Bodyboard the surf, snorkel the reef, kayak the coast: Islanders reveal irresistible gateways to tropical adventures
Josh Wills loves getting tubed in the surf. As a three-time U.S. bodyboarding champ, the Hawaii native has become a fixture at world-class breaks around the Islands. And even though he has traveled the world in search of perfect waves, he’d rather ride in Hawaii than anywhere else. “You’ve got so many different kinds of waves,” Wills says. “You’ve got the perfect barrels at Pipeline and the heavy waves at Sandy Beach. It’s like a giant amusement park for me.” Wills got an early start on the surfing life. “I used to ride with my dad, and he pushed me into waves,” Wills says. He has surfed at most of the serious breaks around Hawaii, from the North Shore of Kauai to clear blue barrels on Oahu’s Makaha Coast, his own backyard.
“Bodyboarders have more fun,” says Wills. Especially in Hawaii, which has the most consistent waves of anyplace in the Pacific. While beginner breaks for surfing are generally packed, beginner bodyboarding breaks are seldom shared by more than 10 people. A perfect wave for novices, says Wills, gently washes over either soft sand or, at the least, rounded rocks. It should break slowly to the left or the right ― surf that pounds directly onto sand can be fun when small but dangerous when bigger. “Bodyboarding here always puts a smile on my face,” Wills says. “You get a feeling out in the lineup with the people and the ocean and the sky that you just don’t get anywhere else.”
- Wear a rash guard to protect your chest and arms. Though a bodyboard is slippery, hours of rubbing can cause rashes.
- Use short, bodyboarding swim fins to kick into waves. It’s difficult to catch a ride without them.
- Practice the basics at beaches with lifeguards, who can advise on local conditions and safety.
- Before you drop in, look both ways to make sure no one else is on the wave.
Check surf shops listed for other beginner breaks.
The sandy cove in Po`ipu Beach Park has launched the bodyboarding careers of many Kauai keiki (kids). Forgiving waves wash ashore in blue mini tubes. A big south swell can jack waves up quickly; check with nearby lifeguards before paddling in.
INFO: Kauai County Parks Division (www.kauai.hawaii.gov or 808/241-6671). From Po`ipu Rd. in Po`ipu, take Hoowili Rd. to parking at Po`ipu Beach Park; Brennecke’s is one block east. Rent gear at Nukumoi Surf Co. ($7.50 per day; 2100 Hoone Rd.; 808/742-8019), right across from the park.
Bellows Field Beach Park
A local favorite for family outings, Bellows is located on an Air Force base in Waimanalo. Stands of ironwoods shade the beach, and mellow rollers wash ashore on miles of soft sand.
INFO: Bellows Air Force Station (open noon Fri until sunset Sun; www.bellowsafs.com or 808/259-8080). From Kailua take Kalaniana`ole Hwy. (State 72) 4 miles southeast; turn left into base. Rent gear at Hans Hedemann Surf School in Waikiki ($20 per day; 2586 Kalakaua Ave.; 808/924-7778).
Kama`ole III Beach Park
This Kihei beach receives respectable swells during the summer months and can get rideable waves year-round.
INFO: Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation (www.co.maui.hi.us or 808/879-4364). On S. Kihei Rd. near Keonekai Rd. Rent gear at Hi-Tech Surf Sports in Kahului ($8 per day; 425 Koloa St.; 808/877-2111).
4. BIG ISLAND
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area
The most popular beach on the island has plenty of mellow waves in summer. Go early; conditions are usually better then, and parking gets tight as locals and visitors literally queue to enjoy the white sands. In winter only very experienced boarders should surf the outer reef.
INFO: Hawaii State Parks (www.hawaii.gov/dlnr). Take State 19 about 28 miles north of Kona International. Rent gear at Snorkel Bob’s in Kailua/Kona ($8.50 per day; 75-5831 Kahakai St.; 808/329-0770).
Take away Ann Fielding’s mask and fins, and she feels like a fish out of water. After moving to Hawaii in 1967 in search of warm water and a career path that would keep her in it, Fielding completed her degree in zoology at the University of Hawaii and became an educator at the Waikiki Aquarium before writing three popular books on Hawaii’s undersea creatures. Today she runs small-group snorkel trips on Maui. Over the years, Fielding has taught thousands how to respect the sanctity of the reefs. Her passion to educate comes in part from her understanding that Hawaii is truly a unique marine environment.
“Roughly 25 percent of the fish species here are found only in the Islands,” says Fielding. “We are the only tropical island group with this high rate of endemism. That means you can get color combinations and types of animals that are common here but very rare elsewhere.” A few of her endemic favorites: the saddle wrasse, the bluestripe butterfly fish, and the whitesaddle goatfish.
Unlike those in much of the rest of the Pacific, Hawaii’s coral reefs are right along the shoreline ― sometimes literally steps from the beach. “Wherever there are rocks in the water in Hawaii, there will most likely be some fish, sea urchins, and coral,” Fielding says. “You don’t need a boat. It’s so much easier to jump in and enjoy.”
- Snorkel early in the day, before Hawaii’s trade winds ruffle the surface and stir up sand in the water, which reduces visibility.
- Be careful when snorkeling in waves above 2 feet in height.
- Watch out for currents whipping around points and reefs; when in doubt, talk to a lifeguard.
- The calmer and safer waters tend to be on the more sheltered leeward sides of islands.
Rentals are widely available at hotels and dive shops.
The big draw here is an outstanding horseshoe-shaped reef that harbors myriad sea life and is a rare respite from winter’s rough water on Kauai’s exposed North Shore. Even so, snorkeling at Tunnels, where there are no lifeguards, is safest between May and September. Sharks and turtles are often spotted here, and the fish are copious.
INFO: Hawaii State Parks (www.hawaii.gov/dlnr or 808/274-3446). Park on State 56, 4 miles west of Hanalei; Tunnels is a 0.25-mile walk down the beach to the east.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
This natural aquarium is actually a volcanic crater that collapsed 35,000 years ago. Fringing reefs make for mellow snorkeling and reef fish concentrations that are higher than anywhere else in the state. Get there early, as the parking lot often fills up.
INFO: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (closed Tue; $5 nonresidents, residents free; $1 parking; 7455 Kalaniana―ole Hwy./State 72; www.hanaumabayhawaii.org or 808/396-4229). From Waikiki take I-H1 (which becomes State 72) east about 12 miles to signed entry.
Makena (Malu`aka) Beach Park
This strand in front of the Maui Prince Hotel offers good snorkeling on the southern side in the morning hours, with lots of live coral and turtles. South swells can create strong waves and bad conditions.
INFO: Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation (www.co.maui.hi.us or 808/879-4364). Park in the public lot just past the Maui Prince Hotel on Makena Alanui Dr. in Makena.
4. BIG ISLAND
Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
In Hawaiian the name means “the sacred or sanctified hill at the place called Honaunau,” and it remains a sacred place to natives. Honaunau Bay, just north of this national park, harbors an aquatic temple par excellence, teeming with healthy coral and fish.
INFO: Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park ($5 per vehicle; www.nps.gov/puho or 808/328-2288). From Kona take State 11 south to State 160 and follow it 3 1/2 miles to the beach.
Paddling around blue bays and cozy coves is all in a day’s work for Lauren Neaulani Spalding. Shy and self-effacing, the part-Hawaiian kayaker came out of nowhere last spring to make the U.S. Olympic team and compete in the two- and four-person flat-water kayaking events at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
Spalding has been exploring Hawaii’s waters since she first dipped a paddle in at age 3, while hitching a ride with her dad across the nearly 9-mile Auau Channel between Maui and Lanai. “The ocean is very alive in Hawaii. You feel the energy, and it lifts you up,” says Spalding, who believes each spot on the water carries its own spirit.
Her favorite place to pull strokes is Hana Bay near the isolated village of the same name on the eastern tip of Maui, her home island. “The coastline around there is amazing, so beautiful. It’s not like anywhere else on Earth, with Haleakala rising to the sky in the background,” she says. “You can see the snowcaps of the Big Island on clear days.”
While Spalding learned from her dad, she believes that the best way for visitors to get started kayaking is to join a guided trip with an experienced outfitter. Currents, wave conditions, and winds endow the Islands with plenty of good paddling spots. Each island has a couple that are mellow enough for keiki ― including Spalding’s 6-year-old son, Haen’a, who, like his mother, is a paddler.
- Research outfitters and their trips in advance. First-timers: Try a short trip ― it’s more tiring than it looks.
- Check weather conditions and protect against the sun. Bring ― and drink ― plenty of water. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and SPF-protective clothing.
- Make sure your rental gear is in good condition before heading out. Your paddle, life vest, and kayak should appear fairly new. Paddling gloves help prevent blisters.
Reserve kayak tours and rentals well in advance.
Na Pali Coast
This singular kayak trip is well worth training for. During the 17-mile journey along the wild northwestern coast of the Garden Isle, paddlers explore sea caves and pass beneath 3,000-foot sea cliffs. The long paddle is best done by experienced paddlers on a guided tour; rough surf and seasickness are common.
INFO: Take a guided trip with Outfitters Kauai (one-day tours $185; offered mid-May through mid-Sep, ages 15 and over only; 2827-A Po`ipu Rd.; www.outfitterskauai.com or 888/742-9887).
Flat Island and the Mokuluas
This trio of islands is located just off the long, white beaches of Kailua on the Windward Coast. They host large flocks of endemic birds such as wedge-tailed shearwater and albatross. Ambitious kayakers can haul out for solitude on pocket beaches on the Kailua Bay side of the northernmost two islands.
INFO: Rent gear or take a guided tour with Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks (half-day rentals from $39; guided tours from $89; in the Kailua Beach Center, 130 Kailua Rd.; www.kailuasailboards.com or 808/262-2555).
This pristine coastline boasts protected coves, tropical fish, untrammeled beaches, and no crowds. The lush rim of Haleakala, framed by the cloud-shrouded Kaupo Gap, rises imposingly to the heavens.
INFO: Launch at Hana Bay for a short paddle around tranquil waters and surrounding coves. Or take a guided tour with Hana-Maui Sea Sports (two-hour tours $89; www.hana-maui-seasports.com or 808/264-9566).
4. BIG ISLAND
It’s an easy, sheltered, 1-mile paddle from the boat ramp at Napo`opo`o Beach Park to the Captain Cook Monument and the cove where the famed British sea captain met his demise. Coral thrives in this secluded spot, and the preserve’s protected waters attract plenty of finned critters. Look for spinner dolphins in the bay.
INFO: Launch at Napo`opo`o Wharf. Rent equipment from Adventures in Paradise (one-day rentals from $25; www.bigislandkayak.com or 866/824-2337). State regulations forbid guided kayak tours in the bay.