If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind an hour’s drive across the island, the beaches of leeward O‘ahu offer wide swaths of white sand under clear, sunny skies. As the trade winds blow across the island from east to west, the leeward coast’s waters remain calm and protected, offering beautiful conditions for swimming, surfing, fishing, snorkeling, diving, or just soaking up the sun. Waves are common along leeward beaches all year long, but generally get the biggest in the winter, from October to March. Make sure to exercise caution and assess the ocean conditions before entering the water. Check with a lifeguard for the safest place to swim.
Ma‘ili Beach Park
Marking the beginning of Ma‘ili town and its long stretch of beach, Ma‘ili Point is one of the more dynamic and picturesque settings along the leeward coast. There is a small park with picnic tables and grass on the southern side of the point. The shoreline rocks extend out into the water and meet up with the shallow reef here, creating a lot of whitewater and surf action to watch while relaxing or having a snack.
On the north side of the point, Ma‘ili Beach Park runs the length of Ma‘ili town. Situated between two streams that run down from the mountains, the sandy beach is widest during the summer when the waves are smaller, and the gently arcing beach is great for swimming and snorkeling. During the winter, however, the sand tends to migrate elsewhere with the more frequent high surf, revealing a rock shelf along the shore. There are restrooms, picnic areas, and camping on the weekends by permit only. Ma‘ili Beach Park is closed 10pm-5am daily.
Poka‘i Bay Beach Park
Between the small boat harbor and Kane‘ilio Point sits a beautiful sheltered bay and wide sandy beach called Poka‘i Bay Beach Park. There is a breakwater offshore and a reef in the middle of the bay that keep the water calm along the shoreline year-round, making this a perfect spot for swimming and families. Small waves break over the reef during the winter, which attracts novice surfers. In addition to the beautiful beach, the Ku‘ilioloa Heiau is also out on the point and has three terraced platforms. The heiau is thought to have been a place for learning the arts of fishing, navigation, and ocean-related skills. The beach park is closed 10pm-5am daily.
Makaha Beach Park
A world-class surf break with a recent history entwined with the birth of international professional surfing, Makaha Beach Park is the hub of surfing on the leeward coast. The beautiful beach is framed at both ends by rocky headlands, the north end being the site of the surf break and the sharp reef that absorbs the ocean’s energy. The surf here breaks all year, but is biggest in the winter months, when waves can reach 40 to 50 feet high on the face during the biggest swell episodes. In the summer, swimming is best in the middle of the beach, or if the waves are completely flat, you can snorkel over the reef shelf. There are restrooms, showers, and a few shade trees and hau bushes along the road where everyone parks. If there is surf during your stop at Makaha, check with the lifeguards for the best place to enjoy the water.
At the north end of Makua Valley, the only valley in the area fenced off and privately held by the U.S. Army, is a small parking area on the ocean side of the road under some trees with access to Makua Beach. This undeveloped, secluded white sand beach is a great place to find solitude. When the waves are flat, it’s also fine for swimming and snorkeling, but during high surf the ocean is dangerous at Makua Beach.
Referred to on maps and by many as Yokohama Bay, Keawa‘ula Bay is by far the most picturesque beach on the leeward coast. Part of Ka‘ena Point State Park, the white sand beach curves to the northwest and points the way toward the western tip of the island, Ka‘ena Point. The turquoise water sees waves throughout the year and is extremely dangerous for swimming during times of high surf. The surf breaks in the area are for expert surfers only. When the water is calm, the ocean is ideal for swimming. There is no shade on the beach, so be prepared with an umbrella or tent to mitigate the piercing sun. To complete the stunning views, behind the bay are several valleys that change from a dry, reddish hue to verdant green the farther back your eye takes you. There are public restrooms and lifeguards on duty.
Ko Olina Beaches
Just past the entrance gate to Ko Olina and next to Paradise Cove Luau is a small, yet beautiful sandy cove and lagoon called Paradise Cove. In the past it has been called Lanikauka‘a and then Lanikuhonua Beach. Paradise Cove is one of three sacred lagoons in the immediate area where Queen Ka‘ahumanu was said to have bathed and performed religious ceremonies. The shallow lagoon is protected from ocean swells by a raised reef rock shelf on its ocean side. There are trees on the beach for shade and tidepools. All in all, it’s a great out-of-the-way nook to take the kids and explore. Parking is a little tricky. Take a right into the third driveway past the entrance gate. On the right is a small, free public parking area for about 10 cars. The sidewalk leads to a sandy pathway between two tall fences down to the beach.
Ko Olina Lagoons
Ko Olina has four lagoons open to the public from sunrise to sunset. The Ko Olina Lagoons are numbered one through four, heading from west to east, and also have the Hawaiian names Kohola, Honu, Napa, and Ulua, respectively. They are more widely known and referred to by their number. The lagoons are artificially constructed semicircles cut from the sharp and rugged reef rock shelf that creates the shoreline. Channels were cut into the shelf to allow ocean water to flow in and out of the lagoons while blocking any surf from entering.
With sandy beaches, grassy parks, a fair bit of shade from palms and trees, and a meandering pathway connecting all four lagoons, this oasis provides a sheltered, manufactured, resort-style of beach experience, completely opposite to the rest of the leeward beaches. Each lagoon has its own access road from Aliinui Drive, the main road through Ko Olina. Turn right on Kamoana Place to reach Lagoon 1. The next three consecutive streets will lead to a lagoon and its parking area. There are no lifeguards on duty, but there is plenty of security known as the Aloha Patrol monitoring the lagoons from golf carts. Ever vigilant, they will be sure to let you know if you’re breaking any rules from the long list of prohibited actions and items. Parking is free, but very limited at each lagoon, with Lagoon 4 having the most.