Hit the Beach in Hawaii

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Hit the Beach in Hawaii
For many, the agenda is simple: Set down the bags and stake an umbrella in a patch of sand. But with such an expansive coastline, and an ocean that varies from docile to wild, there's plenty of beach to explore and enjoy.
By Andrea Rip, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Unwind at Alluring Beach Resorts
    Hawaii’s beach resorts can seduce even the most independent travelers into unwinding by the shore. At Maui's Fairmont Kea Lani resort, watch the sun slink over the horizon while enjoying appetizers at Ko Restaurant. The next morning, go mountain biking down Haleakala at sunrise, paddle an outrigger canoe, take a snorkeling or diving trip, tour the old town of Lahaina, or simply watch the surf. The Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort is tucked away near the shops on Kalakaua Avenue. On Friday nights, fireworks at the nearby Hilton Hawaiian Village hit high notes of festivity.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Cocktail Bars to Soothe the Soul
    Where there are beaches, there are beach bars, allowing travelers to soothe their souls by indulging in liquid refreshment. To the wafting sounds of slack-key guitar and hula, order a Hibiscus Mist beneath the enormous banyan tree at the Moana Surfrider resort on Waikiki Beach. Listen to live music at sunset on the outdoor lanai (patio) of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, on the Big Island; make sure to try their Beach Tree Smash, with its hints of pear and lime. But a trip doesn’t have to be upscale to merit an intoxicating evening: Nearly all surf shacks and seaside bars will craft rum-heavy mai tais and other tropical adult treats.
    Photo by Michelle M. Winner
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    The Fascinating Underwater Realm
    Hawaii's waters boast an exciting wealth of biodiversity, made accessible by a swimsuit and a snorkel. The rocky shores of Richardson Beach on the Big Island are a favorite jumping-off point for humans and sea turtles alike, while the island’s Keauhou Bay is a protected area for sea life that blends a playful snorkel with the greater good. Kauai’s Tunnels Beach reef is teeming with sea creatures, keeping swimmers face-down in the water for hours. Electric Beach, on the leeward side of Oahu, gets its name and its abundance of inhabitants thanks to the unusually warm (and clean) water heated up by the nearby power plant.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Surfing Laws and Lingo
    Hawaii offers visitors plenty of opportunity to learn the difference between a long, short, and paddleboard. Offshore from Waikiki is the Canoes surf break, whose waves can be gentle for beginners. Perhaps even more valuable is the beach’s rich surfing heritage, which learners can absorb simply by spending time here. Waikiki was once the retreat of 19th-century Hawaiian monarchs, who would unwind here by the waves. It’s also the home of former Olympian, and “father of modern surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku, whose sculpted likeness on the beach is always adorned with leis. Learn technique, but also learn etiquette: Newcomers to the shore should show aloha by respecting the local surf culture and sharing the waves.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Coastal Hikes
    Miles of seashore trails offer vistas of crashing waves, breaching whales, and fishermen plying their centuries-old trade. The Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail on the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline is a quintessential coastline ramble; a paved trail leads directly to the lighthouse. For a more challenging outing, hikers can cross the Makapu’u Tom-Tom Trail for continuous views of the coastline atop the Makapu’u Ridge. On the Big Island, South Point—the southernmost point in the United States—marks the place where the first Polynesian settlers to Hawaii tied off their canoes. In a fitting epilogue, it is also the starting point for a hike to the Papakolea Beach, whose striking green sand is a draw for hikers from around the world.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Waikiki beyond the Surf
    The name Oahu means “gathering place,” and this convivial spirit thrives at Waikiki Beach. Here, Hawaiian monarchs once gathered for pleasure, and the area’s magnetism now draws international travelers. As befits a gathering place, there’s no shortage of diversion, with more than 100 hotels and resorts to keep visitors sheltered and occupied. On Kalakaua Avenue, luxury brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel attract an upscale set, while surf shops such as Rip Curl and Quiksilver outfit sportsmen and women. Beach bars line the waterfront, and offer stools for travelers to people-watch with a bright cocktail in hand.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    The Towns beyond the Resorts
    Charming hamlets like Haleiwa, Hana, and Hanalei represent an island culture stripped of tourist trappings. In Haleiwa, sitting prettily on Oahu’s North Shore, the seasons guide the surf culture, bringing in visitors with the winter swells. On Maui, Hana greets travelers at the end of a long and meandering coastal highway; just past the town lie the sheltered red sands of Kaihalulu Bay and the “sacred pools” of Oheo, with waterfalls stacked like a champagne tower. Although the Kauai town of Hanalei provided the backdrop for the film South Pacific—and legend has it, inspired the Peter, Paul & Mary song “Puff the Magic Dragon”—it’s isolated in quiet beauty, proving that Hawaii still exists beyond airbrushed brochures.
    Photo by Hector Lomelin
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    Turtle Territory
    The green sea turtle is known as honu in Hawaiian. Nearly every day, several of these leathery reptiles crawl ashore Laniakea Beach on Oahu and plop down to lounge. On hand are volunteers from the nonprofit organization Malama Na Honu (“Protect the Turtles”), who educate visitors about the threatened species and offer instruction in proper human-turtle etiquette—no touching, for example. Populations of sea turtles also swim off the rocky shores of the Big Island’s Keauhou Bay, and entire turtle families play in the surf along Napili Beach and the appropriately named “Turtle Town” waters on Maui.
    Photo by Andrea Rip
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    Redefining "Sand-Colored"
    Much has been written about Hawaii’s sapphire waters and green mountain ranges, but thanks to certain geological pressures, the sand that divides the two is no less colorful. Papakolea Beach at South Point, on the Big Island, is famous for its green sand, the product of olivine (a type of basalt rock) in the eroding cinder cone around the bay. See it for yourself via a six-mile roundtrip hike or a bumpy 4x4 drive. Black sand is sprinkled along the coast of Maui’s Wai'anapanapa State Park and at Halawa Beach, and at Punaluu Beach on the Big Island. But Kaihalulu Beach on Maui is the only crimson-tinted beach: The only way to view the red sand is by following a slippery path, although the resulting photos are well worth the trek.
    Photo by Claudia Cooper
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    Hawaii's Best Beaches
    Throwing down a towel, propping up a beach umbrella, and idly sifting sand through your toes remains one of the greatest pleasures of visiting Hawaii. Lanikai Beach on Oahu ranks as one of the world’s best, inspiring devotion with its fine sand and turquoise water. Kaanapali Beach on Maui exudes an air of luxury and the promise of cocktails after a day in the sun. To relax on the Big Island, bring sunglasses and a book to Kaunaoa Beach, but be warned—dazzling waters may distract you from your reading. And when the beaches get too crowded head for Papohaku Beach Park on Molokai, where there’s room for everybody on three miles of soft sand.
    Photo by Andrea Rip