-mile-long crescent of imported sand (from Molokai) at the foot of a string of high-rise hotels. Waikiki attracts nearly 5 million visitors a year from every corner of the planet. First-timers are amazed to discover how small Waikiki Beach really is, but there’s always a place for them under the tropical sun here.
Waikiki is actually a string of beaches that extends between Sans Souci State Recreational Area, near Diamond Head to the east, and Duke Kahanamoku Beach, in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village to the west.
Waikiki is fabulous for swimming, board surfing, bodysurfing, outrigger canoeing, diving, sailing, snorkeling, and pole fishing. Every imaginable type of watersports equipment is available for rent here. Facilities include showers, lifeguards, restrooms, grills, picnic tables, and pavilions at the Queen’s Surf end of the beach (at Kapiolani Park, btw. the zoo and the aquarium). The best place to park is at Kapiolani Park, near Sans Souci.
Hanauma Bay ★★
Oahu’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 Molokai 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 Hawaii residents).
If you’re driving, take Kalanianaole 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 Waikiki 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 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 ★
Sandy Beach is one of the best bodysurfing beaches on Oahu; 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 Waikiki, drive east on the H-1, which becomes Kalanianaole Highway; proceed past Hawaii 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.
Makapuu Beach Park ★
Makapuu Beach is a beautiful 1,000-foot-long gold-sand beach cupped in the stark black Koolau cliffs on Oahu’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 Windward Coast
Lanikai Beach ★★★
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. Almost 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. Kayakers often paddle out to the two tiny offshore Mokulua islands, which are seabird sanctuaries. Unfortunately, the secret’s out about Lanikai, and the small beach is starting to feel more crowded every year; get here early to try to grab a space on the sand. Another reason to come in the morning: The Koolau Range tends to block the afternoon sun. Or for a rare, magical moment, come to watch the full moon rise over the water.
There are no facilities here, just off-street parking. From Waikiki, take the H-1 to the Pali Highway (Hwy. 61) through the Nuunau 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 no. 70 bus.
Kailua Beach ★★★
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 Kaʻelepulu Stream, where toddlers play in the freshwater shallows at the middle of the beach park. The water is usually about 78°F (26°C), the views are spectacular, and the setting, at the foot of the sheer green Koʻolau Range, is idyllic. It’s gotten so crowded over the years that the city council banned all commercial activity on the beach, which has led to a decrease in kayak traffic jams both on the beach and in the water. These days 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.
Waimanalo Beach ★★★
At almost 6 miles long, this is Oʻahu’s longest beach and a favorite among locals. Depending on the swell, the water can be a little rougher than at Kailua, making it fun for bodysurfing and boogie boarding. The wide, sandy beach is backed by ironwood trees, which provide shade if you tire of the sun. On weekdays, it will feel like you have the whole place to yourself; on weekends, locals bring out the grills, tents, and fishing poles. Note: Make sure your valuables are hidden in your car; break-ins have occurred in the parking lot.
Facilities include restrooms, picnic tables, outdoor showers, and parking. Waimanalo Beach has a different few points of entry—my pick would be the Waimanalo Bay Recreation Area. To get there, follow Kalanianaole Highway toward Waimanalo and turn right at the Waimanalo Bay sign, or take TheBus no. 57.
Kualoa Regional Park ★
This 150-acre coco-palm-fringed peninsula is 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. Offshore is Mokolii, the picturesque islet otherwise known as Chinaman’s Hat. You can swim or wade out to the island (during low tide only) or kayak. A small sandy beach can be found on the backside, and it takes less than half an hour to reach the top of this tiny island.
Facilities at both sites include restrooms, outdoor showers, picnic tables, and drinking fountains. To get to the park, take the Likelike Highway (Hwy. 63); after the Wilson Tunnel, get in the right lane and turn off on Kahakili Highway (Hwy. 83). Or take TheBus no. 55.
The North Shore
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, 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. 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 divers seek an offshore channel full of big fish.
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 take TheBus no. C.
Yokohama Bay ★★★
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 Keawaula 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. 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.