Some of the world’s most beautiful beaches lie on a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s not a secret destination by any means. Babies are born with a desire to go there. It seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s where nearly half the people from your high school got married. Your neighbors went last year and brought you that hideous plastic lei that you threw away as soon as they left. It’s the king of all beach destinations: Hawaii.
If you’re thinking Hawaii is too domestic or touristy for your globe-trotting passport, think again. Magical, pristine and entirely-devoid-of-other-human-being beaches still exist (as long as you know where to look). So, take a big gulp of that Kool-Aid and book yourself a flight to Kona on the Big Island. It’s a ticket to soft sand and blue sky paradise.
This park is so noteworthy that I’m featuring it in an article about the best beaches in Hawaii when it has no actual beach. Instead of sand, Māhukona is a cement slab that used to be part of a pier. But this cement slab is the gateway to an underwater paradise.
Once you park on the slab, you’ll be face-to-face with the great Pacific Ocean. In the winter months, parking here is like going to the drive-in, but instead of a motion picture, the show is humpback whales. If the whales aren’t around, stick your head over the slab and peer into the water below. Because of the resident yellow tang population, the water at Māhukona is a tie-dyed mixture of yellow and blue. It’s basically the most impressive aquarium you’ve ever been to.
The entrance into the water is from a ladder on the right side of the right parking area. Approach the steps to the ladder in your best reenactment of an overcautious grandma going to get the mail. Those two stairs are slippery. Swim beyond the yellow tang wall and out into the great open blue.
The cement slab was once part of the Hawaiian sugar cane industry. Sugar cane harvested from the north part of the island was brought to Māhukona by train for processing and shipping out. Swim out far enough and you’ll be able to spot some leftover sugar cane milling equipment as well as remnants from the steam cargo ship, the SS Kauai, that ran aground on the reef.
The last time I snorkeled here was in January during Humpback Whale season. After spotting a spotted eagle ray cruising around the bottom of the ocean, I dove down a few feet to get a closer look and was welcomed by the songs of humpback whales swimming nearby. If you get to experience this, all bets are off for the rest of the day. You’ll be here trying to grow gills so you can stay underwater to listen for as long as possible. Don’t forget to apply some reef-safe sunscreen before embarking on this underwater adventure, because you won’t be getting out anytime soon. Māhukona, above and below the waterline, will not disappoint, despite not being a real beach.
Puakō Boat Ramp (and beyond)
Tucked down a residential street off of the main highway lies a stretch of beach so beautiful that the derelict surf shacks actually sell for millions. On clear days, you’ll have a completely uninterrupted view of Maui, with the majestic Haleakelā volcano standing proud in front of you. Puakō Beach Drive is speckled with public shore access paths beginning at the boat ramp and ending when the road does. For an ideal combination of swimming, snorkeling, tide-pool exploration, and romantic walks on the beach, your best access path is four houses after passing Hokuloa United Church of Christ. Yes, those are accurate directions in the laid-back land of aloha.
Puakō Beach Drive specializes in wowing you underwater with Hawaiian highlights like the green sea turtle, the state fish of Hawaii whose name is too long to type out, and the Moorish idol fish. Gill in Finding Nemo is a Moorish idol, but I’m still searching for one that has a slash scar over his eye and the voice of Willem Dafoe. Dive companies charge people a lot of money to explore the underwater arches at these beaches. But you can just walk in from the beach and save your dollars for mai tais. You’re welcome. Just don’t try to swim as deep as the divers.
A sunset trip to any of the beaches along Puakō Beach Drive will probably result in you stumbling onto a mass of sea turtles coming ashore to rest for the night. Please try not to actually stumble over the turtles. They’re protected by law, and wildlife organizations like us to give them a 10-foot berth. They’re still absolutely impressive from a distance, and I’d love to hear if you break my record of spotting 14 in one location. The night after that record, we were slightly disappointed when we only saw 12. Obviously we were being picky, but the sunset turtles are sure to be a highlight of a Hawaiian vacation.
Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach
Early risers, this is the beach for you. Like all beaches in Hawaii, Kauna‘oa Beach is public land, but the parking lot belongs to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and has only 40 spots available to non-hotel guests. Your best bet is to get there around 8 a.m. Here’s your reward for setting an alarm on vacation: a pristine white-sand beach half a mile long that forms a bay around brilliantly blue water. This beach is really the epitome of why you came to Hawaii.
Is your favorite activity on a tropical vacation one of the following: snorkeling, swimming, laying on a floating dock, laying in pillowy sand, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, or drinking a mai tai with a cocktail umbrella in it? Yes? Ok, this is your beach. You can actually do all of those activities at this beach. It’s my go-to for family vacations on the Big Island because everyone’s interests can be satisfied here. No fights necessary.
That early wake up call is worth it not only for the activities at Kauna‘oa Beach, but the limited number of parking spots means this slice of paradise will never be crowded.
If you find yourself here come nightfall, head to the rock outcropping on the north side of the shore. Here, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel will be shining a massive light into the water in hopes of attracting manta rays: one of the most impressive and giant creatures in the Hawaiian waters. Plankton are also attracted to the bright light, which in turn attracts the mantas looking for a tasty dinner. If the mantas show up, you’re in for a show of 12-foot wide creatures doing somersaults in the water. It’s like a free Cirque du Soleil show with giant ocean dwellers. The manta rays are a must-see part of your trip to the Big Island. It’s one of the few places in the world to see these magnificent underwater acrobats.