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Hit the Beach in Hawaii

Under the Sea
Hit the Beach in Hawaii
Many visitors to Hawaii have a simple agenda: Dump the bags and book it to the beach! But with 750 miles of coastline—and an ocean that shifts from docile to wild—there's so much more to explore and enjoy.
By Amanda Castleman, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Under the Sea
    Under the Sea
    This isolated archipelago boasts more than 25,000 different species, making it one of the world's most biologically diverse regions. Grab a snorkel or scuba tank, and get in the swim! Two Step, just outside Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, remains a classic on the Big Island, alongside night swimming with manta rays. Meanwhile, visitors to Maui often jump on day boats to Molokini, where morning excursions frequently encounter octopuses and eagle rays. Not a water baby? Don't worry. Off Oahu, Maui, and Kona on the Big Island, Atlantis Submarines can dip you down to 100 feet—passing shipwrecks and coral gardens—without even mussing your hair.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Surfing Laws and Lingo
    Surfing Laws and Lingo
    Hawaiian monarchs once retreated to Waikiki to unwind beside the waves. The area later produced Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the greatest swimmer of his era. Considered the father of modern surfing, he once rode a wave over a mile here, atop a 114-pound board made of koa. Leis still adorn his statue on the beach. Newbies and grommets (young surfers) should learn technique, sure, but also the etiquette. Don't just blunder into Canoes, one of the planet's most crowded beginner breaks. Book a tutorial from Waikiki Beach Services outside the Royal Hawaiian: The organization continues the tradition of "Beachboys"—renowned watermen—who share their culture, their aloha, and their intimate knowledge of the ocean. Those feeling anxious may prefer the hand-holding of the Ohana Surf Project.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    World-Class Waves
    World-Class Waves
    Surfers should approach Oahu's North Shore with reverence and extreme caution. Wave faces can loom as high as 40 feet here in winter, attracting the planet's best riders to the Super Bowl of surfing: the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. This string of 36 epic breaks—called "The Seven-Mile Miracle"—keeps lifeguards scrambling, with sometimes more than 1,000 rescues and major medical cases here in a single year. The most common mistakes include rushing into the water or turning your back on the massive swells. So whether you're shredding a barrel or just cooling your toes in the surf, consult Hawaii Beach Safety website for expert tips on the area.
    Photo by Amanda Castleman
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    Unwind at Alluring Beach Resorts
    Unwind at Alluring Beach Resorts
    The hotels of Hawaii can seduce even the most independent travelers into unwinding by the sea. On Oahu, beeline for Waikiki classics like the grande dame Moana Surfrider or the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, home to terrific displays of Hawaiiana, including tributes to surfing legend Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. Need a break from the bustle? Hop a flight to serene, unspoiled Lanai, where the elegant Four Seasons Lanai presides over a marine sanctuary renowned for its swimming and snorkeling. Burned-out guests can even book private sanctuaries—wicker domes blanketed in couch cushions—sprawling in the gardens beside the adults-only pool.
    Photo courtesy of the Moana Surfrider
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    Turtle Territory
    Turtle Territory
    Hawaiians have long revered the green sea turtle—or honu—as a symbol of wisdom and good luck. Spot this survivor from the dinosaur era at the Big Island's Kua Bay, or off the sugar-white beach north of Honokōhau's boat harbor. The smooth-shelled gentle giants also frequent cleaning stations at Maui's Olowalu Beach, and head to Laniakea Beach on Oahu to munch seagrass and sunbathe onshore.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Coastal Hikes
    Coastal Hikes
    Miles of seashore paths offer vistas of crashing waves, breaching whales, and fishermen plying their ancient trade. The most epic remains the 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the Nāpali Coast in northwestern Kauai; past Hanakāpī'ai Beach, two miles in, those who tackle this trail will need proper gear and conditioning, not to mention permits to camp. Well-prepared trekkers also like to take on Polihale, the state's longest beach. Some 15 miles of sand stretch here, pinned between the rough, rowdy ocean and dunes that can pile 100 feet high. Looking for something less intensive? Try Maui's Wai'anapanapa Coast Trail, a 2.2-mile jaunt past lava tubes, rock arches, and tidal blowholes. Or check out Ka'ena Point on the western tip of Oahu; ancient Hawaiians believed souls leapt into the spirit world there. Keep your eyes peeled for rare, highly endangered monk seals.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Waterside Watering Holes
    Waterside Watering Holes
    Shake off the jet lag with a Hibiscus Mist cocktail and the wafting sounds of slack-key guitar beneath the enormous banyan tree at Waikiki's Moana Surfrider Resort. Or head half a block northwest to Duke's Waikiki, which serves up classic mai tais and live music (its Sunday extravaganzas are legendary). Turn up the kitsch at La Mariana Sailing Club, Honolulu's last great tiki bar, or chill outside with a pineapple-ginger kombucha or a Castaway cocktail—melon vodka, coconut water, and lime juice—at the Four Seasons Ko Olina's Waterman Bar & Grill.
    Photo by Michelle M. Winner
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    The Towns beyond the Resorts
    The Towns beyond the Resorts
    Leave the tourist trappings behind in charming hamlets like Maui's Makawao. It sits halfway up the mighty shield volcano of Haleakalā and remains famous for its paniolos (cowboys who once wrangled cattle on the wide-open Upcountry fields). Today, travelers appreciate the village's artists, the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center, and the superb stick doughnuts of T. Komoda Store & Bakery. Northwest five miles toward the coast lies Pā'ia, a plantation-town-turned-boho-enclave complete with a Tibetan Buddhist stupa (place of meditation). Meanwhile, visitors to Oahu can rent a car to escape the pampered playgrounds of Waikiki (with around 30,000 rooms) and western Ko Olina (with just under 2,000). Zoom up to Hale'iwa on the chilled-out North Shore, where world-class restaurants cater to sandy-haired surfers. Make sure to stop and salute the green turtles at Laniakea Beach!
    Photo of Haleiwa by Amanda Castleman
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    Whale Tales
    Whale Tales
    Some of the world's most spectacular whale-watching happens in Hawaii, where around 11,000 humpbacks gather to mate and give birth each winter. Expect aerobatic feats, like breaching and tail-slapping. The males also sing complex songs, which can last up to 20 minutes and be heard 20 miles away! While whale-watching day boats remain popular, you can also glimpse these extraordinary displays from the Big Island's western Kohala Coast or Holoholokai Beach Park. And keep an eye out whenever you snorkel or ride in a submarine: The islands shelter 18 species of sea mammal, including sperm whales, as well as the world's largest fish, the whale shark—most often seen off the Nāpali Coast of Kauai and around the "Forbidden Island" of Niihau.
    Photo by Nick Loewenstine of Hawaii Adventure Diving
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    Off the Beach in Honolulu
    Off the Beach in Honolulu
    Oahu is also known as “the Gathering Place”—and a convivial spirit thrives in the island's epicenter of tourism: Waikiki. Go beyond Kalakaua Avenue and its Vegas-style vibe of big, brand-name glitz to tap into the capital's local scene. Swing by the mural-lined streets of Kaka'ako, an up-and-coming neighborhood that's been home to the world-famous luthiers at Kamaka Ukulele since 1916. Then hit Chinatown for some bargain leis and trendy eateries like Senia, the Tchin Tchin Bar, and the Pig and the Lady. Finish with the iconic Hawaiian dessert haupia (coconut-milk flan) at local favorite the Highway Inn.
    Photo Courtesy of Kamaka Ukulele