Hawaiian sands

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — On a Saturday morning, as the sun climbs steadily higher in the royal-blue sky, the occasional motorist turns off busy state Route 19 about five miles north of Kona International Airport.

The locals know the turn, even though it's not signposted. They slowly make their way across the speed bumps along the paved 11/2-mile-long road, their cars filled with family and friends and laden with sun umbrellas, folding chairs and plenty of food and drink.

On weekends in paradise, Big Island residents embrace one of their cherished assets: the quiet, relatively uncrowded beaches.

On an island known more for its nearly omnipresent, uninviting fields of bleak, black lava, beaches boasting sand in various colors (white, black and even green) provide a relaxing landscape on which to relax and unwind in an environment vastly different than that of Oahu's bustling Waikiki.

Here on Hawaii, high-rise hotels are taboo; mellow is the mood. Yet there is beach life. Here are five choice escapes on the Big Island where you can get away from it all — or most of it, anyway.

Kua Bay Beach Park, also known as Maniniowali Beach, is the locals' hidden gem not far from the airport. You need a rental car to get there, but this is a truly magical white strand with aquamarine waters that rival the Caribbean's.

At one of the highly prized picnic tables, set beneath scrubby but shade-providing trees that have managed to take root in the lava, a seemingly ancient boom box wafts Hawaiian music as gentle as the waves, setting the tranquil mood. But come prepared. Kua Beach is about as primitive as a beach gets. There are four port-a-potties and some garbage cans. That's it.

Like the locals, you'll need to pack in your supplies — everything from beach towels and blankets to plenty of water. But the idyllic beauty, unspoiled by food vendors and T-shirt sellers, is why it's such a hit with natives.

The turn is between Mile Markers 88 and 89. At the turn for the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, head in the opposite direction, toward the ocean.

Punaluu County Beach Park's black sand is an easily accessed delight a couple of hours south of Kailua-Kona off state Route 11, the road leading to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And, unlike Kua, this beach is signposted.

The coarse black sand, the result of crashing waves eating away at the hardened lava, is relatively unique. But it's not so much the sand as the resident colony of sea turtles that attracts visitors.

A German shouts excitedly as she spots one of the ancient reptiles, known as "honu" in Hawaiian, in a tidal pool. At first her friends have trouble spotting the immobile, dark green creature because it looks a lot like the lava around it, but then the beast turns its head before beginning a crawl across the sand.

According to a plaque near the beach's restrooms, this area is home to Kauila, a mythological sea turtle with the ability to turn from a turtle into human form. According to legend (and the marker), she "would play with the children along the shoreline and keep watch over them."

The turn for Punaluu is between Mile Markers 55 and 56. The nearest town, Pahala, offers burgers, traditional plate lunches and provisions.

Papakolea Beach, also known as Green Sand Beach, near the southernmost point of the Big Island, offers a unique experience but one that's available only to intrepid travelers in excellent physical condition. That's because it's accessible only by an arduous three-mile hike along an unmarked trail through rugged lava fields.

Folks who make the trek are rewarded by the olive green sand, which actually is grains of olivine, a semiprecious stone created by ancient volcanic action and later crushed by the waves. Those who do reach the beach are strongly encouraged to help preserve the place by resisting the temptation to take home some of the olive-green sand as a souvenir.

Inquire locally for directions to South Point from state Route 11. And don't expect to make the two- to three-hour hike in sandals or sneakers.

Anaehoomalu Bay Beach is the closest thing to a "busy" beach on the Big Island. That's probably, in part, because of its location adjacent to the resort community of Waikoloa Village.

What the locals simply call "A-Bay" is the place to go if a fun day at the beach requires more than just a blanket and sunglasses. On Sundays and Fridays, an outfitter called Ocean Sports (888-724-5924, hawaiioceansports.com) sets up shop. For $25, guests can enjoy a variety of activities such as water aerobics classes and rides on a glass-bottom boat.

Aboard the boat a guide explains the origins of all that lovely white sand. The majority of it is, in fact, parrotfish poop. The fish eat coral, which their digestive tracts turn into the fine grains that constitute the sand.

Much of the current sand, however, had to be trucked in after the March 2011 tsunami. Fortunately, vendors had nine hours' warning to move to higher ground.

The beach is directly behind the Marriott resort at Waikoloa Village, off Highway 19 along the Kohala Coast.

Hapuna Beach State Park is unlike other Big Island beaches in that it often makes its way into guidebooks. One of a smattering of Kohala Coast beaches, this one is several hundred yards long and one of the island's widest. Though the parking lot often is packed, there is plenty of room to play, either in the soft sand or in the welcoming water that's ideal for snorkelers.

Another plus is that this beach is protected by lifeguards, fairly uncommon on Hawaii.

Hapuna Beach is about two miles south of the village of Kawaihae off Route 19.


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