There are many excellent surf breaks along the western shore of Hawai’i Island, but few are better suited for those new to the sport than Kahalu’u Beach Park.
Inhabiting one corner of Kahalu’u Bay, this Kona-side swimming and surfing spot is a stretch of mixed black and white sand beach with a coastline of smooth black lava rock that gives way to a shallow bay of crystal blue water. Offshore, a crescent-shaped wall of sunken boulders created centuries ago by ancient Hawaiians tempers the strength of incoming waves, which crash spectacularly against the manmade reef before coming into shore as little more than a gentle lapping on the beach.
This underwater wall ensures that the bay is calm and clear on most days, creating an ideal environment for safe, leisurely swimming and for exploring the island’s astounding variety of marine life. Kahalu’u Bay is often ranked within the top five snorkeling spots on the island, as the expansive bay provides a seemingly endless supply of submerged rocky outcrops for resident crab, eels, octopus, sea horses, urchins – even green sea turtles. Milling around above the lively beds of coral are schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish, including butterflyfish, boxfish, parrotfish, unicornfish, zebrafish and much more.
The snorkeling grounds eventually give way to the primary surf break at the bay’s northern end. Surfers have been paddling out to this spot since ancient times, hoping to catch the medium-sized barrels forming as the waves roll over the reef, and ride them towards shore into the calmer waters of the bay. Here the sea is so clear that it is possible to see the multi-colored fields of coral that make up the reef while sitting on a surfboard and waiting for the next set to come in.
On days with ideal ocean conditions, a line of surfers can be spotted out at the break taking their turns catching the waves and trying their best to keep a solid footing. Being such a popular spot for beginners, the beach crowd will usually bear witness to a high number of wipeouts, where sometimes a single wave can be seen gobbling up multiple surfers at once with its jaws of thrashing white foam. Others manage to hold on the take the ride, cutting a wide and graceful arc along the bay with arms outstretched for better balance. A never-ending stream of surfers can be seen making their way into shore to rest, often helped along by the rolling waves, while fresh arrivals pass them paddling the other direction out to join the group.
Some of the larger waves crash here at the outer reef and then go on to reform again – much smaller this time – creating an intermittent secondary break closer to shore which is perfect for smaller children and first-timers. The first break can reach heights that can be challenging for beginners – sometimes up to six or eight feet – so on high surf days Kahalu’u is a popular destination due to these smaller nearshore breaks. These are often taken advantage of by school-age kids riding boogie boards and wearing fins, who furiously kick to build up speed as the waves approach and then takeoff on their sharp zig-zagging rides.
All of these boards – surfboards, boogie boards, stand-up paddle boards and more – can be rented from several different shops lining the bay off of Kona’s iconic seaside thoroughfare Ali’i Drive (pronounced “ah-lee-ee”). These include Kona Surf Town Adventures, which offers rentals, surfing and paddle boarding lessons and customized surf trips, as well as Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea found right across the street from the surf break in an orange house. This colorful, locally renown shop offers board rentals and lessons for all skill levels.
A Perfect Beach Day – Picnics, Barbeques and Wildlife Watching
Kahalu’u Beach Park is very well-outfitted in terms of amenities. It has a large covered pavilion full of picnic tables, multiple stands of outdoor showers, bathroom facilities and a prominent lifeguard tower. On most days, there are several pop-up concessionaires and food trucks operating in the parking lot serving up everything from hamburgers to smoothies to shave ice to ice cream.
Then there’s a grove of towering coconut palms located right up from the shoreline which provides much-needed shade on scorching days when the hot Kona-side sun makes the sand too hot to walk across. Picnickers and sunbathers find these shady patches and sprawl out on blankets and beach towels, watching the snorkelers make their rounds in the shallows just offshore. A concrete stand of barbeque pits sits across from the picnic table pavilion, with their well-charred metal grates. It’s easy to imagine the park at full capacity on a busy day, with every picnic table full of patrons and all five of the barbeques going at once, with the enticing smell of cooking meat wafting along the sidewalk.
And humans aren’t the only ones taking their meals at the beach park; green sea turtles can often be seen milling around the bay feeding on seaweed. They take breaks from their hunt to haul themselves onto the shore of warm lava rocks and catch some sun. And although it is tempting to get close to these fascinating creatures for a better look, keep in mind that the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is an endangered species under state and federal protection, with laws requiring observers to keep a ten foot minimum distance away. Snorkelers will often come upon them while exploring the shallows, and it is important to observe from a distance and not chase them.
The world-class snorkeling at Kahalu’u Beach Park is made possible by its healthy and abundant populations of coral. These are the building blocks of the reef ecosystem, without which the nearshore environment would be drab and lifeless. So, protecting the health of the coral is a great way to preserve the beauty of Kahalu’u Bay, and this means taking care not not to touch or walk on the coral while exploring or while entering and exiting the ocean.
Another way to do your part in protecting the coral in Kahalu’u Bay is to use reef-safe sunscreen. Many of the predominant sunscreen brands available today are made with chemicals known to be toxic to the tiny jellyfish-like organisms that build the elaborate coral structures. Without these creatures, the coral suffers from what is known as “bleaching”, where the once-colorful underwater structures turn a ghostly white and all the resident sea life moves away. Thankfully, reef-safe sunscreens (utilizing Zinc oxide or Titanium oxide as their active ingredient) are available in dispensers at the beach park’s pavilion for those who didn’t bring their own.
How To Get There:
Kahalu’u Beach Park is located right off of Ali’i Drive, the several-mile-long main coastal thoroughfare running from main street Kona to the town of Keauhou. It’s in a grouping of other nearby beach parks and surfing spots including Pahoehoe Beach Park, Magic Sands Beach, Lymans Surf Spot and Makolea Beach. Roughly four miles south of Kona town along Ali’i Drive, drivers will spot the large crescent-shaped beach and clear, shallow waters of Kahalu’u Bay with a gaggle of surfers lined up at the break.
An easy to spot landmark assuring visitors that they’re in the right place is the board rental shop Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea, found on the left side of Ali’i Drive if heading south, with the easiest access for surfers found directly across the road from its orange house. This is at the northern end of the beach park, where a narrow sandy path meanders across the rocky shoreline leaving just enough room for surfers to walk into the water, plop down their boards, jump on and start the short paddle out to the break.
Free parallel parking can be found on either side of Ali’i Drive, although on busy days finding a parking spot adjacent to the beach park can be tricky. Sometimes it’s necessary to park a few blocks away and walk down to the ocean. The pavilions, barbeque pits, restrooms, showers and shady coconut grove are all easily visible from the road, and on most days visitors will find at least a few white pop-up tents selling hot food, snacks and cold drinks.
For those wanting to spend more than just an afternoon in that area of south Ali’i Drive, there are several accommodation options near the bay including Big Island Retreat and Kahalu’u Beach Villas at Kahalu’u Beach, both located just a short walk away.
Important note about ocean safety at Kahalu’u Beach Park: According to some locals, Kahalu’u has the highest incidence of distressed swimmers in a given year than any other beach park on the entire island. And although there is a manned lifeguard station at Kahalu’u, beach-goers should not rely solely on outside help in order to stay safe while in the water. It is each individual’s responsibility to know their limits, observe ocean conditions before getting in, and watch out for rip tides and rogue waves. As the statewide Hawai’i ocean safety motto goes, “if in doubt, don’t go out.”