Are you coming to my island on vacation? There are three things I always recommend a first-time visitor do. First, take an air tour. Second, go to a luau. Finally, I advise people of all ages to get in the water and snorkel. The magic of “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the eyes of fishes” of swimming in those warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, refreshing and restorative activity. experience time and time again through the years much more than many of his other travel experiences. Part I of this series is about snorkel gear; Part II of this series will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part III will cover Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series discussed snorkeling safety and Part V covered Big Island snorkeling spots.
Of all the Hawaiian Islands, because it is the youngest, the Big Island has the fewest and smallest beaches… leading to crowds during peak tourist season on some beaches. Because Hawaii is still rural, there are still some wild beaches (for hiking only); some of them are among the best on the island.
You can camp on many wild beaches, but you must apply for a permit from the appropriate agency. Camping overnight on Hawaii’s beaches is made easy by the mild climate; I usually take a few quarts of water, a couple of sandwiches, my camera, dry clothes for post-snorkel comfort, a fleece blanket and rice mat to sleep on (a beach towel will suffice), and a small tarpaulin in case it rains. The key here is that if the weather turns really bad, you are rarely more than an hour from your car. You may want to bring a few extra liters of water to rinse off the salt after your swim; it’s hard to sleep comfortably with salty skin.
Two things to keep in mind: Although it may not seem like it at times, Hawaii DOES have tides… camp well back from the beach area. Second, beach fires are not only illegal, but very dangerous on most west side beaches.
Ke-awa-iki Beach (park off Hwy 19 just north of milepost 79; walk down a gravel road toward the ocean to a fence and footpath; about 15 minutes to the beach): a bit of walking on a lava path and rewards yourself with a beautiful beach that many locals don’t know about. This tiny black-sand beach has good snorkeling on the south side, where there is still a bag of white sand. This unique black and white sand beach was created after the eruption of Mauna Kea in 1859, when lava reached the north end of the beach, where the black sand is found today. Further south along the beach, the recent black sand has not had time to fully blend with the pre-existing white sand.
If one continues south, there are numerous tide pools to explore.
Walking north, you come to Bahía Pueo, where freshwater springs make for interesting but strange snorkeling, with large temperature and salinity gradients. If one takes the path heading inland past a conspicuous growth of hala trees, one comes to a pair of beautiful golden pools. A golden algae gives these pools their distinctive color, but be sure not to damage the growth by walking on it. Finish the hike by walking back through the a’a…about 4 miles round trip.
Makalawena Beach (exit Hwy 19 south at milepost 90 at Kekahakai State Park; at the end of the road, take the obvious trail north over the lava field; the trail goes through lava ridges and keawe breaks, for what shoes are required): Makalawena is the best swimming and snorkeling beach on the island and the most beautiful beach setting. This beach sports a series of coves, cooling shade, large sand dunes, and a pleasant freshwater pond for rinsing. A great backpacking getaway, don’t forget your camera; this hike will be a major highlight of your trip to the Big Island.
The beachfront land is owned by the Bishop Estate and is slated to become a condominium and resort development; vigilance and protest by locals and visitors alike is the only way we can keep this last wild Kona beach wild.
Pawai Bay (in Kailua Kona, drive to the end of Old Airport County Beach Park; walk along the ocean to the first obvious sandy bay): Spectacular, secluded, secret; Pawai Bay is perhaps the most interesting diving spot on the island. Walk along the sea cliffs and coves about 15-20 minutes north to Queen Lilioukalani Children’s Camp at Pawai Bay. Remember, non-Hawaiians are restricted to travel along the tidal zone and only along the shoreline… venturing even a few feet inland is trespassing.
Pawai Bay is home to a select sandy beach with a small channel leading into the open sea and exciting snorkelling. Many chartered snorkeling tours bring clients here, but it is free to visit. The submerged caverns, arches and caves are full of fish, corals and crystal clear waters. From shore, this is not a beginner’s snorkeling adventure.
Swim across the sandy bay to the channel and cliffs. Be careful with surgery and don’t go in when the swell is big. Once in the largest bay, look towards the coast where numerous small channels lead towards the coast but end in cliffs; your return pass is the only channel through which you can see sand at the end.
The bay itself is located on the lands of the Queen Lilioukalani Trust. Non-native Hawaiians are not permitted on the grounds or in the use of the facilities. State beach access laws allow you to visit as long as you stay immediately along the shoreline; the beach is guarded 24/7.
Captain Cook Monument (trail leaves Napo’opo’o Road right at the number 4 telephone pole, just 500 feet below where it exits from Hwy 11; parking is tight, but safe) – This hike is a nice hike through tall grass, open lava fields and dryland forests, opening up to one of the most pristine ocean beaches in the world. Walking up to the Monument is a lot of fun: the return is hot, thirsty and strenuous, but it rewards you with panoramic views of the coast. The 2.5-mile hike takes about an hour downhill, a bit longer to return. The path runs straight along the left side of a rock wall towards the sea. As the field straightens out, keep left at the fork and head to the beach through the abandoned village. You come ashore several hundred feet northwest of the monument; remember to turn right at the trail junction on the way back, or you’ll be in for a long nasty time wandering the a’a fields.
Snorkeling at the monument is wild and picturesque, from shallow pools north of the pier to the steep drop below the cliffs. There is a concrete marker in the tidal zone that indicates the exact spot that Cook fell something to the north of the actual monument.
Honomalino Beach (exit Hwy 11 just south of mile marker 89, drive through Miloli’i; start walking between county park and a yellow church. Keep right at trail forks, in and out from the surf line, to avoid private property): A true West Hawaii gem and rarely crowded, Honomalino Bay is reached by a 20-minute hike from the southern end of Miloli’i County Park Beach. Snorkeling is very interesting on the north side of the rocks, when the waves are low. The water, although very clear, is sometimes quite cold due to spring discharge on the beach sand.
Mahana Green Sand Beach (Exit Hwy 11 toward South Point, follow signs for Mahana Boat Launch. Park just up the boat ramp for the 2 1/4 mile walk to Green Sand Beach): Absolutely unique to Hawaii, beautiful and strange, are the green sand. South Point’s green sand beach is the best known, largest and most accessible. The sand grains here are olivine crystals, washed out of a cinder cone that has been partially perforated by the sea.
When you get to the end of the trail, you are about a hundred feet above the beach at the edge of the crater remnant. At the start, there’s a tricky spot that skirts a 3-foot ledge, but below this the trail is wide and clear. You can also easily climb up the middle of the cone, but this can be slippery. Although hard to spot on the way down, from the beach looking up, the path back to the crater rim is easy to follow.
The beach is in the interior of the cone, and the protected cove makes it a wonderful place to swim or snorkel, but watch out for the currents. Don’t go far or go in at all with high waves or strong winds. The strange color of the water cries out for color photography, particularly underwater photos taken while snorkelling.