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What Do I Do on the Big Island? Loll on West Hawaii’s Sun-Drenched Beaches!
Beaches of West Hawaii
As it rains, sleets and snows from now until next May, imagine yourself, lying under cerulean blue skies bathed in healing sunlight on a warm golden sand beach, playing in bath-water temperature water and snorkeling among brightly-colored, tropical fish and placid, but amazing sea turtles. Sound too good to be true? In West Hawaii, this soothing day dream is our day-to-day reality. Lying in the rain shadow of two enormous volcanoes reaching from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in the sky, the weather year round on the west coasts of the Big Island are universally gorgeous, reliably warm, indescribably delicious. Our beaches range from wide, mile-long golden swaths of sands bounded by turquoise waters on one side and stands of palms and mangroves on the other to wee, tiny patches of white sand plunked down in the middle of town where everybody gathers to cool off in the afternoon and gaze at West Hawaii’s unbelievable sunsets. Let’s take a quick tour of just a sampling of the unbelievably fabulous, romantic, relaxing, beautiful beaches of West Hawaii. Our trip starts on the north end of the Kohala Coast and proceeds south to the southern end of the Kona Coast.
Always rated in the Top 10 of American beaches, Hapuna Beach is the premiere beach destination on the Island of Hawai’i. Long, wide and phenomenally sandy, it has everything one dreams of in a Hawai’ian beach: abundant sun, surf, clean, clear and quiet snorkeling water, shade and well-maintained facilities. There are lifeguards, several pavilions, barbecues, picnic tables, restrooms, showers and a small café. The center of the beach lend themselves well to wave play and boogey boarding, the north and south coves are quieter, fostering snorkeling or gentle floating.
Waialea Beach (Beach 69)
A perfect crescent of golden sand backed by abundant shade at the edge of the beach makes this an ideal, though little known, family beach. After about 10 in the morning and on windy days the water in the bay is a tad murkier than ideal for snorkeling, but most of the visitors to this beach don’t seem to mind. A chain of tiny islands and pinnacles leads northward to crystalline water and a long coral reef for some of the most outrageous snorkeling and shore diving anywhere in the state. A trail over the north headland leads to a secluded (often clothing optional) cove and then onward to Hapuna Beach. Although most of the shore is relatively free of currents, only experienced snorkelers who are strong swimmers will want to snorkel around the north end of Waialea, past the cove and the reef, past the sea arch and on to Hapuna–a long, but rewarding swim with some of the most incredible underwater vistas available to the snorkeler in the world. Take the Puako Road exit from the highway and turn north toward Hapuna. Near Pole 71, an obvious newly paved road and parking lot indicate the start of the short trail to the beach. Restrooms, picnic tables, water and showers round out the facilities.
The most photographed sunset view on the Island of Hawai’i, Anaeho’omalu Bay is the icon of what most visitors envision Hawai’i to be like before they get here…swaying palm trees, a clean beach fronting warm, safe, swimmable ocean and hordes of eager beach boys bearing large, tropical drinks with comical names like “Malahini Wahine Wahoo”. Here at the bay, one may rent snorkel or surfing gear, sign-up for sailing trips, snorkel tours, windsurfing lessons or scuba dives, order food and drinks, or just lounge pleasantly in the niumalu (shade of the coconut palms). Named for the ancient fishponds behind the beach from the words anae (“mullet”) and ho’malu (“to protect”), Anaeho’omalu Bay is known as “A”-Bay by locals. In addition to swimming, snorkeling, diving, windsurfing and just plain hanging-out, the area around A-Bay is also rich with archaeological sites, including section of the Ala Ali’i (King’s Trail), fish ponds, heiau and petroglyphs. Walking the trail south from A-Bay to Kapalaoa Beach will take one along not only vistas of incomparable beauty and wildness, but also reveal numerous rarely-visited petroglyphs. There is good snorkeling along the farthest south pocket of sand on Kapalaoa Beach. One can follow this tail several miles all the way south to Pueo Bay and Ke-awa-iki Beach along lava flows and shoreline, but it is a long, hot hike with no water for drinking available. Walking north along the trail (shoes required) over sand, lava and coral, to the Hilton Waikoloa Resort is an unforgettable sunset stroll, and a good introduction to the wild beauty of the Kohala Coast. There are numerous tidepools, a couple with resident Honu, Hawai’ian Green Sea Turtles. Follow the Mauna Lani Resort road to the left turn clearly marked Anaeho’omalu Bay, turn and proceed to the end of the road. Facilities and services are available at A-Bay and on the Resort Grounds.
Kiholo Bay Area
Snorkeling, country music history ancient fish ponds and medical science…what more could anyone ask for? This remarkable, beautiful and sadly popular area is accessed in two ways; first, by a gravel road going oceanward from the highway immediately south of the Overlook pullout at mile 82. This road is only open from 8 am. to 6 pm., but accesses the south end of the bay, a pebbly beach terminated in austere a’a flows to the south. The round house on the beach was built by country and western singer Loretta Lynn, but was condemned and taken by the State when it created the beach park. Swimming and boogie boarding here are excellent in low to moderate surf, but beware of current and surginess; if the surf is high, do not go in. A trail south below the big mansion on the headland leads about three quarters of a mile to a tiny black sand beach with an amazing coral garden. This little beach is my favorite snorkeling secret on the island. A 4WD road/trail continues north along the black pebble beach and cliffs to Kiholo Bay proper. This part of the Kiholo Area can also be accessed via a newly rebuilt dirt road that leaves the parking lot immediately south of mile marker 81. Along the 4WD trail, on the mauka side, is a freshwater spring and pond in a lava tube (Keanalele Waterhole), a great place to rinse off after swimming or hiking along the beach. Please rinse off excess suncream in the ocean before enjoying this refreshing pool. Also along this portion of the beach are a number of mansions, most notably the Bali House (oh, you’ll know it when you see it) and the home of Earl Bakken, the billionaire inventor of the pace maker. Believe the no trespassing signs you see here. Full of turtles, beautiful to swim and a wonderful place to learn to surf, Kiholo Bay proper has it all. In addition, the sweat required to reach it has the added bonus of weeding out the undesirables. Just north of Kiholo Bay is a beautiful, turquoise brackish lagoon, all that remains of a 2-mile long fishpond erected by Kamehameha the Great around 1810, which was destroyed by the Mauna Kea lava flow of 1859.
The site of Kona’s newest beach park, this is a lovely white sand beach. Although there is no shade to speak of, the swimming and boogie boarding in the crystalline waters is primo. Strong currents and large waves call for respect, here; if the surf is up, don’t go in. Also, sometimes in winter the surf removes the sand to offshore, leaving a rocky shelf that is less fun to frolic on than the sandy beach. Behind the beach on the north end is a small, inviting fresh-water pool. Don’t be seduced into rinsing off here-it is bottomed by foul-smelling quicksand and is extremely nasty if you jump in. There are sacred, native Hawai’ian sites and ruins to the north of the beach; please do not disturb them. A short hike brings one to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, the 342-foot high cinder cone immediately south of the access road. Pu’u Ku’ili provides a romantic spot to watch sunsets and whales, boasting a majestic view of the Kohala coastline. As of this writing, mountain biking along the trail up Pu’u Ku’ili is tolerated by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The ride up is short but sweaty, but the blast down is well worth the effort. However, one must be careful to stay on the trail and be wary of tearing up the fragile plants; the erosion which inevitably follows such abuse will quickly ruin this wonderful little pu’u. Because of the actions of some inconsiderate, ignorant and careless mountain bikers and off-road motorbikers, access to riding this cinder cone may shortly be curtailed-so please be mindful of this when riding the trails. Access to Kua Bay is via a newly paved road recently opened to the public. Park facilities include parking, picnic tables, restrooms and water. Wild goats are frequently seen in this area.
One of the last, large, wilderness beaches in Polynesia, frankly, Makalawena is the finest swimming and snorkeling beach on the island and the most beautiful beach setting, to boot. This is the amazing beach you flew over just before you landed at Kona International Airport. This beach sports a series of coves, refreshing shade, big sand dunes and a nice freshwater pond to rinse-off in. This beach is reached either by traveling the (extremely) 4WD road that takes-off the highway from between mile markers 88 and 89, or by hiking about 15-20 minutes along an easy trail from Kekaha Kai State Park. The trail goes over rough pahoehoe and a’a and through keawe breaks, so shoes are required. This land fronting the beach is owned by Bishop Estate/Kamehameha Schools and is slated to be turned into a development of condos and resorts; vigilance and protest on the part of locals and visitors are the only ways we can keep this last, wild Kona beach wild.
Kekaha Kai State Park
There is a superbly wonderful set of beaches plunked down in one of Hawai’i Island’s gem parks, Kekahakai State Beach Park; the northernmost and loveliest beach is named Mahai’ula and the smaller, more southerly, less fine one is named Ka’elehuluhulu Beach. The water is fine for swimming and boogie boarding but may be a little murky for ideal snorkeling. There are numerous small springs along the entire beach making the near-shore water a little cold. The mansion of the original owners, The Magoons, can still be seen on the northern edge of the beach. Tours of the mansion have become scarce to sporadic in recent years; if you are interested, contact the Kona Historical Society. Turn makai at the State Park sign, between mile markers 90 and 91; the road is nasty when dry to impassable when wet. Facilities include public restrooms and picnic tables, but no drinking water.
This small beach on the outskirts of Old Kailua Town is a favorite spot for surfers and boogie boarders, but also has very nice snorkeling and is an excellent place to view the sunset and picnic. Remember when going into the water here, there is a fairly strong current to the north, so stay in the shallow reef area close to the beach. Parking is located on both sides of Ali’i Drive, but can be tight here in times of good surf, and crossing Ali’i Drive can be harrowing and dangerous at certain times of the day. A new bathroom with running water has recently been constructed on the mauka (mountain) side of the road.
Loll in sand and sun under swaying palms, watch humpback whales dance in an exotic Kona sunset, snorkel among rainbow-colored fish on a protected reef or ride surf where the Kings of Hawai’i defined the sport a thousand years ago! Kahalu’u is the choice destination of Kona Coast County Beach Parks. Kahalu’u is the most popular snorkeling beach on the Island of Hawai’i with good reason; protected from the open ocean by a seawall, the reef is also protected against commercial aquarium fishing. The snorkeling is in calm, shallow water; there is an abundance of fish of an enormous variety…perhaps the best display on the island. Dozens of Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles call this bay home, eating the limu and thrilling the snorkelers. Numerous freshwater springs and shallow water bathers make the near-shore snorkeling unpleasantly cloudy, but about 100 feet offshore the water turns crystal clear and the display of coral and brightly-colored fish is nothing short of amazing. Outside the seawall is an excellent surf break that is for intermediate or better surfers and boogie boarders. There is a fair current north out of the bay and along the coast…swimmers caught in this current should relax and swim with the current, angling towards land. Most days there is a food wagon selling sandwiches, burgers, shave ice and cold drinks at reasonable prices and a vendor renting snorkeling gear and boogie boards.
Two-Step Beach/Honaunau Bay
Some of the finest, protected snorkeling and shore-diving on the Island is located at Two-Step Beach, adjacent to the Place of Refuge National Historic Park. A wonderland of turtles, coral and fish, with frequent morning visits by dolphins, this snorkeling experience shouldn’t be missed. No swimming is allowed within the Park, as a measure of respect of the sacredness of the Refuge site; however, Two-Step Beach offers a convenient place to enter Honaunau Bay. One can enter the bay either by simply walking down the boat ramp, or by stepping off the short cliff into the water. Two-Step beach gets its name from this short hop. Near the center edge of the lava beach there are two ledges that serve as steps down into the ocean. At low tide, it’s a simple matter of stepping down these steps, “1-2-OCEAN!” At higher tide, one simply leans off the lower edge and in. Getting out, one simply approaches the steps, puts ones hands palms down and waits for an incoming wave to float you up and onto the bottom step–the process is more intuitive and physically easier than it sounds. Resist the temptation to put fingers into small holes and pockets in the rocks to haul yourself out-these are frequently filled with spiny sea urchins. Always lay your hands on the rocks palms down, don’t use fingers. The best snorkeling is along the cliff edges and the shallows. Remember that you cannot get out of the water within the confines of the Park. Remember not to harass or approach dolphin or sea turtles; they are federally protected species.
Ho’okena Beach County Park Brilliant snorkeling, decent boogie boarding, passable shell collecting and wonderful camping-it’s a wonder Ho’okena Beach is not more popular with visitors. Nestled alongside the ruins of Ho’okena Village, this beach is a wonderful place to spend a morning or a weekend. Frequented by dolphin, stuffed full of pelagic and reef fish and turtles and boasting crystal clear, warm and calm waters, Ho’okena is a must-see beach for avid snorkelers and divers as well as sea kayakers. Hiking south over the hills and through cow fields brings one to numerous small, sandy pocket beaches where ocean current conditions make shell collecting possible. Hiking north, one finds the remnants of once-thriving Ho’okena Village, once the main rival to Kailua for steamer traffic, but now all but lost to the ravages of tsunami, earthquake and the passing of time. During the winter months, female Humpback whales and their babies frequent the waters off this bay. Wonderful beach camping, new showers and restrooms, picnic tables and abundant fresh water make this county park a gem. Camping by permit only on a first come-first served basis.
A true gem of West Hawai’i and rarely crowded, Honomalino Bay is reached by a 20 minute hike from the south end of Miloli’i Beach County Park. The hike starts between the bathrooms and a yellow church and is always along the right fork of the trail, in and out of the surf line, to avoid private property. Snorkeling is very interesting on the north side in the rocks, when the surf is low. The water, though very clear, is sometimes quite cold due to spring discharge in the sand on the beach.
So…now that you are armed with all this information and you’ve had the best mid-winter, beach day-dream you’ve had in years, I just have to ask…what are you doing sitting there in your cold, wet, winter misery for? C’mon over to West Hawaii and soak up your fair share of the rays!
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