Story by Judy Edwards | Photography by Bob Bangerter, Ron Dahlquist & Darrell Wong
Here’s the thing about Maui County beaches: we have an embarrassment of riches. Not just white sands, but red, black, cream, green, and gold sands. Cliffs towering behind the beach, and sculpted sea stacks offshore. Rolling cobalt surf, or calm, sparkling, balmy dreaminess. You can be mere steps from your hotel, or miles from anywhere. Here are our picks for best swimming, surfing, family-adventuring and everything-you-might-suddenly-desire beaches. Got a favorite that’s not on our list? Let us know!
Best Amenities » Ka‘anapali Beach
You say you want to go to the beach, but only if you can order a mojito or a grilled ‘ahi sandwich without straying far from the sand? That the ideal beach is one where surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides are just a few steps from your hotel? Ka‘anapali has the perfect beach for you: three miles of golden sand extending along the West Maui coast from Hanaka‘o‘o Beach Park all the way to Honokowai. Only Pu‘u Keka‘a, better known as “Black Rock,” interrupts that expanse, and it offers great snorkeling at its base, sunset cliff dives from its summit. No wonder that in 2013, TripAdvisor named Ka‘anapali the number-one beach in the U.S., praising its “clean, quiet, beautiful waters” and calling it “great for long walks, swimming, snorkeling, surfing, sunset [and] views.” Within Ka‘anapali Beach Resort, a paved walkway hugs the shoreline, providing easy beach access from nearby hotels and condos. The resort’s Whalers Village shopping complex offers indoor and outdoor eateries, boutique stores, and a whaling museum that will draw you in deeply. If you’re going just for the day, pack a change of clothes in your beach bag to whip on after a quick outdoor shower, and rest assured that your morning, which began with boogie boarding or open-ocean swimming or snorkeling the fabulous reefs, can end with a tasty repast of grilled local fish, a great new pair of sandals, or the final drips of Kona coffee/coconut ice cream caught at the very last second by your salty, happy, tongue.
Best Swimming » Hulopo‘e Beach, Lana‘i
The best swimming beach is the one that you yearn for whenever you’re not there. That being said, if “best” means dependably flat and calm most of the time so that you can perfect that stroke or float around on your back, blissfully eavesdropping on whale song, consider Hulopo‘e Beach on the island of Lana‘i. (A bonus is that the ferry ride over from Lahaina is a slalom through a literal sea of humpback whales in the winter. In summer, spinner dolphins may join you on part of your trip.) Once you reach Lana‘i, hop off the ferry and head towards Manele Bay Hotel, then walk over the hill to find Hulopo‘e Beach Park, a Marine Life Conservation District protected site. Take a moment to enjoy the view of iconic Pu‘u Pehe, whose nickname, Sweetheart Rock, recalls a tragic love story in Hawaiian legend. Pick a spot on the beach to drop your stuff and aim for the sparkle of crystalline green-blue that is this off-the-beaten-path jewel. Float, swim, snorkel, listen for dolphin clicks or whale moans; just be. Oh, and remember to pinch yourself every now and again. That’s right, this is your life.
Best Surfing » Ho‘okipa Beach Park
Most surfers will argue all day long about which beach is the “best” surfing beach, and of course the answer to that conundrum depends on time of year, experience level, emotional connection to a spot or favorite island, old territorial rivalries and on and on. On Maui, if you’re a beginner, you want to learn at Cove Park, in sun-drenched Kihei. Many small, local companies are happy to teach you, and rates vary. But if you’re one of those people who describe themselves as a surfer first and everything else second, head to Ho‘okipa Beach Park, just past the very distracting town of Pa‘ia. (Check back there after your session for truly excellent food and the best people-watching in the county.) There’s a magic combination of earth, sea and sky conditions here that sends one gorgeous, thrilling wave after another into the sweet spot, and on windy days sets up ideal conditions for kite- and windsurfers. Gracious agreements are in place: surfers and windsurfers occupy different areas of the break. Our Hawaiian green sea turtles like it here, too, and thanks to their federally protected status, there are more of them every year.
Best Boundary between Land and Sea » Baby Beach
Hawai‘i doesn’t have the crazy high and low tides of the more extreme latitudes, and therefore you won’t find vast acreages of seaweedy tide pools exposed twice a day, the way you might in the Pacific Northwest or upper East Coast of the U.S. That being said, allow us to tip you off to what residents call “Baby Beach,” on the western end of Baldwin Beach Park on Maui’s north shore. There’s an arm of reef that parallels the shoreline here and it creates a marvelous play place. Not only are the waters inside generally calm and shallow, but the reef top and sides are often exposed. It may be tempting to walk on it to explore, but don’t; the reef is alive, all of the reef, and walking on reef kills it. Ah, but swimming next to the reef can show curious eyes a whole world of marine apartment dwellers in the puka (holes) and crevices. A slow snorkel along the inside of the reef arm will unveil speckled crabs, tiny striped eels, nervous little fish backing into cracks, light blue sea stars, spiky urchins, and anything else trying to keep a low profile from bigger fish. The closed end of the beach is a shallow little wild world of boulders that shelter schools of young fish, great fun for young adventure snorkelers. Baby Beach is calmest in spring and summer, but is great fun all year long, for everyone.
Be Kind to the Reef
Reefs are living ecosystems. So please remember:
- If you must stand, stand on sand. Everything underneath you is alive and squishable, even the stuff that looks like rocks.
- The denizens of the reef are happily busy eating plants (and each other) and don’t need strange human food.