In the middle of the summer high season, it seems possible to walk from one end of the beach at Waikiki to the other without ever touching sand or surf because of all the bodies and beach towels.
At Kaanapali on Maui, the beaches are fronted by luxury hotels, and a boardwalk moves the hordes from spot to spot, beach to bar, sand to shopping.
Finding a beautiful, nearly deserted beach isn't a tropical fantasy. You just might have to make a long, sometimes bumpy ride or a bit of a hike. But if you long to be alone, buy a good map and head for these places where you can still get lost in paradise.
Finding a good, deserted beach on an island known as "The Gathering Place" is difficult. My top choice is on the "other" side of the North Shore, west of Haleiwa -- away from Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. The Hawaiian name for the spot is Mokuleia Beach. But its nickname is Army Beach because an Army recreation center was located nearby until 1989. There's a rocky shelf that requires reef walker shoes to navigate. But the beach is gorgeous, and there is usually no one around -- which is why they filmed much of "Lost" on this stretch of oceanfront. The water is calmest in summer. This is an easy beach to get to -- it's just a few feet off a paved road. But that also means it is sometimes a spot for car break-ins, so take care with your valuables.
A well-developed dirt road takes you the last part of the drive to the longest beach in the islands, so it's best to rent a Jeep or SUV -- something with a little ground clearance. Most rental car companies say the beach is off-limits -- meaning if you get stuck, you are on your own getting out. But in more than a decade of visiting the beach, I've never had a problem with the road if I had the right kind of vehicle. The reward is a beautiful sunset spot with only a scattering of visitors. The road keeps the crowds out, but because it is a state park, there are plenty of benches, bathrooms and barbecue spots. The water here is usually too rough for anything more than a knees-and-below dip. Native Hawaiians believe that the souls of the dead jump off into the afterlife from the cliffs at the north end of the beach -- the most westerly point in the main islands.
You have to make the long, twisting drive to Hana and then go on even farther. Regularly voted one of the most beautiful beaches in all the islands, Hamoa is often deserted, or nearly so. It's just too much of a time and distance commitment for all but the most determined beach enthusiasts. But once you get to the Hana area, finding the beach is easy, with decent parking and a short walk to the water's edge. There's plenty of shade in the trees above the surf line. The waters are placid in winter and a little bit more rollicking in summer. A visit is best in the early morning and late afternoon, when the day trippers making the Hana Road drive have yet to arrive or have already left.
GETTING THERE: Medium
I love Hulopoe Beach on the south coast -- it's one of the most beautiful in the state and a great place to swim, body surf and snorkel. But with the Manele Bay resort on the west end and a popular local park on the east end, it's usually as full as a beach on tiny Lanai can get. The opposite is true of Polihua, on the north coast. You'll need a four-wheel drive Jeep in Lanai City. Get a good map and drive north on the dirt roads toward the stone formations known as the Garden of the Gods. From there, it is a steep grade to finally pull up to a wide, golden stretch of sand with views out to Molokai. You'll likely have it all to yourself except in the late afternoon, when a sundowner crowd of locals comes down to TGI whatever day it is. Don't drive too far onto the soft sand -- it's a long (and expensive) tow out.
GETTING THERE: Hard
It's not hard to find a deserted beach on Molokai, the island with the least developed tourism of the main Hawaiian islands. Even a spot like Murphy's Beach, popular in most guidebooks, is usually sparsely peopled.
I've never been to Papohaku Beach, which sounds like a prime candidate for this list. My choice is Kaupoa Beach, on the west end of the island. It's not too far from Hoolehua, the main town on Molokai. The beach's look is right out of Hawaii central casting -- with a beautiful white crescent, set off by blue waters and dark brown of volcanic outcroppings that run down to the beach. If the water is too rough -- watch out for a quick drop-off -- then stick to shore and check out the tide pools. Once you get your bearings, it's a fairly easy drive and walk to the beach.
GETTING THERE: Medium
Waipio Valley Beach
Distances are big on the Big Island and, as the youngest volcanic island, the shoreline is almost always rocky. There are a few classic beaches such as Hapuna, but they're usually too crowded or too far to drive. So I'll go with the black sand beach at Waipio Valley at the north end of the island. Be warned: It's a tough hike in and out. Most visitors come on organized tours to explore one of the least developed traditional Hawaiian valleys in the islands. At the beach, you will almost certainly be alone, with the exception perhaps of a fisherman or maybe a few local surfers. It's more for strolling and driftwood collecting than taking a swim -- the water is often rough, and a lifeguard is miles away. You'll love it until you hit that hill on the way back up to the highway. You'll work up a sweat for your solitude.
GETTING THERE: Very hard
GREAT BEACHES IF YOU DON'T MIND A LITTLE COMPANY
Swimming, surfing, snorkeling -- there's a beach for every pleasure in Hawaii. If you're not going for seclusion, here's a look at some other beaches of note:
GOOD FOR People-watching
The strip of sand that runs along the busy resort area has long been Hawaii's busiest beach. From dawn until sunset, tourists pack this relatively narrow beach. Take an outrigger canoe ride, watch the surfers or just laze the day away.
GOOD FOR Snorkeling
One of the best-known spots for diving and snorkeling in Oahu, Hanauma is a vast crescent-shaped bay that's also a nature preserve. Expect to see tropical fish galore (and likely some sea turtles) swimming along the reef. But, of course, you won't be alone -- many guided tour companies ferry tourists in from downtown Waikiki for inexpensive snorkel trips.
Honokalani Beach, Wai'anapanapa State Park (Hana)
GOOD FOR Black sand
One of the last stops along the venerable Road to Hana, Wai'anapanapa State Park has one of Hawaii's few volcanic sand beaches. While there, take a walk to explore some unusual freshwater cave pools.
SUBMITTED BY Gail Levy, Huntington
GOOD FOR Pleasing a crowd
On Maui's northwest side, Kaanapali is a resort community with several hotels that have access to the beach, where there is good swimming, snorkeling and sunset cruises on the water. Additionally, the area's Whalers Village is a shopping complex with restaurants and live entertainment such as music and hula shows. Everyone sits on the beach and watches the sunset every night, Levy says.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
GOOD FOR Explorers
It's the only beach in Hawaii with green sand, which gets its tint from olivine deposits. Located near South Point, getting there involves a rugged, roughly two-mile hike on dirt paths.
LA'ALOA BEACH PARK
SUBMITTED BY Nancy Constantino, West Sayville
GOOD FOR Boogie boarding
Also known as "Magic Sands Beach," because the rough winter waves tend to erode the shoreline down to the rocks before returning all the sand in the summertime, La'aloa is a favorite spot for boogie boarding, Constantino says. It's within walking distance of Kailua-Kona town.