The view flying into the Kona Airport is of a never-ending landscape of scorched black lava, often hazed by volcanic smog. It's not anyone's idea of paradise. Post-apocalyptic is more like it.
Wrong. Look again: The South Kohala Coast, covering thirty miles north of Kailua-Kona, has many of the best swimming beaches in the Islands, most of them wild and some of them home to the best destination resorts in the world (spaced miles apart and with fabulous grounds to go with their beaches).
Pictured above, Beach 69 (Waialea Beach) near sleepy Puako is one of the best, with waters for both snorkeling and surfing, and plenty of shade at the backshore. (No! Beach 69 refers to the number on the telephone pole that told you where to look in the old days before it was made a signed state beach.)
You can thank all that bleak lava for the clear waters in South Kohala. The fresh earth hasn't had time to erode into streams to muddy the waters. Instead of streams, brackish freshwater pools appear all along the shoreline. The lava reefs provide protection for paddle boarding at Kikaua Park (above) and numerous places in South Kohala.
After crossing rolling lava, the oasis of greenery along the coast is welcome.
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area (above) is the biggest on the Big Island. Located at the north end of South Kohala near the Mauna Lani Resort, this place is jumpin' on the weekends since it's the go-to getaway for refugees who drive over from the Hilo side. Picnic pavilions are perfect.
All beaches are public places in Hawaii, so there's no problem taking a dip at a resort—though using lounges, etc., is discouraged.
Some resort roads are open, just like beach parks. Others have an entrance station, where visitors are required to pick up a free public access permit. The catch is that parking is limited. The uncatch is that Hawaii the Big Island Trailblazer has details on how to get permits and find alternate access even on busy days.