We were traveling on the internet down-low: packaged, last-minute, and with a “beach-friendly” sticker price. I had been longing for something off-track—coastal Lima or an obscure Columbian island I’d heard of while in Honduras—but I had already traipsed my fiancé 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 Arjun at Donato World Travel, we were prepaid, packed and swirling a soda on a United flight to Kona. And I was nervous. Ten years of off-the-trekking 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.
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 illusive in most American destinations. After a hotel reservations agent pitched us an “upgrade” to an “ocean front” room (our already paid-for “ocean view” room faced the asphalt and a hotel roof), and a haggle about chain-smoking veranda neighbors, I decided I needed to let it go. This was not swank, after all, and it was never meant to be. This was supposed to be about adventure and ease. Next.
In the morning, girded with one of the best travel guides I’ve ever used (Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, Andrew Doughty & Harriet Friedman, Wizard Publications), 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. Guidebooks and locals differed on entry, but we found our way in by taking the Kona Coast State Park road (about 15 minutes north of Kona, mile markers 90-91 off highway 19). The State Park “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 dirt, rocks and deep-pocket potholes—that you are traveling an “unimproved road.” Not deterred, 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.
We plopped down on a pristine beach complete with wild goats and a few battered old red farm buildings. It was gorgeous. Only four human beings lounged about on the long crescent of white sand, and windswept palm trees edged the half-moon-shaped bay. Later, 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.
The next day we came prepared: backpacks, water stash, hiking shoes and lunch. This best-on-the-island beach would be no side-of-the-road drive-up. Forty minutes in, passing yesterday’s goats, we hiked another 20 on the barely-there “trail” beaten into a giant pile of lava, a scene as desolate as the face of the moon. As we came closer, 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. And, like the day before, only six or seven people lined the water’s edge. Uninhabited bliss.
Nothing but the bit of barely-there sunburn under our SPF 55 could’ve gotten us to leave that beach, even after an all-day outing. 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. Dreamily driving back to town, we read the local roadside graffiti: white rocks placed atop the black lava fields, spelling out initials in hearts. (Paradise is called paradise for a reason.)
On our third day out 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. That said, it’s not the best place for the inexperienced snorkeler (my fiancé), and tends to get windy, so if you must go with a beginner, spare yourself the mouthfuls of water spit at you from your loved one and choose a gentler-entry beach.
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. South of Hanaunau Bay is Ho’okena Beach (west on Ho’okena road off 11, 101-102 mile marker, no markings), a sort-of Dead-head hang-out populated by the camping-on-the-cheap, tie-dyed crowd and a host of local families. The beach is grey-black sand, shallow and lovely, but after our first few days of under-populated cove-spots, this beach was all too well-attended for our now-localized sensitivities. Old-timers claim it’s only populated on weekends, though, so weekdays might prove luckier.
Heading back towards Kona, we found an entrancingly steep road winding its way down to the water. Between the 96-97 mile marker off Highway 11 lies Pebble Beach (Koahe Road at the Kona Paradise Sign). Taking the seriously-pitched grade all the way down the hill, we parked at the dead-end, 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. Virtually uninhabited, we lolled, lunched and swam at Pebble until an afternoon rainstorm tumultuously fell out of the sky, warmly drenching us.
Back in town, we found ourselves nightly at Huggo’s on the Rocks for a sunset drink—a casual, beachside burger hang with a sand floor and an open-air oceanfront setting. (Add a little lava-hiking to your Big Island vacation and see if you care about the extra calories in a frou-frou coconut cocktail. We didn’t.) We then dodged the American eateries and wandered downtown to Fujimamas, a terrific Asian-fusion restaurant with duck, tempura, and sushi specials that will melt in your mouth. (Don’t leave without tasting their warm macadamia nut soufflé. To die for.)
On 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.
In the road-stop village of Honokaa, we found two great adventurer delights: First, Feel My Bean, an outdoor café so casual that a local surfer dude popped his head in from a next-door curtained wall and yelled, “Hey, dude—how do jet-skis work, anyway?” And, a few steps away, a funky old movie theatre in a battered Victorian building playing Julian Schnabel’s film, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly”—odd bits of artistry popping up everywhere along our trail.
A couple of sunset drinks and another Fujimamas dinner 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. Leaning over a bit, I could see three rickety lengths of pipe-ladders held together with brown rope for climbing back up.
(Everything in me said “jump!”, but freezing headwinds got the upper hand.)
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 ledges (they look steeper than they are) and walked around on this moonscape sight, marveling at the color palettes of this island universe.
After a wind-at-our-backs breezy trek back, we veered off Highway 11 for a stop at the South Kona Fruit Stand, about a half-hour outside Kona. The owners grow all their own fruit, make exceptional coconut, mango, & passionfruit (lilikoi to the locals) smoothies, and have a panoply of baked goods that made us drool. We overbought and ate it all—famished after that hike—and left with passionfruit pudding, macadamia nut blondies, and the floated-from-heaven coconut macaroons. Exceptional.
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 potholes), and pretty much heads straight out to the sea, where a fat crescent of black sand easily slopes into a beautifully swimmable sea. Gorgeous.
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. Flat and open, Hapuna is a great place to chase the sun when Kona’s mid-day clouds roll-in, and then get a taste of the swanky Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel (at the northern end), taking in the views from the infinity pool. 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. We would head home in the morning, and I wondered aloud how I could have thought to miss this paradise.
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 viewpoints, brandishing an aurora-fanfare of discovery and delight. In the final moments of our adventure’s grace, 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) 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Plenty more Americana dinner hang-outs line the main drag in town, off the water, and plenty more line the sea views.