There aren’t many Big Island beaches more fabled than Kaunaoa, also known as Mauna Kea Beach. Fronting the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, this spectacular stretch of white sand on the Kohala Coast often shows up on lists of the finest beaches in the U.S.—and for good reason. Its palm-edged shores and inviting waters are just about note-perfect.
Given its popularity, and the private resort edging it, enjoying this famous half-mile beachfront can be a little tricky. Like all Hawaiian beaches, it’s open to the public. The trick is that the parking for it comes courtesy of the hotel’s privately owned lot. Some 40 slots are reserved for non-guest beachgoers, but, as you might imagine, they fill up fast.
In other words, you should definitely aim to get to Mauna Kea Beach as early as possible in the morning. The whole “early bird gets the worm” line definitely applies here. You should see a sign giving you a heads-up that the parking lot’s full as you drive in. (If that is the case, consider steering southward to the nearby Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, another fine option. Or you can hang about and hope somebody leaves sooner rather than later.)
But these white sands are certainly worth some effort (and bleary-eyed alarm wakeups) to appreciate. This is a well-appointed beach, with restrooms and showers and a beachfront restaurant on hand courtesy of the hotel. You can also rent a wide variety of beachgoing essentials, including snorkeling equipment and bodyboards.
The gently sloping shoreface invites pleasant swimming when conditions are calm, as they often are in the summer. (Winter seas, by contrast, can be rough, with a strong shore break setting up and rip currents running—not great for getting in the water.)
In such placid conditions, and when the water’s clear enough, the snorkeling at Kaunaoa Beach is also quite solid. The bay here comes fringed to either side with reef features and a wide variety of tropical fish. Sea turtles are also common sights.
But when it comes to marine life, the true celebrities of Mauna Kea Beach are the manta rays. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel aims floodlights on the nearshore waters after dark, which results in plentiful plankton. Those miniscule morsels draw those huge and graceful filter-feeding mantas. While underwater experiences are the main attraction, you can also often nab topdown views of the supersized rays from the aptly named Manta Ray Point.
Before the nighttime manta-ray show, meanwhile, Mauna Kea Beach serves up some top-quality Pacific sunsets. One of those colorful evening sky spectacles is the perfect icing on the cake to a truly world-class day at the beach!
-You can walk north along the Kohala Coast from Mauna Kea Beach about a mile and a half to reach two primate pocket beaches: Waiuluala and Mauumae.
-Beach lovers who are also art lovers might want to spare some time for checking out the fine Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Art Collection. The foundation for this collection was established in the mid-1960s by none other than Laurance S. Rockefeller.