In Hawaii, there are four main islands: Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai. Each of these islands has good and bad points, but if what you’re looking for is uncrowded, unspoiled beaches with great surfing and snorkeling, Kauai will have more of what you want than any other island.
Kauai is relatively undeveloped, and consists primarily of two high volcanic peaks that slope steeply down to perfect sandy beaches. Mount Waialeale, the second highest mountain, is the wettest spot on earth, and the year-round rains on the peak are the source of the deep green jungle, the cool breezes in the evening, and the hundreds of waterfalls that decorate this gem of an island. Every beach is backed by mountains and jungle in a different shade of jungle green, and every hike you take leads to a new hidden waterfall or cascade.
But you go to Kauai for the warm, bright, sunny beaches. Like most Hawaiian islands, Kauai is divided into four sections for beach purposes: North Shore, South Shore, windward (the east side, where the trade winds mostly hit) and leeward (the west side).
The east, or windward, shore is dominated by Lihue and its surroundings. Possibly the best beach on Kauai is Kalapaki, near the town of Lihue. This gem of a beach is nestled beneath the Marriott Hotel, and its waters are protected by a jetty so that swimming here is very safe, provided you use common sense otherwise. The other majestic feature you’ll find on all Hawaii’s islands is the mountains, and here you’ll find a fantastic view of the green Haupu Range that rises to embrace nearby Nawawili Harbor. (Bathrooms, showers, and free parking are available, and there’s a nearby snack shop.)
You’ll also find Ninini Beach at the north end of Nawawili Harbor. This little beach is noted for its body surfing and snorkeling in crystal-clear waters. Niumalu Beach Park is a great place to have a picnic; it’s located very near the Huleia River and Menehune Fish Pond, an area where protected waterfowl gather and you can find some great Hawaiian history. While you can’t go to the pond area itself, you can have a great day lingering over Hawaiian box lunches, watching watercraft on the ocean and waterfowl on the river. All this is within a short drive, and often a walk, from Lihue.
Most of the best beaches in Kauai are on the north shore. Anini Beach’s three miles of golden sand are best for cautious swimmers, as the length of the beach is fringed with reef, protecting it from strong waves, and its five-foot-deep waters are ideal for beginning snorkelers. You’ll find full amenities here, even places you can barbecue, and several vacation rentals are right off the beach.
North Shore beaches are also marked by a number that are so beautiful they’ve been used for years in movies. Lumahai Beach was filmed in South Pacific, where Mitzi Gaynor “washed that man” right out of her hair, and though it is not a safe swimming beach, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Kee Beach State Park’s red-gold sands were featured in The Thornbirds. Tunnels Beach looks like it was plucked from a postcard, with perfect ironwood trees framing a perfect crescent-shaped pebbly beach ideal for watching the sunset. Or you can watch and listen as the waves crash against adjacent Haena Beach Park, which in safer summer months is ideal for snorkeling with tropical fish. And for just epic beauty, spend a day soaking up sun at Hanalei Beach, two miles of sand fringing the interior of an extinct volcano. Snorkelers love diving to the shipwreck in the middle of the bay, left behind by a long-ago king.
The leeward side of Kauai is marked by the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon. This section of Kauai is rugged and beautiful, more for hikers and waterfall-lovers than beachgoers, but it still has some magnificent beaches. The most outstanding is definitely Polihale, the largest beach in Hawaii with 17 miles of sand three football fields wide. This long stretch overlooks the forbidden island of Niihau, and includes famous Barking Sands Beach. Within the state park that includes this beach, you’ll also find Hawaiian holy sites, burial grounds, and temples.
Finally, the south shore’s gem is Poipu Beach, located at the furthest south tip. This area is marked with resorts, but every beach is open to the public so don’t be shy. In addition to the beaches on the south shore, be sure to visit the Spouting Horn, a famous blowhole – but don’t get too close! Curious visitors have fallen into the ocean, or been sucked into the blowhole. Also in this area is the gorgeous Mahaulepu Beach, two miles of unspoilt red-gold sand edged by sand dunes, sugarcane fields, and casuarina trees. This undeveloped beach is only safe for swimming in the shallows and there is no lifeguard, but it’s also the site of yet another movie: Islands in the Stream, in which Ernest Hemingway was played by George C. Scott. Traces of the ancient Hawaiians remain in the petroglyph of a canoeing man in one beach rock.
There are a few general things you should remember about the beaches of Kauai. First, by state law all beaches are public, and owners of property between beach and road are required to provide public access to the beach and some form of public parking. It is not legal, however, to visit any beaches nude; there are no nude beaches anywhere in Hawaii. In the winter (September-March), the north and west shore beaches have very high surf and may be hazardous; in summer, south and east beaches have higher surf, though not so pronounced as winter waves on the other side. And it’s wise to swim only where there is a life guard on duty. Hawaiian waters can be treacherous to those who don’t know them well, and even seasoned surfers have been stranded or drowned when caught up in undertows or strong currents.
You may also find that beaches here get very busy, even hectic, at certain times of the year. If you find yourself here during a busy time, get out to the beaches early to ensure you’ll find parking.