Beaches, of all places on the planet, brim with hidden possibilities. They are worlds of respite, the launching grounds for great adventures; they are nurseries, the homes of legions of marine creatures and the neutral zone between the entropy of the land and the sensuality of the sea. Beaches are blessings. They shimmer with endless opportunity, renewed daily with the cleansing tide. Picking the best beaches on any of the Hawaiian Islands is a lovely but complex burden. Sand, sun, people, surf, access, privacy -- each has its own appeal. In the end, we chose these for their vibe -- one that resonates deep into the heart of Hawaii. They are places where the footprints of past kings mingle with our present-day trails, places you can claim as your own and whisper about as you pass the secret information to your friends and neighbors.
Kahala Beach, Oahu
Urban Honolulu's secret beach hides behind the backyards of the state's priciest real estate. But you don't have to be a billionaire to enjoy this gem. Drive along über-rich Kahala Avenue looking for marked beach access. Try Hunakai Street where the swimming is the best. Sea horses are rare but sometimes seen among the coral.
Halona Cove, Oahu
The famous and romantic love scene in From Here to Eternity was filmed in this dramatically beautiful cove carved into the lava coast of east Oahu. The precarious trail down from Blowhole Lookout has recently been improved to allow gown-adorned brides access to the golden sands below. Watch for whales from December through May.
Bellows Field Beach Park, Oahu
Popular with locals and almost unknown to tourists, this windward shore beach is kept hidden within Bellows Air Force Station and is open to the public only on weekends and holidays. Tall, wispy ironwood trees stand along a dazzling stretch of white sand. Look for Hawaiian shore birds and "sand turtles," actually tiny turtle-shaped crabs that swim in the shore break.
Mahaulepu Beach, Kauai
Explore sand dunes, sea cliffs, caves, and a raised coral reef along this sparsely visited two-mile stretch of sand, just on the other side of Punahoa Point on the south shore, near the Poipu resorts. Archaeologists have found fossil remains of extinct birds such as the long-legged owl here. Seabirds still nest in the nooks and crannies. Snorkeling is rewarding.
Kekaha Beach Park, Kauai
The park claims the eastern end of a 15-mile stretch of sandy beach that begins at the eastern edge of the towering Na Pali Coast. You'll like this one for swimming, surfing and just watching the sun set behind the islands of Niihau and Lehua. Don't swim when the surf is up, due to powerful rip currents.
Napili Bay, Maui
If you're seeking fine swimming in clear water and a perfectly dazzling smile of a beach, this secluded cove is the place. Yes, there are hotels tucked into the cove, but they are nicely cordoned off by wide green lawns. Beware of any winter surf sneaking into the bay. Look for public access at Napili Place and Hui Drive.
Mokuleia Beach, Maui
Slaughterhouse is what locals call this beach carved into the base of the West Maui Mountains. Honolua Ranch once had facilities on the headlands. Now Slaughterhouse often refers to the winter surf that slams ashore. During summer, Mokuleia is tranquil, sandy and secluded. Snorkelers love it because it's a marine conservation district and fish are plentiful.
Kiowea Park, Molokai
Forget the swimming - the bottom is silt. But bring your camera and lug the tripod; the sunsets here are spectacular. The beach is adjacent to the famous Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove. Hundreds of tall graceful niu, the Hawaiian coconut palm, are silhouetted against magenta and deep-purple skies in evening. The trees are said to have been planted personally by King Kamehameha V.
Pauoa Beach, Big Island
Ever have the urge to swim in champagne? Natural freshwater springs bubble beneath tepid waves, spritzing swimmers with jets of icy water. More reasons to toast Pauoa: wide, white sands and a treasured reef harboring native green sea turtles, endemic reef fish and fascinating coral life. The Fairmont Orchid hotel is near enough for real champagne.
Nanina Beach, Niihau
Swim on Hawaii's "forbidden island." The island is privately owned and not open to the public. The only access is a helicopter flight (Niihau Helicopters, 877-441-3500) that lands near Nanina Beach. Nanina is long and wide with good swimming, a protective reef and views of uninhabited Lehua island. Swimming and snorkeling are excellent. A picnic lunch is served in a beach pavilion.
Puu Pehe Cove, Lanai
On this southeast side of the island, the sea cliffs are red and the exceptionally clear water is a shade of teal, almost green. Swimming and snorkeling are excellent here. Beware of loose rocks from the cliff above. Follow the shoreline northeast from the left side of Hulopoe, the popular resort beach, to find this hidden cove facing the sea stack called Sweetheart Rock.