The leeward Kau District coast of the Big Island offers wide-open vistas and some fascinating history. Whittington Beach Park makes an interesting stop along a tour of Highway 11, readily combined with a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
This fee-free county beach park lies about midway between South Point (Ka Lae)— the southernmost extremity of the Big Island (and all the 50 states)—and the national park’s coastal unit. A stone’s throw from the hamlet of Naalehu, Whittington Beach fronts scenic Honuapo Bay. The quiet park—which offers restrooms, outdoor showers, picnic tables, a pavilion, and a camping area but no drinking water—marks what once was a much more bustling port.
Back in the 19th century, this was a fishing village that took a heavy beating in an 1868 tsunami. Rebuilt and reinvigorated by the sugarcane industry, Honuapo became an important shipping hub for the Hutchinson Sugar Plantation. The remnants of the pier you see here today are something of a legacy of World War II: The structure was intentionally destroyed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to thwart a potential landing here by Japanese forces. The 1946 tsunami also did some damage here, as the decrepit wharf shows.
The site was turned into a park in 1948. It was named for Richard (“Dick”) Henry Whittington, who worked in Naalehu for the sugar plantation and later became county road supervisor; he built a house above the bayfront here and died in 1945.
Don’t expect any white-sand (or black-sand, for that matter) beachfront at Whittington Beach Park. This is a rocky basaltic shore of rugged lava outcrops. The rough surf, strong currents, and rocks make swimming and most any other kind of watersport in the nearshore waters a dangerous proposition. (There aren’t any lifeguards here, either.) But you’ll find sheltered tidepools among the rocks beckoning a bit of exploration, and locals often dip in the ancient fishponds here.
Even though there’s no soft sand here to get between your toes, the seashore here is plenty scenic. The long dry slope of the Kau District and vast Pacific skyline backdrop it, with the green of the palms and shrubbery contrasting nicely with the black basalt.
Besides enjoying the scenery and perhaps having a good old-fashioned seaside picnic, you’ve got the chance of seeing some intriguing sea life at Whittington Beach Park. In the fishponds and inlet here, particularly in the early morning and evening hours, you’ll sometimes spot Hawaiian hawksbill turtles (honuea).
These much rarer—and quite a bit smaller—relatives of the more familiar green sea turtle (honu) are critically endangered, with less than 20 thought to nest in Hawaii each year. The Big Island is their most important refuge among the main Hawaiian Islands. Unlike green turtles, which sometimes bask on the beach, hawksbills only come ashore to nest. Remote beaches to the east along the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park coast provide important nesting sites for hawksbill turtles. They feed almost exclusively on sea sponges. The chance to see a hawksbill—even if not a sure thing—is reason enough for nature enthusiasts to make a stop at Whittington Beach Park. (Honuapo means “turtle cove,” incidentally.)
Whittington Beach Park is usually uncrowded—sometimes even essentially deserted—during the week. The weekends, unsurprisingly, are busier, as locals come here for fishing and picnicking.
Don’t come to Whittington Beach Park for plush sands: Come for the interesting history and striking, rocks-and-surf scenery!
Driving around the dirt roads that flank Whittington Beach Park off Highway 11 rewards with additional scenic views, plus a hidden-gem cove to the near east.