Unless you have a four-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicle, Lana‘i only has one accessible beach. That beach has been voted one of the best in the country; it’s also the only beach with any sort of facilities. If, however, you happen to procure a Jeep or a local’s truck, there are a number of undeveloped beaches where you could run around naked and there would be no one there to care.
And now that you want to visit them, here’s how.
Hulopo‘e Beach Park
Hulopo‘e is also famous for the Hawaiian spinner dolphins that enter the bay on a regular basis.Hulopo‘e Beach Park is the undisputed hangout for island locals. It was crowned number one beach in America in 1997. Within walking distance from the Manele small boat harbor, Hulopo‘e is the only beach on the island with restrooms and showers, and despite being the island’s most popular beach, it’s a far cry from crowded. The right side of the beach is used by guests of the Four Seasons Manele Bay Hotel who have access to the white umbrellas and lounge chairs. Similarly, Monday-Friday, guests of Trilogy Excursions’ snorkel tour from Maui inhabit the left-hand side of the beach, thereby leaving the middle section of the beach as the place for visitors to relax in the shade or bake out in the sun.
Hulopo‘e Bay is a marine reserve and home to one of the few reefs in Maui County that isn’t in a state of decline. The reef extends over the left side of the bay, where colorful parrotfish the size of your forearm can easily be spotted (and heard) nibbling on the vibrant corals. Hulopo‘e is also famous for the Hawaiian spinner dolphins that enter the bay on a regular basis. In an effort to protect the natural sleep cycles of the dolphins, swimmers are asked to not aggressively encroach on them in any way. If dolphins just happen to swim toward you, consider yourself lucky.
In addition to the sugary sands and perfectly placed palm trees, there are also two nature trails on each side of the beach. The Kapiha‘a Trail departs from the right side of the bay, whereas the trail to the Pu‘u Pehe Overlook and Shark’s Bay winds its way from the left side. There is also a fantastic system of tidepools stretching around the left point of the bay, and one is even deep enough to snorkel in, great for teaching young kids. The easiest way to get to the tidepools is to use the stairway found on the trail to Shark’s Bay.
Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach)
Other than Hulopo‘e, Shipwreck Beach is the most popular beach among island visitors. To get to Shipwreck, drive past the Lodge at Koele and drop down Lana‘i’s windswept “back side” by following the switchbacking—but paved—Keomuku Highway. The views as you descend this winding road stretch all the way to neighboring Maui. A favorite pastime of island teenagers during the plantation days would be to flash their headlights at family members on Maui at a prearranged time, and then wait in eager anticipation for their cousins to flash them back (Did I mention Lana‘i can be slow?). Once you reach the bottom of the paved highway, a sign points left toward Shipwreck Beach. Follow the sandy road (four-wheel drive recommended) for 1.5 miles before it dead-ends in a parking area. When you pass the shacks constructed out of driftwood and fishing floats, you’ll know that you’ve arrived.
Traditionally this area was known as Kaiolohia. The current moniker only stuck due to the World War II Liberty ship which was intentionally grounded on the fringing reef. Though numerous vessels have met their demise on this shallow stretch of coral, this concrete oil tanker has rotted slower than most. Stoic in its haunted appearance, the ship remains firmly lodged in the reef as a warning to passing vessels of the dangers.
Because of the persistent northeasterly trade winds, Kaiolohia rarely offers anything in the way of snorkeling or swimming. Your time here is better spent combing the beach for the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to shore, and Japanese glass balls used as fishing floats are the ultimate beachcomber’s reward. To reach the Liberty ship it’s about a mile walk along the sandy coastline, although numerous rocks interrupt the thin strip of sand to give the appearance of multiple beaches. From here it’s technically possible to walk all the way to Polihua Beach, although unless you have a ride arranged at the other side it’s a 16-mile round-trip venture in an area with no services or shade.
Walking as far as the ship gives you ample time to explore, although make a side trip to visit the petroglyphs on your way back to the car. About a quarter of a mile after the road ends, you’ll encounter the concrete base of what was once an old lighthouse, and if you’re uncertain of whether or not you’re at the right place, check the concrete base where names were inscribed in 1929. From the base of the lighthouse turn directly inland and rock-hop for 300 yards before you’ll see a large rock with the words “do not deface” written on it. A white arrow points to a trail behind the rock which leads to petroglyphs of dogs, humans, and a drawing known as “The Birdman.”
When you reach the bottom of Keomuku Highway (where the pavement ends), taking a right at the fork in the road will lead you on a rugged coastal track that ranks as one of the best drives on the island. Four-wheel drive is recommended as the deep sand patches can often drift onto the road, and depending upon the recent rain activity, the road can become rutted and rough. Nevertheless, some of Lana‘i’s nicest beaches lie down this road, and anyone with a Jeep or SUV should be able to navigate the road just fine.
While there are a number of small pullouts along the side of the road leading to narrow, windswept sand patches, the first beach of any real size is Kahalepalaoa, 7.5 miles from where the pavement ended. This Hawaiian name translates to “House of the Whale Ivory” (whale bones are rumored to have once washed ashore here). In more recent times this spot was also the site of a now-defunct, Club Med-style day resort named Club Lana‘i. Though the booze-fueled excursion from Maui no longer operates, the coconut grove which once housed the venue marks the start of a long, white sand beach that’s perfect for casual strolling.
A little over a mile past Kahalepalaoa lies Lopa, a protected stretch of sand which is the nicest on Lana‘i’s back side. Although the beach here isn’t all that different from Kahalepalaoa, the fact that Lopa faces south means it’s more protected from the northeasterly trades, a geographic benefit which makes reading a book in a beach chair infinitely more enjoyable. Lopa is a popular camping spot for locals and a couple of picnic tables have been placed beneath the thorn-riddled kiawe grove lining the beach. Although the swimming and snorkeling are nothing compared to Hulopo‘e Beach Park, Lopa is the perfect place for longboard surfing or paddling along the shore in a kayak (if you brought your own). The chances of encountering anyone else on Lopa are higher on the weekends when locals come to camp and fish, but as at many of Lana‘i’s beaches, if there happens to be anyone else there it’s justified in calling it crowded.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.