The votes are tallied, and Cooking Light readers’ pick for the world’s best beaches are the islands known for clear air, green mountains, and unforgettable seaside stays.

By Andrew Doughty
December 15, 2008
Douglas Merriam

There’s no shortage of places worldwide offering sun, sea, and sand, but none compare to Hawaii. This archipelago is the most isolated group of islands on the planet, located almost 2,300 miles from the continental United States without a speck of land in between.

Hawaii is home to hundreds of beaches. Some are as easily accessible as pulling to the side of the road and stepping from your car onto the sand, while others require hikes or boat rides. The variety is amazing: Hawaii has white sand beaches (made from crushed coral), black sand beaches (created when molten lava was pulverized by the ocean), gray sand beaches (a blend of the two), red sand beaches (from red lava cinders), even green sand beaches (where the semiprecious stone olivine from encrusted lava dominates). And then there are those magnificent beaches on which you can actually stay the night.

Having explored every beach in Hawaii in the past decade to author the Revealed guidebooks, I found it hard to narrow down the five best places where you can stay on the beach. I picked one from each of the four major islands, plus the winner. Although you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of these beaches, my top choice allows you to keep a piece of tropical paradise all to yourself―at least for a little while.

Beach 5―Oahu: Waikiki Beach

There’s a reason why more than 95 percent of all hotel and condo rooms on Oahu are centered around this mile-and-a-half-long stretch of sand: Because of its location on the drier, leeward side of the island, Waikiki’s waters are usually gentle and warm. It provides the ideal spot to enjoy both beaches and Honolulu’s thriving city scene.

Where to stay: Centrally located on the beach, the Moana Surfrider (from $350, 866-500–8313) is a Waikiki landmark, dating from 1901 when it was the first hotel to open in the islands. Splurge on an oceanfront room for an unbeatable view.

Eat Smart: The Ocean House has reasonable prices for a beachfront location. Try their hapu’upu’u, a Hawaiian seabass sautéed with bananas in Frangelico sauce.

Be Fit: The nearshore waters here offer the best conditions to learn how to surf: The waves roll modestly and push for long stretches. Beginners can easily hang 10 with less than an hour of instruction. Lessons are a breeze to find at the Waikiki Beach Center.

Live well: Snorkelers near the beach may find the water cloudy with sand as waves come ashore. Boats carry you far enough to take advantage of clearer waters, where sea turtles and spinner dolphins are common sights. Outrigger Catamaran (808-922–2210) leaves directly from the beach. 

Beach 4―Kauai: Hanalei Bay

Turquoise water beckons on one side of this two-mile-long north shore beach. The other side overlooks the charming town of Hanalei toward emerald green mountains etched with waterfalls.

Where to stay: Vacation rentals are easy to find via realtors and rental companies. Beachfront houses rent for as much as $7,000 per week. For a more economical stay, look for guest houses, like Kauai Vacation Rentals’ Hale Ola, a two-bedroom guest house where weeks start from $1,250(800-488-3336).

Eat Smart: Bouchons Hanalei (808-826-9701) is a popular spot where the specialty sushi rolls are fresh and filling. Sample the grasshopper roll―barbecued eel with the unexpected crunch of macadamia nuts.

Be Fit: Several outfitters in town provide all of the necessary equipment for a kayak trip on the Hanalei River. The most popular route is nearly six miles round trip and takes about three hours.

Live Well: When you’re ready to relax, Princeville Health Club and Spa (808-826-5030) offers a variety of treatments, including the Hawaiian lomi lomi massage, which is designed to help increase lymphatic circulation.

Beach 3―Maui: Napili Bay

Giant swells along Maui’s North Shore attract surfers from around the world. For a calmer oceanfront stay, look to the island’s western rim. Napili is nestled in a crescent bay, resulting in a semicircle of calm water, almost like your own private pool.

Where to stay: Though not quite as posh as some nearby resorts, Hale Napili (from $160, 808-245-2266) is comfortable, has a friendly staff, and the ocean is so close that you’ll be lulled to sleep each night by the sound of the surf.

Eat Smart: After you watch the sunset from a beachfront table at Pacific ’O (808-667-4341), turn your attention to great dining. The menu blends Hawaiian, Japanese, and Italian influences.

Be Fit: At Nakalele Blowhole, surf flows through a small rock fissure with geyserlike effects. The trailhead is at the parking lot near mile marker 38, past Kapalua in West Maui. After 20 to 30 minutes of hiking, you’ll come to the blowhole.

Live Well: From December to April, Northern Pacific Humpback whales are drawn to the warm, sheltered waters between Maui’s western shore and the smaller nearby island of Lanai. See them via boat tour with the expert naturalists of the Pacific Whale Foundation (808-249-8811). 

Beach 2―The Big Island of Hawaii: Mauna Kea Beach

North of Kona’s legendary coffee plantations on the leeward side of the Big Island, Mauna Kea Beach is a quarter-mile-long crescent of white sand framed by coconut groves on the Kohala coast. Experienced swimmers will find excellent snorkeling opportunities among the rocks that border each side of the beach.

Where to stay: There are only 30 public parking spots along Mauna Kea Beach, which means guests staying at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (888-977-4623) have the beach almost to themselves. The resort was closed for repair and renovation following an earthquake in 2006, but is scheduled to reopen this spring.

Eat Smart: Just mauka (“up the mountain”) from Mauna Kea in Waimea, try Daniel Thiebaut (808-887-2200), a restored general store divided into five dining rooms. Enjoy a passion fruit mai tai, followed by crab-mango-avocado salad with basil-mango dressing and kampachi, a light fish often raised locally, steamed in a banana leaf with papaya salsa.

Be Fit: Golfers need look no further than the Mauna Kea Golf Course(808-882-5400). It’s exceptionally well maintained and the play more varied than any other area course (its third hole requires a shot out over the ocean and onto the green).

Live Well: Dedicate a day to exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, (808-985-6000) on the opposite side of the island from Mauna Kea. This is where lava flows from Mount Kilauea on a regular basis. (Since lava flows are common occurrences, stop at the visitor’s center to check road and trail conditions.) Traverse older―not molten―lava flows on the two-mile roundtrip Pu’u Loa trail to a field of petroglyphs, ancient carvings in the soft rock. The trail begins at mile marker 16 on Chain of Craters Road, a scenic route through the park.

Beach 1―Kauai: Gillin’s Beach

In Hawaii, all beaches are public up to the vegetation line. But some are backed by private land, making them impossible to reach unless you arrive by sea. Entrepreneur Steve Case allows free access to this beautiful beach from his private road during the day, but at sundown, the gate closes and so does access to one of the finest undeveloped stretches of beach in Hawaii―except for those fortunate enough to rent the Gillin Beach House (from $3,090 per week, 808-742-7561). Occupying a ¾-acre beachfront parcel, the small three-bedroom, two-bath house is the only home in the Maha’ulepu Valley on Kauai’s south shore.

Eat Smart: Stop at Koloa Fish Market (808-742-6199) for fresh-caught ahi or mahi mahi for beachside grilling. If you prefer someone else do the cooking, Tidepools (808-240-6456), located a five- to 10-minute drive away in the Grand Hyatt Kauai, serves contemporary Hawaiian cuisine―garlic chili-glazed opah (mild Hawaiian moonfish) is paired with coconut-crusted lobster and topped with guava lime sauce.

Be Fit: Gillin Beach House faces a lagoon protected by a coral reef. Snorkeling is as simple as walking out the front door, down to the beach, and slipping into the water. Another option: CJM Country Stables (808-742-6096) provides the opportunity to experience the South Shore’s beaches by horseback. Offered Wednesdays and Fridays, guided rides include a stop for a beachside picnic.

Live Well: The National Tropical Botanical Garden (808-742-2623) in the town of Kalaheo is home to Hawaii’s largest assemblage of native plants, such as the Munroidendron racemosum, a small tree in the Ginseng family found only in Kauai. On Sundays the garden’s naturalists offer guided tours.