Top Beach Bumming Spots on Oahu

Whether you go to the beach for fun, surf, sun or solitude, there’s a perfect one waiting for you on Oahu.

While I was growing up, my family vacations often involved visiting relatives on Oahu. Some of my earliest memories of the beach include swimming at Sunset Beach in the summer and snorkeling with amazing numbers of tropical fish at Hanauma Bay. As an adult, my love of beaches has grown beyond just swimming and snorkeling—and even now, Oahu never disappoints, especially because all beaches are open to the public (by law) and all but one are free. Here are my favorites for you to visit while on your Hawaiian vacation to Honolulu, Oahu.

Big Kahuna: Waikiki

You can’t talk about Oahu beaches without mentioning Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, easily one of the world’s most famous beaches. Despite being overrun by tourists, Waikiki still holds its charms. Join the crowds and embrace the activities the beach has to offer—learn to surf, ride in an outrigger canoe, shop, have beachside drinks or soak in the sun.

Parking can get tough here, especially on weekends. There is four-hour metered parking along Kapiolani Park at the far east end of the beach. Or, park in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center (RHS) garage, and validate parking when you purchase from any RHS merchant.

Marine-Life Viewing and Snorkeling

Hanauma Bay

For big concentrations of diverse marine life, one of the best snorkeling beaches is Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve. Although extremely popular, the site is also convenient, kid-friendly and scenic. Located 10 miles east of Waikiki off of Kalaniana’ole Highway, Hanauma Bay is open every day except Tuesdays. Go early—if the parking lot is full, you can’t enter the reserve until someone leaves.

Note: Before entering the beach, all visitors must view a short video about the reserve and proper snorkeling etiquette. If you plan to visit Hanauma Bay more than once during your stay, sign in at the information station, and you can bypass the movie requirement when you return.

Tel. 808-396-4229. Cost: $1 for parking; $5 per person admission. Open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter.

Pupukea Beach Park

Located between Waimea Bay Beach and Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore, Pupukea Beach Park is also a marine conservation area. The park is bookended by two great snorkeling spots—Sharks Cove and Three Tables—with plenty of tide pools and lava formations. You’re likely to see colorful fish and interesting coral formations as well as eels, turtles and other marine life. Watch your feet at Shark’s Cove, as the ground is covered with sharp coral and rocks.

Surfing Beaches

There are surf spots all around the island for every type of surfer. If you’re not sure where to go, ask at a surf shop or chat up a local before you head out to ride the waves. Note: As mentioned below, North Shore surf is quite dangerous during winter, so it’s advised to stay out of the water unless you’re a professional.

For the Pros

On the North Shore, professional surf competitions are held at beaches such as Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai Beach) and Sunset Beach every winter when the surf can get more than 20 feet high. When the surf is this big, it’s better to watch the action from the shore, unless you’re a pro. It’s a spectacular show—even for non-surfers.

For Beginners

For newbies, Waikiki is the easiest place to surf. You can rent boards and take lessons from the “beach boys” on the beach. Or, sign up with a local surf school for more personal instruction. Girls Who Surf is staffed by women surf instructors—all lifeguard- , CPR- and first-aid certified. The Basic Surf Lesson for non-residents costs $90 per person for two hours (tel. 808-772-4583).

Hawaiian Fire Surf School is a group of Honolulu City firemen (yes, firemen!), who give surf lessons on a secluded beach outside of Waikiki. Two-hour premium lessons start at $99 per person. 3318 Campbell Ave. Tel. 888-955-7873.

Body Surfers and Boogie Boarders

For body surfing and boogie boarding, head to Sandy Beach, east of Waikiki off of Kalaniana’ole Highway. Be warned though—the waves here are for experts. Intermediate wave riders might try Makapu’u, farther east on the highway from Sandy’s. If you’re a novice, stick to mellow beaches until you’re ready to tackle more powerful waves.


Wind-powered surfing can be found at Kailua Beach Park, on the windward (east) side of Oahu, a world-class spot for both kiteboarding and windsurfing. To get to Kailua Beach Park, take the Kalaniana’ole Highway north to Kailua Road. Stay on Kailua Road and cross Kawailo Road into the park.

Family Beaches

Oahu has a number of family-oriented beach parks that provide calm waters and full facilities, including picnic and barbecue areas. Near Waikiki, families can head to Kaimana Beach (also known as Sans Souci) in front of the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel or to Ala Moana Beach Park, a 76-acre park just west of Waikiki.

For a change of scenery, visit the Ko Olina Lagoons in the southwest corner of Oahu. These four, man-made lagoons are protected from the high surf by rock barriers—a great place for snorkeling and swimming. Parking is tricky as there is only one lot designated for free public parking. To get here, take the H-1 freeway west toward Waianae and take the Ko Olina exit. Follow the road to the security gate, and tell the guard you’re headed to the lagoons.

Scenic Beaches

With mountain views, turquoise waters and a fine sand beach, Kailua has been ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. A next-door neighbor, Lanikai Beach, offers the same gorgeous views but no lifeguard and no facilities, making it slightly less crowded. Farther north along the highway, Kualoa Beach has postcard-worthy scenery, featuring swaying palm trees framing an ocean view of Mokoli’i Island

Destinations: Honolulu, Oahu

Themes: Beach Vacations

Activities: Snorkeling, Surfing, Swimming