Maui beaches rate high on a beauty contest scale. “Dr. Beach” (Prof. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University) chose Kapalua Bay as the country’s No. 1 beach in the first ever America’s Best Beach contest in 1991. Four Maui beaches have topped the list since then. Kapalua Bay appeared again on the list in 2017.
Eighty beaches rim the island like a necklace. The beads are more densely clustered on West Maui and South Maui, where you’ll find the major resorts. Scattered gems are on the north shore and East Maui, and Lana‘i and Moloka‘i as well.
Sand on most Maui beaches runs to warm gold, but varies from ivory to red and a stunning black. The dark and red hues come from lava particles; coral contributes the white grains. You’ll find a few rocky beaches where the snorkeling is stunning.
Starting on Maui’s Northwest shore, rock-cobbled Honolua and Mokole‘ia Bays, both undeveloped, belong to a marine reserve. Fleming Beach Park attracts body surfers and sand loungers. Moving on around the golf course and upscale resort, you’ll come to No. 1 Kapalau Bay, popular with locals and visitors, and its sister, Napili Bay, a perfect palm-fringed crescent. Moving south, you’ll find famous Ka‘anapali Beach, a 3-mile strand divided by Black Rock, which creates perfect snorkeling habitat. Sprawling resort hotels and condos, a posh shopping center and kiosks offering water adventures line the beach.
Moving south, join locals at Launiupoki, a developed though often crowded state park, or down the road, facility-free Olowalu, great for snorkeling. Beyond at Ma‘alaea Bay you’ll find a long, almost empty beach perfect for long walks. Kalepolepole with its restored fishpond offers historic interest. Moving to Kihei, the Kamaole Beach Parks, or Kam I, II or III as the locals call them, offer wide spaces to picnic on the grass, restrooms and lifeguards.
Photogenic Keawakapu Beach at Kihei’s south end often is the backdrop for family portraits. Then Wailea offers another long, though not quite continuous beach. A walk links all of the segments — identical twins Mokapu and Ulua, Wailea (another No. 1 Best Beach) and Polo.
Across the Maui center, two beaches attract adrenalin seekers and spectators. Kanaha Beach Park for kiteboarding and, near Pa‘ia, Ho‘okipa, a world-class wind surfing destination. After the hairpin curves on the Hana Highway you’ll reach the stunning black sand beach at Wai‘anapanapa State Park.
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Take the ferry to Lana‘i for snorkeling at Hulopo‘e Bay, popular long before the posh resorts were built. Moloka‘i isn’t known for its beaches, but Papohaku Beach Park is irresistible and almost deserted.
Always heed the red or black high surf flags though not all Maui beaches have them. Beaches here may have strong currents and rip tides, which change with the seasons and wind direction. Some beach parks have lifeguards, but many beaches don’t.