Waikiki’s narrow beaches are generally packed shoulder to shoulder with people, or umbrella to umbrella, for most of the day. In the heart of Waikiki, the towering hotels have been built right to the water’s edge, leaving anywhere from 20 to 50 feet of beach for public use. If a leisurely walk along the beach is your fancy, the feat is best accomplished during the first few hours after sunrise or after 6pm, when most people have made their way back to their hotel to prepare for dinner. It’s not uncommon for the moon to rise over Diamond Head while the sun is still setting in the west. To get away from the crowds altogether, find a patch of sand along Diamond Head’s seaside cliffs and revel in the fact that a short, steep walk down a gravelly path will deter most visitors.
Duke Kahanamoku Beach
At the west end, or ‘Ewa (EH-va) side of Waikiki, is Duke Kahanamoku Beach, one of the wider beaches in Waikiki. Fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Beach Resort, it stretches from the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor to the Hilton’s catamaran pier. A shallow outer reef with great waves keeps the inner waters calm and very kid friendly. There’s even an artificial ocean-fed lagoon between the beach and the hotel, the perfect spot to try out stand-up paddle surfing without having to worry about ocean chop or currents. The lagoon does have a synthetic feel to it though, especially apparent in its coarse compacted shoreline that makes sand play an all-out construction job. Kahanamoku Beach was recognized in 2012 as Number 3 on Dr. Beach’s Best Beaches in America list.
There is a beach path that runs the length of Waikiki, but if you’re coming from Kalakaua Avenue, you’ll have to trek down Lewers Street, Beach Walk, or Saratoga Road to reach the sand. There is public beach access on the west side of the Outrigger Reef. Once you hit the beach path, keep walking west till you pass the catamaran pier. If you’re coming by car, there is free parking in the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor.
Fort DeRussy Beach
Just east of the catamaran pier, Fort DeRussy Beach runs all the way to the Outrigger Reef. Now a clean and tidy public beach and manicured park shaded by canopy trees, this military reservation was one of several shore batteries on O‘ahu during WWII and served as an R&R locale for soldiers during the Vietnam War. The beach fronts the Hale Koa hotel, which caters strictly to armed forces personnel and their families, and the U.S. Army Museum, and has a distinct military presence and vibe. It’s also known for its calm inner waters perfect for swimming or snorkeling and volleyball courts. An open-air parking lot across from Fort DeRussy Beach Park on Kalia Road is a relatively safe place to park for access to the beach. The rates are average for Waikiki standards at $3 per half hour, and they offer military discounts.
Continuing east, the beach ends, and a raised cement walking path on top of the armored shoreline provides transport to Gray’s Beach, a nook of coarse, imported sand in between the Halekulani and Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. There is also beach access from Kalia Road between the two hotels.
Widened in the spring of 2012, Waikiki Beach is half of the heart of Waikiki. Stretching from the Royal Hawaiian to the Moana Surfrider, the first two hotels in Waikiki, this is prime real estate for visitors and the sand fills up quickly with beachgoers. This strip is lined with beach service providers and beachside bars and dining. Because of the sand bottom off Waikiki Beach, the water is a translucent aqua-green and perfect for swimming, standup paddling, or just floating on a fluorescent blow-up mat. There is a sandbar just offshore from the Royal Hawaiian that people wade or float out to in order to play in the knee-deep water and small surf. For snorkeling, there’s not much to see in the way of marine life, save for the occasional green sea turtle. The famous surf spot Canoes breaks quite a ways offshore, and while this part of the beach does have small shorebreak—quite exciting for the kids—the inner waters are calm and sheltered from the prevailing trade winds.
The easiest way to get to Waikiki Beach is to walk down the shore from Kuhio Beach to the east. Otherwise, make your way through one of the big hotels on the beach to access the world-famous sand, sparkling waters, and iconic view of Diamond Head. Parking in Waikiki is very expensive, whether you valet or self-park at one of the hotel parking garages. Your best bet is to park in the Waikiki Shell parking lot, which is free, and walk down Kalakaua Avenue. There is also free parking on the makai side (ocean side) of Kalakaua Avenue from Kapahulu Avenue all the way down to Diamond Head. Since landing one of the coveted free parking spots is hard to do, there is also metered parking on the mauka side (mountain side) of Kalakaua Avenue along Kapi‘olani Park for a reasonable $0.25 per half hour.
Kuhio Beach Park
Stretching from the east side of the Moana Surfrider to the concrete pier where Kapahulu Avenue intersects Kalakaua Avenue, Kuhio Beach Park is the other half to the thumping heart of Waikiki. It has a snack bar, restrooms and showers at the west end, two lagoons for sheltered swimming, grassy knolls for relaxing in the shade under a palm tree, ample beach services, and one of the best waves in Waikiki—Queen’s. Just as on Waikiki Beach, you’ll want to arrive early to stake a claim in the sand with a beach towel or chair.
Kuhio Beach Park is the hub of surfing in Waikiki, with the forgiving waves of Queen’s and Canoes breaking fairly close to shore by Hawai‘i standards. You’ll find a host of beachboys in red shorts stoked to rent surfboards, stand-up paddle surfboards, bodyboards, and floating mats. They also offer surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides. Along the beach park you’ll also find the iconic statue of Duke Kahanamoku adorned in lei and the statue of Prince Kuhio, as well. Once again, it’s best to find parking around Kapi‘olani Park and walk to Kuhio Beach Park. The beach park is closed 2am-5am.
Queen’s Surf Beach
On the east side of the concrete pier, Queen’s Surf Beach offers two things you won’t find anywhere else in Waikiki: a No Surfboard zone and the Waikiki Marine Life Conservation District. Demarcated by buoys on the east side of the concrete pier, just off the shoreline, the No Surfboard zone sees small waves roll across the shallow waters and up the beach. While action of the water would be great for bodyboarding, the ocean floor is sharp, flat reef with the odd coral head, so swimming and body surfing are not a good idea.
On the east side of the jetty, the Waikiki Marine Life Conservation District stretches to the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium’s crumbling western wall. With fishing forbidden in this 76-acre marine conservation area and calm, shallow inner waters, this healthy reef ecosystem offers the best snorkeling in Waikiki.
Kapi‘olani Park, with its wide-stretching banyan trees, runs the length of the beach. There are restrooms, showers, and a hip shoreline café open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Waikiki Aquarium is at the Diamond Head end of the park. Publics is the main surfing wave along the beach, a dangerous left that breaks along a shallow reef of odd-shaped coral heads that rise above sea level on an extremely low tide. The beach and park area at Publics, where the beach ends, is a favorite for LGBT visitors. The park is also home to many of Waikiki’s homeless population. Parking is available along Kalakaua Avenue and around Kapi‘olani Park.
Sans Souci Beach
A small patch of sand between the eroding Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium and the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, Sans Souci Beach, also known as Kaimana Beach, is a favorite spot for residents seeking easy access to a family-friendly beach and park without the hassle of getting in and out of Waikiki. There’s limited free parking, restrooms, an outdoor shower at the beach, and indoor showers at the natatorium. In front of the natatorium is great for snorkeling, and swimmers take advantage of a wide, deep channel through the reef out to a wind sock fixed on its outer corner. Four laps from the beach to the wind sock is roughly a mile. The water is very calm, making it the perfect locale for children of all ages.
Makalei Beach Park
If you’re in the mood to escape Waikiki and find solace on your own slice of beach, Makalei Beach Park is the best option within Waikiki. Only the quaint park is visible from Diamond Head Road. Tucked back behind some houses in the southwest corner of the park, the beach is a quiet, small strip of sand no more than 100 feet long favored by residents and surfers attracted to Suicides surf break. It’s also best to visit on a low tide, when more sand is exposed. Once you are in the water, the seafloor is entirely reef, so ocean life abounds, but choppy conditions and strong currents are prevalent in this area. There are no lifeguards, so exercise caution when snorkeling and swimming off the beach. There are a shower and picnic tables in the beach park. To get there, park around Kapi‘olani Park and walk east up Diamond Head Road. The entrance to the beach park is signed.
Diamond Head Beach Park
At the base of Diamond Head’s seaside cliffs are some of the best beaches on the South Shore for escaping the crowds and enjoying the island’s natural scenery. There’s parking on both sides of Diamond Head Road and a paved footpath that cuts down the cliff. At the bottom of the path, Diamond Head Beach Park stretches out in both directions. The shoreline is lined with shells and sea glass, and there are tidepools on the west end of the beach. There are several surf breaks along the reef, but the pervasive trade winds, strong ocean currents, wind chop, and extremely shallow patches of reef make snorkeling and swimming dangerous. The beach below Diamond Head is a great spot for a romantic winter season stroll as the sun sets straight off Waikiki. Diamond Head Beach Park is closed 10pm-5am.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon O’ahu.