Imagine yourself, as it rains, sleets, and snows through the long winter, lying under cerulean blue skies bathed in healing sunlight on a warm golden sand beach, playing in bath-temperature water, and snorkeling among the brightly colored tropical fish and placid, but amazing sea turtles. Sound too good to be true? In West Hawaii, this soothing daydream 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, and 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 the 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 tthrough the Kohala Coast beaches.
Beaches of Kohala
Always rated in the top ten of American beaches, Hapuna Beach is the premiere beach destination on the Island of Hawaii. Long, wide, and phenomenally sandy, it has everything one dreams of in a Hawaiian 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 is for wave play and boogie boarding; the north and south coves are quieter, for 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 Hawaii, Anaeho’omalu Bay is the icon of what most visitors envision Hawaii 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 can 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” to 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 (temples), 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, Hawaiian 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 ocean-ward from the highway immediately south of the Overlook pullout at mile 82. This road is only open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., 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 beach, 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 sunscreen 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 pacemaker. 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.
At Kiholo, as with other beaches on the Island of Hawaii, it is quite usual to see several sea turtles basking on the sand. If, however, you see dozens and dozens of turtles out of the water on the beach, you may properly suspect something big enough and with strong enough jaws to eat a 6-foot diameter turtle is cruising the nearby waters—a good clue that perhaps this is not a day for casual swimming.
All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan