The Secret Beaches of Hawaii’s Big Island

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We were headed to Hawaii—internet down-low, last-minute, prepaid and packaged. A “sun and sea” deal with a “beach-friendly” price tag. And I was nervous. Ten years of off-the- trail, non-American travel has trained me in the art of the quirky, the cool, and the exquisitely authentic. But I had no experience with the standard grade-B resort fare, and if lie-detector-pressed, no desire to find out. But I had already traipsed my husband through the off-season Mexican jungle just months ago, and he decided to put his foot down. “Hawaii,” he insisted, “simple and easy.”

So, with a little help from Donato World Travel, we were prepaid, packed and swirling a soda on a United flight to Kona. Enter the Royal Kona Resort, a former Hilton placed block-squarely at the South end of town, where we would camp for the next eight days. Affordable lodging in other countries—say, Portugal, Thailand, Argentina—can be immensely hip as well as cheap, but that quality is fairly illusive in most American destinations. But this trip was never meant to be swank, after all, or even quirky—it was supposed to be about adventure and ease.

A Bay's Groovy, Relaxed Vibe

A Bay’s Groovy, Relaxed Vibe

So, the next morning, I girded myself with one of the best travel guides I’ve ever used (Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, Andrew Doughty & Harriet Friedman, Wizard Publications), and we set out on our chosen adventure quest: The Big Island’s Secret Beaches.

Beaches from Kona to Kohala light up like pinball bulbs all along the West Coast. Grab any rental car map and you’ll get the usuals—the drive-up state parks, the resort-affiliated standby’s and the roadside crescents. But ask a local road worker (Hawaii’s road infrastructure is terribly under-facilitated, and construction workers abound) where he goes on his day off, and your map will suddenly illuminate in rainbow colors—green sand, black sand, stone and white sand beaches just a hop, skip and jump from each other, just waiting for adventurers like us to unearth them.

A weird quirk of Big Island living is that destination-seeking is negotiated by the lowly mile marker. Guidebooks and locals alike cite beach discoveries by descriptors like, “Between the 89 to 90 mile marker, look for a dirt road on your left…” “Really?” I said to the Boss Frog’s Snorkel Shop clerk when she directed us to her favorites, “you find beaches by mile markers?” This was going to be more fun than I thought.

The first day we set out for Makalawena, purported to be the finest-white-sand beach “in the world,” and just as elusive to get to. We found our way by taking the Kona Coast State Park road (about 15 minutes north of Kona, mile markers 90-91 off highway 19). “Road” is a euphemism of the finest sort, and a sign will announce to you—after your rental car tires have already jolted you through deep-pocket potholes—that you are traveling an “unimproved road.” We jockeyed our way for a good 20 minutes through barren black lava fields to a dirt lot, then trekked a northern trail towards the water.

6. lava islands at MakalawenaAfter 40 minutes of lava-trekking, we plopped down on a pristine beach, complete with wild goats and a few battered old red farm buildings. It was gorgeous and unpopulated, with a crescent of white sand and windswept palm trees edged the half-moon-shaped bay. After sunning and swimming out into the blue-blue water, I spied something. At the north end of the beach a beaten lava trail headed across a field of huge black rock. It seemed we had only hiked into the first beach (Mahai’ula), and that Makalawena was another 20 minutes farther. Ah.

Twenty minutes farther, just ahead of the barely-there “trail” we were walking beaten into giant piles of lava, wavy dunes covered with green vines popped out of the rocks, with a tiny trail leading over the sand towards the beach. Then Makalawena emerged in spectacular glory: turquoise-blue, lightly-lapping waters, black-jutting fire-rocks, and the finest, powdered-sugar crescent of sand I’ve ever seen. Only six or seven people lined the entire water’s edge: true, uninhabited bliss.

This would be our touchstone beach—the one we’d come back to again and again. On our way out, a small trail invited us into a grove of palm trees, where a small, sandy freshwater pool—a Queen’s bath—lay shaded inside the lava rocks.

5. Painted Church, off Highway 11The next day we headed South on Highway 11, taking Napo’opo’o road down a steep one-lane-er landing at Napo’opo’o Beach Park, with Kealakekua Bay just a few yards to the north. At the stony bay entrance (watch your feet on the big lava rocks), an alter stands where human sacrifices were once made. After shaking off the fair-virgin-offered-to-the-gods shivers, the snorkeling was well worth it, with a small coral garden and a panoply of electric-colored sea-life that lit up the subterranean world. It can be windy, though, so spare yourself the mouthfuls of water spit at you from your loved one (and choose a gentler-entry beach) if your partner is a beginner.

Having got the hang of the geography, we began making turns towards the water whenever we saw a road heading down-hill off the highway. Heading back towards Kona on Highway 11, we found an entrancingly steep road winding its way down to the water. Between the 96-97 mile marker lies Pebble Beach (Koahe Road at the Kona Paradise Sign). Taking the seriously-pitched grade all the way down the hill, we parked, then trekked onto a black stone beach just steps south. The “beach” is made up of endless, charcoal-colored waterworm pebbles—all about the size of a silver dollar—which hold the heat and made for a dreamy, sauna-like, muscle-relaxant treatment through our towels. The stones pile up into a walled dune at the water’s edge, and there’s a nice whiplash kick of an undertow that made us literally crawl out of the waves for a body-surfing thrill.

9. One-lane road to Green Sand BeachOn the north trek the next day, we headed to Anaeho’omalu beach—or “A-Bay” as the locals call it. An easy walk from a service road just south of the Marriott, we found a long stretch of pure, white sand, banking the back side of the hotel, then hiked south (left side) over the dunes and stumbled upon a dozen 2-foot wide sea turtles basking in the sun. After turtle-gawking, we trekked to the point and tumbled onto a cove of deserted beach that proved more than exquisite: private, protected, with twinkling, electric-turquoise-blue waters.

As the clouds moved into Kohala mid-day, we headed farther north through the mist-heavy fog-zone of Waimea, through the tiny town of Honokaa, and then a few miles farther to Waipio. We landed at the edge of a cliff, a lush beach valley opening up below us, barely populated by a house or two. Just north, huge cliffs spilled stories-high waterfalls into the sea—a scene right out of James Hilton’s Shangri-la. As we trekked down the steep, one-lane road towards the valley, braving the rain, a sign listed emergency ranger info for 5-day-long trekkers who climb these cliffs. This was serious drop-out living.

A couple of sunset drinks later and we were ready to take on Green Sand Beach—a two hour hike into a headwind from South Point. An hour drive south of Kona, a single sign leads off to South Point’s rural one-lane road, landing in a dirt parking lot at the cliffs. A grotto drops out of the dirt lot with water rushing furiously just 20 feet below, and a few yard away, old wooden hoists attach to the rocks where locals reputedly dive off them in summer, five or six stories down into the sea.

We could have—had we figured out to ask—saved our legs a good half hour of hiking by driving to the second jeep gate, where the trail to Green Sand Beach really begins. (Head out the main road from the cliffs and go south, then stop at the jeep gate and hike in.) One-and-a-half hours of windswept, coastal hiking later—sand whipping our faces and limbs all the way—four-story rock-ledges in black stone dropped out from underneath us, and a bright, olive green beach smiled up in a crescent from below. The chemical cocktail that created this natural wonder is called Olivine—a semi-precious stone that was deposited here in buckets and pounded by the waves into tiny granules, making a rich, dense, green color. I climbed down the natural steps of the steep, pitched ledges and walked around on this moonscape sight, marveling at the color palettes of this island universe.

On a tip from a park ranger, we headed north the next day to Kiholo Beach, off a lightly paved road between mile markers 82 and 83, just south of the scenic point. Kiholo is a superb, little-known, black sand beach frequented by locals with beautiful views and a high privacy quotient. The road is much better than at Makalawena (by now you’ll be an ace at driving jostling potholes), and heads straight out to the sea, where a fat crescent of black sand easily slopes into a beautifully swimmable sea.   Gorgeous.

Standing on Green Sand Beach

Standing on Green Sand Beach

After a week of trekking over lava fields, trudging sand dunes, climbing rocks and scampering down mountainsides, we finally gave in to easy pleasure on our last day and headed to the pristine public beach at Hapuna. Off a marked drive on Highway 19 (45 minutes north of Kona), the whole Kohala-coast crowd suns and swims here, but the expanse is so long and wide that it doesn’t seem overcrowded. At a late afternoon lounging-juncture, the entire beach rose and ran to the water’s edge to see two large whales frolicking within a stone’s throw of our land-perches. Amazing.

On the drive back we looked to the north. A stormy weather system was brewing in the hills, and an iridescent-green rainbow arched over the entire northern sky. To the west, the sun set over lava fields and western beaches, fire-lighting the shore. Suddenly the clouds parted, and the green rainbow spilled into the pink sky, backlit by a turquoise sea.

If the secrets of an adventure can be told in color and light, then here it was: the shapes and hues and rays and shifting perspectives of an ancient island that had risen to expand our sight, our hearts and our minds, brandishing an aurora-fanfare of discovery and delight. Simplicity and ease always brings its own grace, and the big island offered up so much of it, I was humbled by its gifts: beauty, beauty, everywhere. In the final moments of our soul-easing adventure, the Big Island reminded me, once again, of the exquisite earth upon which I travel, upon which I live.

IF YOU GO/Secret Beaches:

North of Kailua-Kona:

Makalawena

North of Kona, between the 90 and 91 mile marker off Highway 19, north of Kona. Look for the sign for the state park, and turn left. It’s an “unimproved road” full of potholes, so drive your rental slowly. Park at the dirt lot, walk the trail past the outhouses to the first beach, pass the goats at the old red shacks, then walk 20 mins more to the north over the black lava trail for one of the most pristine white sand beaches you’ve ever seen.

Kiholo

North of Kona, off Highway 19, between the 82 and 83 mile marker, just south of the scenic point. Take the rough-pavement and dirt road down the hill. At the fork near the ocean, veer left and park under the trees. A superb black sand beach almost entirely unpopulated.

Anaeho’omalu, or A-Bay

North again, off highway 19, turn left at the Waikoloa sign, drive past condos, and make a left at the stop sign just south of the Marriott buildings.   It looks like it’s going nowhere, but the road leads to a parking lot. Walk south on the beach for sea turtles, and continue farther about ¼ mile over white sand dunes and around the point for privacy and an exquisite swimming site.

Hapuna

Easily marked off Highway 19, north of Kona, turn left at the sign and park in the lot. Plenty of facilities and a mild, protected beach. Long stretches of white sand, shade, whale sightings, lifeguards and snack bar. Check out the beach to the north at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

Waipio Valley Waterfalls

Far to the northeast, through Waimea, on Highway 19. Follow the sign (left) off the highway to Honokaa. At the dead end in town (stop sign) make a left and head 10-15 minutes south. The road will end at the view point. Take the trail to the left all the way down to the valley-beach and take in the waterfalls.

 

Secret Beaches

South of Kailua-Kona:

Pebble Beach

Between the 96-97 mile marker off Highway 11, 20 minutes south of Kona. Look for Koahe Road at the Kona Paradise Sign (set in a rock wall on your right). Take the steep grade all the way down (about 10 minutes) and park at the dead-end. Trek down to the black stone beach on your left. There’s a nice kick of undertow at the water’s edge if you’re swimming.

Hookena

Just south of Honaunau (Place of Refuge) take Hookena Road, between mile markers 101 and 102, off Highway 11. Drive all the way down the hill until the road ends. It’s a Dead-Head-type cove beach with campers, families, and picnic fare. The beach is a fine black sand crescent with mild waves and a very funky vibe.

Kealakekua Bay

Off Highway 11, 15 minutes south of Kona, and one of the better snorkeling spots, take Napo’opo’o road to the right, go all the way down the hill and land at Napo’opo’o Beach Park. Drive a handful of yards to the right and park at the rocky entrance of Kealakekua Bay. Great coral gardens for snorkelers and an alter at the rocky bay entrance where human sacrifices were once made.

Green Sand Beach (South Point)

Drive south from Kona for approx one hour on Highway 11, take the South Point sign to the right for 20-30 minutes on a rural road. It’s windy, so bring clothing layers. Park in the first lot to see the grotto and cliff-diving apparatus, then drive the rural road south to the metal gate, and hike 1 to 1.5 hours along the coast until you reach the petrogylphs and green sand beach. Use the cliffs as steps to get down to the sand. The walk back is with the wind and half the time.

 

Getting There:

Any Big Island packaged deal will do, and be sure negotiate a rental car in your total price. Condos abound both in Kona and Kohala, and hotels are plentiful. Jeeps and 4WD vehicles will get you father along lava and dirt roads without hiking, but what’s fun about that? The lava-hike is half the fun!

 

Airport:

Big Island, near Kona: Kona Airport KOA

 

Try these sites for flights and packages:

www.greathawaiivacations.com

www.alwaysonvacation.com

www.saveonaloha.com (Hawaii and Tahiti)

www.cheaphawaiitickets.com

www.sunvacations.org (all inclusive resorts)

 

For houses, condos & share-rentals:

www.vacationrentals.com

www.resortquest.com

www.flipkey.com

www.vrbo.com

www.airbnb.com

 

Repast and Refreshment:

Fujimamas

75-5719 Alii drive in Kailua-Kona, up a small alley just north of the farmer’s market. Sushi, sashimi, duck, tempura, specials. Amazing macadamia nut soufflé. $70-80 for two with drinks. 808.327.2125 (no website listed)

Huggo’s On The Rocks

75-5828 Kahakai Road, Kailua-Kona, north of the slightly-swankier Huggo’s, next to the Royal Kona Resort. The sand-floored On the Rocks is a burger and sandwich hangout and a great sunset drink spot. ($10-12 burgers.) Java on the Rocks serves a good, but pricey, breakfast in the same locale. ($30 for two with coffee.) 808.329.1493

www.huggos.com/all/rocksdefault.htm

Splashers Grill

At 75 Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona, a great local, open-air dive with great burgers and terrific local beer (Big Wave) on draft. (About $10 a burger; $5 a beer.) 808.329.9694

www.splashersgrillkona.com

South Kona Fruit Stand

84-4770 Mamalahoo Highway (Highway 11). One half hour south of Kailua-Kona (east side of the road). Not-to-be-missed smoothies and baked goods, including passionfruit pudding, macadamia nut bars, and fresh coconut macaroons. 808.328.8547.

The Harbor Grill

Just north of Hapuna and Spencer beaches on Highway 270. Terrific old clamhouse-feel, with great chowder and local beer. Just across from the refinery (which you won’t see from the inside). About $35 for lunch, local beer included. 808.882.1368 (No website listed)

The Hualalai Grille

For a little swankier experience try the Hualalai Grille, and upscale Asian vibe with prices to match. 100 kaupulehu Dr, Kailua-Kona 808.325.8525

www.hualalairesort.com