Dream of Hawaii, and you’ll likely conjure up images of idyllic golden sand beaches all to yourself, soft surf lapping at your feet, a gorgeous sunset on the horizon…at least, that’s what I envisaged before heading, naively, to the land of fire and rock. Hawaii does boast brochure-worthy beach escapes, but more than that, it is home to not one, but two of the most unique beaches in the world. And as the place to surf in the Pacific, it also packs a punch with ocean going offerings. Having spent 6 months on the glorious Big Island, I was fortunate enough to spend many a day exploring the various beaches. Here’s a rundown to the top 5 best beaches in Hawaii on the larger-than-life Big Island.
Carl Smith Beach Park (aka 4 Mile)
This beach is a beauty. More a collection of lagoons than a ‘traditional’ beach, Carl Smith Beach Park is a picture-perfect relaxation zone just 4 miles out of Hilo Town Centre. There are plentiful grassy areas to settle in, and when it gets too hot, there is easy access to the sea via a tiny sandy beach or steps in to the lagoons from the lava rock. Sea turtles call this place their home and regularly come in to feed, and other marine life make snorkelling a fun activity here – though nothing compared to Honaunau Bay (see below), which is well worth checking out.
There is a natural rock surf breaker and reefs, meaning you can swim out without being pulled out to sea by dangerous currents, plus there’s a mini ‘desert island’ you can swim (or even walk!) to. The ocean is calm enough here to enjoy a wide range of activities, and in one of the lagoons you can walk waist deep for quite a distance. The sea here is cooler than elsewhere, due to water from nearby rivers filtering in to it, but it is a delightful spot to chill, catch up with friends, read a book and go turtle spotting.
Ample parking and bike racks mean spending a day at 4 Mile is a breeze. Gorgeous grassy surroundings, a picnic bench, a covered picnicking site, toilets and a shower make this a great place to settle for the day.
This one’s a stunner! If snorkelling is your thing, Honaunau is your bay. Lava from volcanic eruptions centuries ago formed huge reefs at Honaunau, and over 40% of Hawaii’s native fish species – some rare and some even indigenous to Honaunau itself – make their homes in these coral reefs, meaning it is a spectacular space to enjoy marine life. You’ll spot all sorts of sea creatures here, from parrot fish to clown fish to Hawaii’s long named state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa (or ‘humu’ for short).
Not only that, but pods of spinner dolphins use the protected bay as a sleeping area, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be sharing the calm waters of the bay with them and their babies. Spinner dolphins get their name from the way that they jump – they leap acrobatically out of the water and in a spinning motion. They are curious by nature and if you tread water they will likely come close to inspect you.
Although the water is relatively calm here, once the reef drops off, the ocean seems bottomless! When you first enter the water, (the easiest access is a place called two step, which is two natural ledges in the lava rock) the reef is only a few feet below you, but further out it’s a good 100 feet to the floor.
The City of Refuge, aka Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park is nearby, where ancient Hawaiians sought sanctuary if they had broken a kapu (law). At the refuge they could have their sins absolved by a priest. If they didn’t reach the refuge, kapu’s were punishable by death – so it was well worth the effort to get there! You can visit the refuge whilst in the area.
There’s no official parking at Honaunau Bay – just a few spaces on the side of the road – and it can get busy, so arrive early. Facilities are limited to porta potties so bring food and water with you too.
Green Sand Beach
GREEN sand? Really? Yes, really! Green Sand Beach – which also goes by the names Papakōlea and Mahana – is one of only 4 green sand beaches in the world. This natural sandy phenomenon is due to a large presence of the green tinted mineral olivine, which formed here during Mauna Loa’s volcanic eruptions 49,000 years ago.
Green Sand Beach is within a former cinder cone of Pu’u Mahana (how cool is that!) and three sides of it surround the beach – the eastern side of the cone is where the ocean now comes in. The sea here has a strong undertow and isn’t the safest place to swim, but getting to the beach is an adventure in itself. Access is from South Point road, and where the road ends, the fun begins. It’s either a 2.5 mile walk (each way) or a hold-on-to-your-hats style 4×4 drive (local drivers will take you for a fee from the car park). Due to land erosion from vehicles, walking is the preferred option.
The best way to experience this wild and rugged part of Hawaii is by hiking the trail, which follows the coastline and passes some impressive ruins of heiaus – temples where offerings from ancient Hawaiians were made. It’s pretty windy along the coast, so be prepared, and don’t forget the sunscreen. There are no facilities at the beach, so take food and water with you, and leave no trace. When you reach the beach, you have to stumble down the steep lava cliff to get to this majestic green arc.
Green Sand Beach is also close to South Point, the Southernmost point in the USA, so that’s worth a visit whilst you’re in the area. The next nearest continental landmass is Antarctica, several thousand miles away across the Pacific.
Black Sand Beach
Just when you thought there were only a couple of colours of sand, here’s another! There are a few black sand beaches in Hawai’I, but the most accessible is Punalu’u, near Na’alehu.
The famous black sand is made of basalt, which was formed by volcanic eruptions from the nearby Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park. When the lava oozed its way to the ocean, the change in temperature from extremely hot lava to the chill of the water made the lava explode – and hey presto – black sand!
Punalu’u is a nesting and resting ground for hawksbill and green sea turtles (known as honu in Hawaiian), who can often be seen snoozing on the beach or swimming off shore. Coconut palms sway lazily in the breeze and perfectly positioned picnic benches lie underneath their shade. A large pond, abundant with flowers and birdlife, and a small jungle complete with ruins are behind the beach. There is parking, toilets, covered picnic areas and a small souvenir shop at Punalu’u, and it is a great place to spend a day relaxing in an exceptional setting. Swimming is possible but there are strong currents so it’s not the best beach for water based activities, but it’s a great place to experience a black sand beach and see honu in their natural habitat. Don’t forget to pack a beach towel as the black sand reflects the sun so it can get dastardly hot to lie on!
Think tropical island paradise, think Hapuna – this beach has it all. Hapuna is regularly voted as one of the best beaches in the world and the best in the U.S, and it’s easy to see why. An enticing ½ mile stretch of flat white sand, surrounded by tropical vegetation and an endless blue sea makes Hapuna a must-go destination in Hawaii.
The beach itself is straight out of a holiday advert. This is what I imagined Hawaii to be like! Soft white sand trickling through your toes, a deliciously hot sun, deep blue waters to cool off in…it’s magical.
The sea at Hapuna is versatile; on calm days, it’s good for swimming and body boarding, but when there is high surf, this is an awesome spot for expert surfers to play – but note, only the experienced should attempt it. The shore breaks can be pounding and there are dangerous rip currents.
The sunsets are spectacular and due to little light pollution, star spotting is also fantastic on clear nights. If you want to spend a few days in the area, soaking up the rays and relaxing in this pristine place, you can rent a cabin from the DLNR (see Points to Note below for more info), which means you get easy access to the beach 24/7, a cute little 4-sleeper shelter to call home, showers, toilets and a kitchen.
Hapuna is one of only a few white sand beaches in Hawaii, and locals and visitors alike know it – it can get busy. Unless you’re a local, you’ll have to pay $5 to park here, but it’s worth it. The beach does get crowded so prime shady spots are nabbed early. Facilities include a lifeguard, toilets, showers, a water fountain, picnic pavilions and picnic tables.
Points to Note
- Enjoy the beaches but please don’t take any sand. Leave it for others to experience. Legend has it that Pele, the Volcano Goddess, will seek revenge on anyone who takes sand or rocks from Hawai’i. Scores of people who have ignored these warnings have sent sand back to the island after experiencing bad luck.
- Keep a distance of 15 feet from honu – they are not immune to human-transmitted bacteria.
- Beware of falling coconuts! One of them landing on your noggin would hurt at best, and fatal at worst. Check the trees before settling underneath one.
- Heed water warnings and don’t go in to the ocean if the water is rough. Hawai’i has all sorts of rips, currents and surf that can drown even the most experienced of swimmers. Some beaches have lifeguards (check their days and hours of operation) and many have information boards regarding the swimming conditions.
- At Hapuna you can rent a cabin from the DLNR, making the most of your beach time.