XIV: Pick a Beach

One of the 101 Things To Do On The Big Island was Pick a Beach (#4). So, over the course of seven months, I made a point of visiting a variety of beaches around the Big Island, indicated below.


First things first: a couple of impressions on the Big Island beaches. The Big Island is probably the last island people would choose to visit if they planned to lie on a beach the entire vacation. This is because is is the most recently formed island, and a lot of it is still composed of lava rock, or black sand. The newest part of the Big Island is in the southeast, where Volcano National Park is.  Most of the beaches around here are composed of lava rock or black sand. The older parts of the island in the west are where you’ll find the beautiful white sand beaches. That being said, they’re all worth a visit for some reason or another.

Secondly, I greatly preferred the western beaches for a day of relaxation; some of the east-side beaches have freshwater springs nearby which makes the water a bit chilly. I’m kind of a pansy though; the water is still significantly warmer than most places on the mainland. For guaranteed 76-78 degree Fahrenheit water though, I always pick the east side.

Finally, many beaches in the northeast have very strong currents (Waipio and Pololu) and swimming there is strongly discouraged. When planning a beach trip, always research ahead of time and take note of whether or not other people are in the water.

That being said, I will start at the beach in Hilo and continue around the island counter-clockwise.

Richardson’s Beach

Black sand at Richardson's Beach.
Black sand at Richardson’s Beach

Richardson’s Beach Park was the go-to beach in Hilo for all of my friends. There are a few others in the area, but Richardson’s has plenty of space for laying on the black sand, and there is always a large population of young people there. It is a short drive from downtown Hilo, and the water can be slightly chilly. As a bonus, sea turtle sightings are common here! Just remember to leave them be and observe from a distance.

Waipio Beach

Waipi'o Valley Ocean Overlook
Waipi’o Valley Ocean Overlook
Waipi'o Valley Beach
Sitting on Waipio Beach

Waipio Beach is located in Waipio Valley, seen in previous blog posts. To get to the beach, you either must walk down a mile-long road with an average 25-40% grade, or be in possession of a 4WD vehicle. Even then, some rental car contracts forbid you from attempting this journey. Waipio is another black sand beach, and it is known for having strong currents. I’ve never seen anyone swim here, but surfers make great use of this spot.

Pololu Beach

Looking down on the rough waves approaching Pololu Beach

Pololu Beach is located in Pololu Valley, the easternmost valley in the chain that starts with Waipio. Similar to Waipio Beach, it is a black sand beach with strong currents. Just looking at the ocean breaks is likely to dissuade you from swimming. The water appears frothy for what seems like 100+ yards offshore, which I would guess means there are plenty of rocks underneath the water to scratch you up. I have also never seen anyone swimming here, but the black sand is almost like powder. This valley was probably my favorite place on the Big Island.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach has some of the finest swimming on the Big Island (when no Man-O-Wars are present), and is one of the easiest options for many visitors.
Hapuna Beach right before sunset, after it has cleared out for the day
Hapuna Beach right before sunset, after it has cleared out for the day

Hapuna Beach is the first beach in this list that has beautiful, clear water and fine, powdery white sand with normally safe swimming. It is also right next to the resort area, Waikoloa, so it is frequently overfilled with tourists. Parking is $5 and you can park right next to the beach. There are life guards, restrooms and a food stand; the only downside is that there is very little shade. The beach is always crowded because it is so easily accessible, but it is frequently rated as one of the best beaches in the country for a reason.

Beach 69

Beach 69 is a little less populated than Hapuna, but still offers easy, drive-up parking. Bonus, there's lots of shade!
Beach 69 is a little less populated than Hapuna, but still offers easy, drive-up parking. Bonus, there’s lots of shade!

Beach 69 (Waialea Beach) is just south of Hapuna Beach, near the 69 highway mile-marker. This is a great option for people who still want the added luxury of drive up parking but fewer crowds than Hapuna. It is no where near as popular with tourists but still frequented by locals. There is ample shade along this beach which is great; my only qualm is that the trees drop some kind of thorn into the sand. So, when walking along the backside to pick a spot, keep your shoes ON. Once you’ve staked a claim near the water the sand should be more forgiving. The water here is also warm and crystal clear. To get to this beach, turn onto the access road for Hapuna and continue past Hapuna for another half-mile or so. Another parking lot is on the right for Beach 69. Parking here again costs $5 (locals park free) and it is on the honor system. There are showers and restrooms located by the parking lot.

Makalawena Beach

Hiking along a lava field toward Makalawena.
Hiking along a lava field toward Makalawena.
Still hiking...
Still hiking…
Looking at what I believe is Mauna Loa off in the distance.
Looking toward what I believe is Mauna Kea off in the distance.
Finally arrived and ready to cool off in the ocean!
This is the beach you image when planning a Hawaiian vacation.
Leaving as the sun begins to set.
Leaving as the sun begins to set. Make sure you get back to your car before the gate closes!
Hiking back to the car while watching the sunset.
Hiking back to the car while watching the sunset

Makalawena Beach (pronounced makah-lah-vena) was easily my favorite beach on the Big Island. This beach takes a bit more effort to get to; there is an access road for 2WD cars (which is still pushing it, we bottomed out several times), and an access road for 4WD cars and bold locals. For anyone with a 4WD who doesn’t care for their rental car contract, I believe you can drive right up to the beach. If you have a 2WD like the rest of us, you have to park and hike about a mile to this beach. For that reason, most people pack light. However, it is well worth the hike. This is the beach you picture when you imagine vacationing in Hawaii. Aside from us, there were only about five other groups when we visited. With your eyes closed, it felt as if you were the only person on that beach. The sand is like flour and we could see up to six-feet deep. Relaxing on this beach was pure bliss.

To get to this beach in a 2WD car, drive Highway 19 and turn toward the ocean between miles 90-91. After maybe 10 minutes, you’ll reach a parking area where you can unload. If you don’t want to hike, you are right near Kekaha Kai Beach. If you want to get to Makalawena, take the trail to the right which leads toward a grove of trees. You’ll pass two “fake” beaches on the way, which you’re welcome to stop at, but they’re not Makalawena. After about a mile you reach the beach and ideally, the seclusion you were looking for. If you don’t mind a hike, Makalawena is the beach to visit.

Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay
Kealakekua Bay
One of the views from Kealakekua Bay.
One of the views from Kealakekua Bay.

Technically, Kealakekua Bay has very little sand, so you might not consider it a beach. However, there is great swimming here and phenomenal snorkeling. In fact, Kealakekua Bay is considered one of the best snorkeling sites in Hawaii. We even saw a pod of dolphins while we were visiting. If you’re willing to make a two-mile hike to reach Captain Cook monument, you can snorkel for only the price of renting the gear. Otherwise, you can take a daytime cruise to the bay for an easier, albeit more expensive option.

Honaunau Bay

Honaunau (Two-Step) Beach
Honaunau (Two-Step) Beach
A school of hundreds!
A school of hundreds!

Honaunau Bay, (pronounced ho-now-now) also known as Two-Step Beach, is similar to Kealakekua Bay. It is just a bit further south, near Place of Refuge. Again, there is very little sand here (mostly rock), but I found the snorkeling to be about as good as Kealakekua Bay (meaning pretty awesome). The bonus to this site is, there is no two-mile hike involved. You can park less than five minutes away from the bay, and as a bonus, the pod of dolphins we saw at Kealakekua frequents this bay as well.

Honomalinio Beach

Beautiful Honomalino Beach
Beautiful Honomalino Beach

Honomalino Beach was one of my last beach visits on the Big Island. In fact, I didn’t even do any swimming when I visited; I just hiked out to take a look and continued on my drive. It was a beautiful, very secluded black sand beach with only 2-3 other groups there at the same time as myself. Honomalino is located in the fishing village Milolii, which is essentially untouched by tourism. As a result, some will say that tourists visiting this beach are frowned upon. I had no problems on the hike, and even chatted with a friendly gentleman working in his front yard. It should go without saying, but I never had anyone upset with me just for being a tourist. Be friendly, be polite and don’t be obnoxious. If you visit this beach, be considerate and drive slowly through the community.

Papakolea Beach

Papakolea Beach
Papakolea Beach

Papakolea Beach is near the southern point of the island. it is also known as Green Sands Beach because it is one of two green sand beaches in the world (the other being in the Galapagos). When we visited, the sky was cloudy which detracted from the green color of the sand. Supposedly it would have looked greener on a sunny day, so we just had to use our imagination. The reason this beach qualifies as a green sand beach is because the sand is made up of tiny olivine crystals. The water seemed pretty rough here, but we saw plenty of children playing in the waves. There were also some insane cliff jumpers present when we visited. To get to this beach, you have to hike about two miles from a parking lot or pay a local $5-15 to take you in a 4WD vehicle. I would say it is worth a visit if you get yourself psyched up to see an olivine beach rather than a green sands beach.

Punalu’u Beach

One of the most amazing things I frequently see in Hawaii is how quickly the weather shifts from sunny to stormy.
One of the most amazing things I frequently see in Hawaii is how quickly the weather shifts from sunny to stormy.
There were several pairs of sea turtles sunbathing together, and along the shoreline you could find sea turtles entering and exiting the ocean after they'd had enough sun.
There were several pairs of sea turtles sunbathing together, and along the shoreline you could find sea turtles entering and exiting the ocean after they’d had enough sun.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach takes us back to the eastern side of the island, where the water feels more chilly (to me), and currents seem to be a bigger cause of concern. As such, we just drove up, parked and walked along the beach. There are restrooms and food stands here if you feel like staying awhile. When we visited, it was windy enough that no one felt the need to take a dip in the ocean; we could have laid on the sand all day without overheating.

However, the real reason to visit this beach is because of the frequent sea turtle sightings. And by frequent, I mean we saw about five beached sea turtles on the day we visited. Signs are up warning visitors to give them a wide berth and let them relax, which help you locate some good vantage points.

Kapoho Tide Pools

Parking at Kapoho Tide Pools
Parking at Kapoho Tide Pools
Kapoho Tide Pools
Kapoho Tide Pools
Underwater life at Kapoho Tide Pools.
Underwater life at Kapoho Tide Pools

The last “beach” along this island loop is Kapoho Tide Pools, located near ‘Opihikao on the map. This was another well-known but perhaps less visited snorkeling site. These tide pools are pretty shallow, so it can be tricky not to scrape the rock as you’re snorkeling. However, there is ample underwater life to view, and several mini-cave systems to explore. The parking is through a neighborhood, so take care not to trespass on anyone’s land or backyard while walking along the tide pools. We stuck near other snorkelers and had no problems. One last note: the parking lot is pretty horrendous.

I’m getting very close to wrapping up all Hawaii blog posts for now. Check back soon to see two more!


Next Up: The Final Drive

2 thoughts on “XIV: Pick a Beach

  • Punalu’u Beach sun-bathing turtles must be quite a sight! Beach 69 seems idyllic despite the thorns from the trees. Love the vibrant color of the fish in Kapoho Tide Pools, yellow is my favorite color because it is so cheerful! Makalawena Beach seems to be a favorite for you and can see why. Red toenails, white feet and black sand make a pleasing contrast at Richardson’s Beach. You take great pics!

  • I remember visiting Kalapana black sand beach in 1967, before it was buried under a lava flow. We were the only ones on the beach that day, back when the Big Island had yet to be discovered by so many people. It seems that the internet has revealed every inch of these beautiful islands to the world, and god only knows what will become of them.

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