he most heavily populated and cosmopolitan of Hawaii’s islands, there is something for everyone on O’ahu. You can watch the giant waves curl in on the North Shore or soak up the sun on the most famous beach in the world. Go diving, paddle an outrigger, learn to hula, golf your heart out. Charter a boat and go catch your dinner.
Or you can take a nature hike; ride a horse; swim under a waterfall; browse antique shops, galleries, boutiques & museums. Spend an evening at the opera, slurp shave ice; eat some seaweed; dance till dawn; catch a rainbow and put it in your pocket for a rainy day.
But when most people think of Hawai’i they think of tropical beaches, and O’ahu has more than its fair share of beaches to explore along its 112 miles of shoreline. From busy Honolulu all the way around the island to the isolated Makaha/Wai’anae coast, O’ahu is a beach lover’s paradise!
Here is a list of some of our favorites.
–The calm southern shores, and curving around the windward (east) coast:
ALA MOANA BEACH PARK: Across the street from the Ala Moana Shopping Center is the great Ala Moana Beach Park, a mecca for local families on the weekends and holidays. Snorkeling, swimming, volleyball, lap swimming, sunning, showers, phones… This park has it all. For the best photos of Diamond Head, go out to Magic Island. For a peaceful nap, find some shade under one of the big old trees and stretch out: no one will bother you. Honolulu’s favorite!
WAIKIKI BEACH: Actually several beaches (including, from east to west, San Souci Beach, Kapiolani Beach Park, Kuhio Beach Park, Fort DeRussy, and Kahanamoku Beach and Lagoon) commonly grouped together under one name, this is one of the most famous beaches in the world. Safe for swimming and snorkeling; a favorite with keiki (children) learning to surf and swim. Usually crowded in high season, less so in the summer, it is lined by hotels and resorts and anchored by the iconic view of Diamond Head to its east. Here you will still find beach boys, and you can watch surfers lining up for the morning sets not far offshore. As “commercialized” as Waikiki may be, there’s no question that you are indeed in Hawai’i!
HANAUMA BAY NATURE PRESERVE: Just east of Waikiki, this is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Island and its coral and marine life have suffered due to its popularity. Today visitors are limited to the number of cars that fit in the parking lot; once the lot is full, everyone else is turned away. Visitors are required to watch a short film and receive instruction about conservation of the Bay’s resources at the Marine Education Center at the entrance to the bay. Upon watching the film, visitors are allowed to sign a form and skip any subsequent film if they should return within the following 365 days. Hanauma Bay is famous for snorkeling and its wonderful beach and turqouise water are reason enough to visit. There are showers and phones, and a small charge to get in, but it’s definitely worth it! Closed on Tuesdays to give the fish a rest.
SANDY’S BEACH: Usually seen on maps and in literature as “Sandy Beach”, but originally the possessive “Sandy’s”. Just 10 minutes past Hanauma Bay, ocean at this popular beach is for experts only. It’s a great spot for bodysurfing and boogie boarding and people-watching. Strong undertows and big waves. Beautiful! (But do stay up on the beach and watch — don’t go swimming unless you are a real pro, ’cause the waves will slap you silly). Showers and phones.
WAIMANALO: Stretching nearly 5.5 mi (8.8 km), this is the longest stretch of sandy shoreline on O’ahu and is ideal for swimming, boogie boarding and bodysurfing, or just for a picnic and lying around on the soft white sand of Waimanalo Beach Park. This is one of the most popular beaches on the island for locals, and it can get pretty crowded on weekends.
LANIKAI: Often voted one of the world’s best beaches, (and the best beach in the U.S.A. by Dr. Beach) Lanikai is not only beautiful but is perfectly peaceful. A rather narrow beach with beautiful sand and water that changes from nearly emerald to deepest cobalt, there are some residences that border it and it is not heavily used. A lot of model shoots are done here. Good for windsurfing, beginner body-boarding, swimming, picnics and snapshots and everything else. A perfect tropical beach.
KAILUA: Just around the corner from Lanikai, Kailua Beach has two miles of gently sloping white sand. It is often cited as Hawaii’s best beach. Very popular with locals and military families, on weekdays while the keiki are in school you can sometimes have this beach almost all to yourself. Lots of beauty to explore; beginner body surfing; windsurfing; impromptu hula and mele. Lots of hand-holding going on here in the evening. Note that local residents, not wanting Kailua to turn into another Waikiki, managed to get all commercial activity — everything from yoga classes to Segways or renting a kayak — banned from the beach park. It is much more peaceful as a result. Showers and phones.
KUALOA: A nice place with showers, phones and good beginner’s snorkeling, this is a rather narrow beach with shallow water for safe swimming, and the Ko’olau mountains rising majestically just across the road. Very good view of Mokolii (Chinaman’s Hat) islet. Great for picture taking.
PUNALU’U: A lovely stretch of white sand fronting a few condo buildings, this is a wild-feeling place. Lovely to spend the day at, great for romance, but not the best for swimming.
HAU’ULA: Another wild place, never very crowded but popular with the locals for picnicking, fishing and just hanging out. It has a narrow beach with a shallow reef that makes for poor swimming conditions, but on calm days the snorkeling is good.
–NORTH SHORE BEACHES:
SUNSET BEACH: Beautiful white sand and sunsets. One of the great surfing spots in the winter when the surf is up, with dangerous shore breaks and strong currents, it is for experts only. Great for lying around and people watching and strolling. Generally speaking, the water is flat as a lake in the summers and has waves in the winters. Sunset Beach is home to the Duke Kahanamoku Classic surfing competition and the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing competition. An hour from Waikiki. It helps if you speak surferese…
BANZAI PIPELINE (Ehukai Beach Park): Just past Sunset Beach, you’ll find showers here as well as phones and other nearby amenities. This is a great professional surfing location in the winter when the surf is up: waves can get up to 30 ft. and more, and it’s very dangerous. A wide stretch of beach, perfect for strolling, sunning, people watching. Rarely crowded in summer, when the water is calmer.
WAIMEA BAY: Just past Banzai, about an hour’s drive from Waikiki, this is another famous surfing capital in the winter, with a dangerous shore break and monster waves. The famous Waimea Park is just inland of here, with its waterfalls and other wonders. Go to both places. Showers and phones.
HALE’IWA: A very nice beach park with all the facilities and the added bonus of historic Hale’iwa Town to explore. Picnicking, snorkeling, swimming, windsurfing — etc., etc., etc. Be careful during the winter when the water is rough: this is North Shore, where the waves are legendary and dangerous.
–ALONG THE WAI’ANAE COAST: Along the Wai’anae coastal area on O’ahu’s leeward (western) side you will see hand-written signs on light poles directing friends to backyard lu’aus, and big birthday or wedding parties being set up on the beach on weekends. This area of the island is perhaps the closest you will come on O’ahu to feeling that you are in a foreign country. It is truly a wonderful part of the island with beaches that are wide, long and beautiful and if you like a little isolation and a lot of local flavor, this is where to go.
MAKAHA BEACH PARK: Makaha is a fabulous beach heavily used by local families for picnics on weekends. Most of the time it is not crowded. Makaha means “fierce” and during the Winter (and sometimes in Summer) high surf makes swimming dangerous with waves often averaging fifteen feet and sometimes peaking as high as thirty feet plus. That is not a time for swimmers to be in the ocean at all, but surfers love it. Be sure to check with a lifeguard to find out where the rip and other potential hazards are located. The center of this beach is the best place for swimming when conditions permit. Also be sure to bring plenty of water, sun screen, snacks and a way to make your own shade; it’s hot and dry on this side of the island and services are limited.
KO ‘OLINA: Toward the southern edge of the Wai’anae Coast — near Paradise Cove, Germaine’s Luau and Barber’s Point — is where you’ll find the Ko ‘Olina Resort. There are four man-made lagoons here, three reserved for resort guests and one, Ko ‘Olina Beach Park, for the public. Kept as clean as a whistle, the sand at these sunny beaches is white and beautiful, and they are perfect for snorkeling and swimming (especially for children) with water that is crystal clear. The parking stalls in the public lot generally fill up quickly, but you can park at the marina for $10 and it might be worth the money to do that.
So discover for yourself the many beaches of O’ahu! Whether you like excitement with your vacation or just to kick back on a deserted beach, this is the Island for you!
NOTE: Always be careful around the mighty Pacific! Water and surf conditions can change not only from day to day, but from hour to hour and there is always a chance of riptides and other dangerous conditions. Ask a lifeguard if it’s safe to swim, or if there is no lifeguard use your common sense. There is a saying: “Never turn your back on the ocean.” It’s a good thing to remember!
Hawaii’s southern shores are generally calm as a lake in the winter, while the north and west shores have rough surf and riptides. The opposite is true in the summer. To be safe, always choose a beach with a lifeguard and obey the posted signs: they’re there for a good reason!
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