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With over 750 miles of coastline across the Hawaiian islands, picking the island with the best beaches can be a tricky decision. If you’re planning a Hawaii vacation and want amazing beaches, keep reading to discover which island reigns supreme.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Maui edges out Oahu and Kauai for having the best combination of stunning beaches in terms of scenic beauty, swimming conditions, and availability of amenities and activities.

Beach Scenery and Natural Beauty

Maui’s Striking Black and Red Sand Beaches

Maui is home to some of Hawaii’s most visually stunning beaches, featuring both black and red colored sand. The island’s famous Red Sand Beach near Hana gets its vibrant hue from surrounding iron-rich cliffs and volcanic activity.

Located in a secluded cove, the beach rewards those willing to scramble down a steep trail with dramatic scenery and excellent snorkeling. Meanwhile, Maui’s Honokalani Black Sand Beach showcases glittering black sand made from lava flowing into the ocean.

Backed by palm trees and lush green cliffs, it creates a striking contrast of colors.

Kauai’s Picturesque Napali Coast

The Napali Coast on Kauai’s northwest shore is widely considered among the most picturesque beaches in Hawaii. Its natural beauty stems from sharp green cliffs rising nearly 4,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean, creating dramatic island backdrops.

Popular activities include kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking the famous Kalalau coastal trail for extraordinary cliff-lined scenery. According to Lonely Planet, Napali means “the cliffs” in Hawaiian, accurately describing the landscape that’s said to be among Hawaii’s most stunning.

Oahu’s Famous North Shore Waves

Oahu’s North Shore is known across the globe for its enormous winter surf. Powerful swells frequently reach over 30 feet high, creating legendary waves like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay. Thousands of spectators flock here every year for prestigious surf competitions.

But the North Shore also boasts lovely beaches like Turtle Bay with softer surf, along with beautiful scenery such as lush mountains and the famous Three Tables offshore rock formations. Additionally, according to Go Hawaii, Oahu’s beaches account for roughly half the tourism statewide.

Island Unique Beach Feature
Maui Striking black and red sand beaches
Kauai Breathtaking Napali Coast cliffs
Oahu World-famous North Shore surf

Swimming Conditions and Water Activities

Maui’s Calm Swimming Beaches

Maui is home to many protected and calm swimming beaches perfect for leisurely dips, such as Kapalua Bay and Ka’anapali Beach. The island’s west side beaches are renowned for their tranquil turquoise waters and swimmable conditions throughout the year.

According to Maui’s visitor guide, over 75% of Maui beaches rank high for swimming due to minimal shore break and currents.

Some family-friendly spots on west Maui with lifeguards on duty are Kapalua Beach, Ka’anapali Beach, and Napili Beach. These beaches have gentle waves and fewer strong currents than east Maui due to a protective offshore reef system.

The average year-round ocean temperature is a comfortable 78°F, ideal for prolonged swimming and water play.

Kauai’s Ideal Snorkeling Sites

With vibrant coral reefs and calm water conditions, Kauai has some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling. Top spots include Tunnels Beach, Poipu Beach Park, and Ke’e Beach. An analysis by found over 85% of Kauai’s north shore beaches ranked high for snorkeling due to clear waters and a diversity of sea life.

The coral reefs along Kauai’s north shore remain protected from large swells in the summer, creating optimal snorkeling conditions. Tunnels Beach features underwater lava tubes blooming with coral and tropical fish. Snorkelers can expect to see sea turtles and monk seals at Poipu Beach Park.

Ke’e Beach offers views of vibrant coral gardens just offshore.

Oahu’s Premier Surfing

With famous north and south shore surf breaks, Oahu is regarded as the epicenter of surf culture in Hawaii. Top surf spots include Waikiki Beach, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline. Surf reports consistently rank the winter waves on Oahu’s north shore among the largest and best in the world.

Iconic spots like Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline can see winter swells over 25 feet high, creating world-class barrels attractive to pro surfers worldwide. The south shore stays active with surfable waves year-round.

For beginners, Waikiki Beach offers first-timer lessons and gentle surf with average swells of just 3 to 5 feet.

Beach Amenities for Relaxation and Convenience

Lifeguarded Beaches Across Maui

Maui is home to over 30 miles of beaches, many of which have lifeguards on duty during peak hours. Popular beaches like Ka’anapali, Wailea, and Kapalua have lifeguard stations spread along the shore to ensure swimmer safety.

Even more secluded spots like Hamoa Beach, Kamaole Beach Park, and Hale Pi’ilani Park have roaming lifeguards keeping an eye out for dangerous conditions.

According to MauiTime, there were less ocean drownings in 2021 across Maui beaches thanks to increased lifeguard staffing. With plenty of sets of watchful eyes, swimmers of all ages can enjoy frolicking in the waves in peace.

Limited Development in Kauai

The island of Kauai prides itself on preserving its natural landscape and limiting commercial development. As a result, most beaches on Kauai do not have amenities like bathrooms, showers, lifeguard towers or snack bars.

The exceptional beach at Hanalei Bay has basic restrooms and showers, but most stretches of sand are delightfully void of buildings and pavement.

While this may not be ideal for families with small children who need bathroom breaks, it creates an unspoiled paradise enjoyed by couples, nature lovers and adventurers. Pack a cooler, umbrella and towels and you can easily spend all day immersed in Kauai’s simple beach magic.

Waikiki’s World Famous Amenities

No list of Hawaiian beach amenities is complete without mentioning the state’s most popular beach: Waikiki on the island of Oahu. Waikiki draws over 4 million visitors per year who come to enjoy the iconic crescent bay backed by palms, high-rises and Diamond Head crater.

Nearly the entire 2-mile stretch of sand is lined with resorts, shops, restaurants and activity rental stands. Beachgoers can find public showers, bathrooms, surfboard/paddleboard/kayak rentals, beach chair/umbrella rentals and plenty of options for parking or grabbing a bite.

With so much to do steps from the water, it’s no wonder Waikiki Beach has been a top global destination for over a century.


While all the Hawaiian islands offer breathtaking beaches, Maui narrowly surpasses the rest with its unparalleled combination of natural splendor, serene swimming conditions, and availability of amenities that enhance time spent by the ocean.

Across over 30 miles of beaches, you’ll discover striking black and red sand beaches, calm waters perfect for swimming and snorkeling, and plenty of services for beachgoers.

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