Hawaii Road Trip: Beach-Hopping on the Kohala Gold Coast, Big Island

Updated on May 11, 2019
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The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

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The west coast of the Big Island is famous for its spectacular scenery and sunny weather. Known as the Kohala Gold Coast, this 40-mile stretch of coastline is also blessed with numerous stunning white-sand beaches.

Some of the beaches are wildly popular and packed with sunseekers from dawn till dusk; others are lesser-known and empty most of the time.

Here are 13 beaches to put on your beach-hopping list, starting with 3 located in Kailua-Kona town and the rest along Queen Ka’ahumanu Hwy (a.k.a. Hwy 19) going north toward Kawaihae Harbor.

Grab your beach towel and let’s hit the road!

1. Kahalu'u Beach Park

Kahalu'u Beach Park is best known for snorkeling.
Kahalu'u Beach Park is best known for snorkeling. | Source

Located south of downtown Kailua-Kona, this beach is a snorkeler’s paradise! A fringing reef protects the bay, keeping the water safe and calm year-round, perfect for both beginners and experienced snorkelers. You will be amazed by the colorful corals and tropical fish of every size and shape. It’s like swimming in an aquarium! Green sea turtles are abundant (remember to keep a distance and do not chase them!) and here is your best chance to spot the elusive but fascinating humuhumunukunukuapua’a (official Hawaii state fish). Lifeguards, restrooms/showers, snorkel equipment rental, food/drink vendors available. Free parking.

2. Magic Sands Beach (La'aloa Bay Park)

Magic Sands Beach is sometimes referred to as Disappearing Sands Beach.
Magic Sands Beach is sometimes referred to as Disappearing Sands Beach. | Source

Within walking distance from many hotels and condos on Ali'i Drive, this beach can get quite crowded. You may find yourself lounging on the sands shoulder-to-shoulder with other beachgoers! Make new friends and play a fun game of beach volleyball together under the swaying palms! The waves here are fantastic for boogie boarding and bodysurfing. The white sands sometimes all but disappear one day (washed away by the big waves during periods of high tide) then magically re-appear the next day, hence the beach’s name. Lifeguards, restrooms/showers available. Free parking. Extra parking across the street.

3. Old Kona Airport Recreation Area

Beach trees offer nice shade at Old Kona Airport Beach.
Beach trees offer nice shade at Old Kona Airport Beach. | Source

This large, unassuming park situated just north of downtown Kailua-Kona, adjacent to an old airport landing strip. The rocky shoreline has a few pockets of sandy beaches where children can build sand castles and chase little fish or hermit crabs. Snorkeling is best in the cove at the north end of the park. Plenty of picnic tables and pavilions for family parties and barbecues. Except for the weekends, this beach is never crowded. It’s also a great spot to catch the legendary Kona sunset! Restrooms/showers available. No lifeguards. Free parking.

4. Honokōhau Beach

Traditional Hawaiian canoe hale at Honokohau Beach.
Traditional Hawaiian canoe hale at Honokohau Beach. | Source

Leaving Kailua-Kona, head north on Hwy 19, make a left into Honokōhau Boat Harbor, you will find this tranquil beach park. Part of the Kaloko-Hohokōhau National Historical Park, it features a long stretch of sandy beach, with numerous tide pools along the water edge. Beautiful pieces of coral, seashells and smooth lava rock scattered on the white sands (warning: there’s a hefty fine for removing objects from a National Park!). Green sea turtles can be seen basking on the beach. Take the short hiking trail to go see a heiau (ancient temple) and some interesting archeological sites and petroglyphs (rock carvings). No lifeguards, no restrooms. Free parking.

5. Mahai'ula Beach

Beautiful sands, surf and shade at Mahai'ula Beach.
Beautiful sands, surf and shade at Mahai'ula Beach. | Source

About 2 miles after passing Kona International Airport, look for the sign Kehaka Kai State Park and make a left turn from the highway. Follow the long, bumpy road to the beach parking lot. This sleepy, quiet beach attracts an equally sedated crowd. No need to schlep a beach umbrella because it has plenty of shade, thanks to the lush naupaka bushes and kiawe trees thriving along the shoreline. Chill out with a book or take a leisurely nap! The shimmering crystal clear water is perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Watch out for strong rip currents during high surf season (Dec-Jan). No lifeguards, no restrooms. Free parking.

6. Makalawena Beach

Part of Kehaka Kai State Park, Makalawena Beach is never crowded!
Part of Kehaka Kai State Park, Makalawena Beach is never crowded! | Source

From Mahai’ula Beach, a 20-minute hike over the hot, barren lava field will take you to Makalawena Beach. (It's worth the trek!) Relatively secluded and almost always empty, this gorgeous crescent-shaped beach has blindingly white sands and gently rolling surfs ideal for sunbathing, boogieboarding and everything else in between! Whether you want to frolic in the waves or pretend to be a castaway on a deserted island, you will most likely have this beach to yourself! Bring plenty of water/snacks if you plan to spend the whole day here and be sure to leave nothing behind but footprints. No lifeguards, no restrooms. Free parking.

7. Manini'owali Beach (Kua Bay)

Fun and exciting boogie boarding at Kua Bay.
Fun and exciting boogie boarding at Kua Bay. | Source

Continue driving north on Hwy 19, next stop is the amazing Kua Bay! Recently undergone some construction updates, it now offers full restroom/shower facilities and stairs for easy beach access. It’s one of the best swimming beaches on the Big Island, with incredible soft white sands and calm water during the summer months. Consistent shore breaks also make boogie boarding and bodysurfing highly popular here. However, in the winter (Dec-Jan), the waves can be massive and dangerous! On clear days, enjoy a panoramic view of the neighboring island Mau’i across the ocean. Breaching humpback whales and dolphins are often spotted from the beach. No lifeguards. Free parking.

8. Kuki'o Beach (Four Seasons Hualalai Resort)

The sheltered lagoon at Kuki'o Beach.
The sheltered lagoon at Kuki'o Beach. | Source

Stop at the security station at the resort entrance, and you will be directed to the beach public parking lot. A paved walking path leads you to the beach area which comprises of a large somewhat rocky beach and a small sheltered lagoon. Families usually prefer the lagoon, so the kids can play and swim in the shallow sandy-bottom water. The rocky beach is for adventurous adults who want to snorkel or paddle board in the bay. Getting into the water can be a challenge because of the submerged lava rocks. Reef shoes are highly recommended. Restrooms/showers available. No lifeguards. Free parking.

9. Anaeho'omalu Beach (A-Bay)

Cluster of coconut palms hugs the shoreline at A-Bay.
Cluster of coconut palms hugs the shoreline at A-Bay. | Source

This picturesque beach is known for the unique salt-and-pepper sands (white sands mixed with tiny bits of black lava) and a historic Hawaiian fishpond located behind the beach. Swimming, snorkeling, or daydreaming are the favorite beach activities here. It’s also a hot spot for newlyweds to take photos, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself surrounded by some blissful bride and groom and their entire wedding party! Cheer them on with a mai tai from the nearby Lava Lava Beach Club. No lifeguards. Restrooms/showers available. Free parking.

10. Beach 69 (Waialea Beach)

Beach 69 is named after the number on a telephone pole located near the beach.
Beach 69 is named after the number on a telephone pole located near the beach. | Source

From Hwy 19, take the Puako exit, then follow the winding dirt road to the parking lot. This is yet another splendid beach blessed with plenty of shade and exceptional calm water for swimming. A strip of sandy beach (lots of seashells!) nestles under the kiawe trees and framed by rugged rock outcrops on each end. Snorkeling is excellent around the lava rock mound in the middle of the bay. Pitch a hammock, lay back and let all your worries melt away! Many local families come here in the weekends. Picnic tables, restrooms/showers available. Free parking.

11. Hāpuna Beach

Hapuna Beach is the favorite beach among locals and visitors.
Hapuna Beach is the favorite beach among locals and visitors. | Source

Hāpuna Beach is the largest and perhaps the most famous beach on the Big Island. It’s been voted many times as one of the best beaches in the world! The wide half-mile long beach is covered with heavenly soft white sands for you to sink your toes in. Clear turquoise water and steady surf keep swimmers and boogie boarders very happy! It’s also the best beach to people watch. Take a stroll along the beach and see if you could spot any celebrities on vacation. During high surf periods, with huge waves pounding the beach and powerful rip currents, the lifeguards will keep everyone from venturing near the water! Food/drink vendors, restrooms/showers, picnic pavilions available. Parking fee $5 for visitors, free for locals.

12. Mauna Kea Beach

Quiet early morning at Mauna Kea Beach before the crowd arrives.
Quiet early morning at Mauna Kea Beach before the crowd arrives. | Source

Continue driving on Hwy 19 heading north, next stop is Mauna Kea Beach. Part of a luxury hotel, this breathtaking beach has the look of a classic Hawaii postcard: aqua blue water, powdery white sand, languid palms and flowering plumeria along the beachfront. Swimming is excellent here, you feel like you’re floating in a giant infinity pool! On clear winter days (Dec-Jan), you will be able to see the majestic Mauna Kea volcano from the beach, with its snow-covered summit. Lifeguards (only at beach’s north end), restrooms/showers available. Must stop by the security station at the hotel entrance to get a free parking permit. Parking spaces are minimal, so come early in the day.

13. Spencer Beach Park

A lazy afternoon at Spencer Beach Park.
A lazy afternoon at Spencer Beach Park. | Source

Drive one mile after passing the intersection of Hwy 19 and Hwy 270, then turn left at the park entrance. Sits on a bay just south of Kawaihae Harbor, this serene park features a lovely golden sand beach, with gentle waves lapping at the shoreline. Enjoy the laidback atmosphere and friendly local vibe here. Lots of shady areas to spread out your beach towel. If you need to escape the crowd or want to spend time alone contemplating life (“Should I quit my job and move to Hawaii?”), this beach is for you! Lifeguards, restrooms/showers, picnic tables available. Free parking. Tent camping is allowed with a paid permit. Don’t forget to visit the Puukohala Heiau National Historic Site located next to this park.

Sunset over the tide pools at Old Kona Airport Beach.
Sunset over the tide pools at Old Kona Airport Beach. | Source

All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone 6.

What are your favorite beach activities?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Viet Doan

    Comments

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      • punacoast profile imageAUTHOR

        Viet Doan 

        6 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

        Aloha Linda! Yes, I hope it will be useful for all the beach hoppers visiting the island. Thank you!

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Your photos are wonderful, Viet. This is an excellent guide for people who want to visit the beaches. It's very useful.

      • punacoast profile imageAUTHOR

        Viet Doan 

        6 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

        Thank you Liz, so glad you like the first photo! The beaches on this side of the island are so diverse. There's a beach for every type of visitor! Aloha.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 months ago from UK

        This is an incredibly well-illustrated article. I especially liked the first photo. This is a great beach guide.

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