Beaches in the Big Island’s Captain Cook area are all excellent for various water sports, including rental kayaking, and two have great amenities for a full day at the beach with a packed picnic lunch. All are fairly busy beaches, even the harder-to-reach ones, so plan ahead if you’re looking for solitude.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park
Tourists flock to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park (Beach Rd. off Hwy. 160, daylight hours) to kayak, go on kayak tours to the monument, or to simply snorkel. The park is exactly at the intersection where Beach Road intersects with Napo‘opo‘o Road. There is a parking lot with a boat launch right at the intersection, and a few yards away is the historical park with bathrooms, showers, picnic areas, drinking water, and an ample parking area.
Given the proximity to the reef, the snorkeling here is excellent, and depending on the season, it’s common to see dolphins swimming up next to you. The kayaking here is some of the easiest ocean kayaking, so it’s suitable for novices.
It is required that you obtain a permit to land at the monument across the bay. Visitors do not need to acquire their own permits when renting a kayak, but must confirm with the vessel owner that the vessel they rent possesses a valid permit for transiting the bay. There are only three companies that have valid permits (Adventures in Paradise, Aloha Kayak, and Kona Boys), so make sure you are renting kayaks from one of those companies or joining one of their tours.
You don’t need a permit if you’re just going to paddle around rather than land on the beach.
Manini Beach (off Hwy. 160) is a prime snorkeling and kayaking area with great views of the Captain Cook Monument in the distance. Greatly affected by the tsunami in March 2011, which forced two beachfront homes into the ocean, the beach is now restored and even nicer than it was before, with a large, partly shaded grassy area and several picnic tables. There are very few places to park here so it may be hard to find a spot, but the good news is that the water never gets too crowded. From Highway 160, also called Pu‘uhonua Road, turn makai onto Kahauloa Road and then right onto Manini Beach Road—follow it around for 0.2 mile until you see parked cars and a bay.
Ke‘ei Bay Beach
A real local place, Ke‘ei Bay Beach (off Hwy. 160) has a lovely strand, and it can get surprisingly busy given how you have to be in the know to get here. There is white sand and the water is calm for swimming or snorkeling. From Highway 160, also called Pu‘uhonua Road, turn onto an unmarked dirt road on the makai side between Ke‘ei transfer station and Keawaiki Road, which it is gated. Four-wheel drives are best for this road to the beach, but you can reach it in a standard car with some careful, slow driving. Drive toward the ocean (or you can walk about 15 minutes) until you can’t drive anymore. Park in the semi-designated lot in front of the houses.
Ho‘okena Beach Park
The road down to Ho‘okena Beach Park (Hwy. 11 near mile marker 101) is worth the trip: It has excellent views of the coastline and the surrounding area, and if you are an advanced biker you might want to try this route for a challenge. There is an actual sandy beach here, and it makes for a nice place to bring a towel and laze the day away. There is even some shade.
The water here is not too rough, so it’s a nice place to swim, snorkel, or kayak (rentals are available at the beach or by calling 808/328-8430, $20 for a single kayak for two hours or $25 for a tandem). If you get here early you might see a spinner dolphin, as this area is one of their habitats. Facilities such as showers, bathrooms, barbecues, and a large covered picnic area are available. Camping is allowed in designated areas, and permits can be obtained online a recommended 72 hours in advance, or at the beach from the attendant beginning at 5pm daily. It is advised that you consult the park website, as there are extensive instructions about how to obtain a permit and there is different pricing for residents and nonresidents. There is a separate area to park if you’re camping here, to the left of the main parking lot. The area is popular with locals and can get crowded and rowdy at night, so it might not be the best place if you’re camping with kids or looking for a peaceful evening.
From Highway 11 a two-mile paved windy road leads to the entrance. Where the road splits when you are almost at the ocean, fork to the left—don’t go straight—where there is usually a sign for kayak rentals, and head on the one-lane road into the parking lot. You will see the sign for Ho‘okena on the ocean side of the road.