In a nation of more than 300 million people, a small county in the Pacific Ocean that’s home to just over 155,000 people has nearly a quarter of the country’s best beaches.
Maui is called “The Valley Island,” but in most travelers’ minds, its beaches are synonymous with the Hawaiian island. In the annual “Best Beach” contest held since 1991, Maui has won four times — five, if you want to stretch the definition of Maui. Maui County includes the islands of Molokai and Lanai. A beach on Lanai was the winner in 1997.
And Maui isn’t done. A remote beach in an area once favored by Oprah Winfrey made this year’s Top 10 and is likely to win the top spot eventually.
It’s not all good news for Maui’s famous beaches. A U.S. Geological Survey report says Maui has the highest rate of beach erosion in the state. Data from 1899 to 2007 show Maui beaches averaged 6.7 inches of sand lost each year. The worst impact is on the north shore near Paia. Erosion rates are somewhat higher in the Kaanapali area than in Kihei or Wailea.
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As to the rankings, I’ve criticized the methodology of the contest put out each spring by “Dr. Beach,” Stephen Leatherman, a Florida oceanography professor. He has a big East Coast bias. But we can’t argue with his favorites in Maui. Here are the big four (or five), along with the next champion in waiting. The year the beach won the contest is in parentheses.
D.T. Fleming Beach Park, Maui (2006): I’ve taken my share of knocks at this great bodysurfing beach on the sometimes turbulent northwest shore of Maui. When you’re feeling a bit winded from battling the waves, there are shade trees along parts of the mile-long strand. When you are ready to call it a day, head uphill to the bar at the Ritz-Carlton for some sundowner drinks and pupus.
Kaanapali, Maui (2003): The busiest beach on this list, it’s fronted by a string of hotels from the Sheraton on the north to the Hyatt on the south and the Whaler’s Village shopping mall in the middle. With all the fancy resort swimming pools, guests sometimes that forget a world class beach is just on the other side of the walkway. There’s usually gentle surf and knockout views out toward Lanai. My favorite spot is Black Rock at the north end of the beach, with its excellent snorkeling and the crazies jumping off the rock.
Wailea Beach, Maui (1999): Wider, hotter and less crowded than Kaanapali to the north, Wailea is also fronted by luxury hotels and rocks in portions, but wide sands in other areas. The drop-off is gradual here, making it good for kids if the waves aren’t up. The view here is also outstanding, with views toward the tiny Molokini crater dive spot and the island of Kahoolawe, once used for Navy target practice.
Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui (1991): The first “best beach” on Leatherman’s list is still one of the islands’ prettiest, though in the intervening decades, development has taken over the slope just above the beach, replacing palm trees and greenery with hotel and condo units. Though it has lost some of its magic, the beach itself is still a beautiful crescent of blond-colored sand fronting clear aquamarine waters.
Hulopoe, Lanai (1997): Lanai is officially part of Maui County, governed from the Maui town of Wailuku. If you want to get political, it could be included in Maui’s best beach count. There’s actually a geological basis for inclusion with the other beaches. Lanai and Molokai were once part of Maui Nui, the massive, ancient volcanic island that collapsed into the sea millions of years ago. Hulopoe is the best beach in the Hawaiian islands that barely anyone gets to. It’s next to the Four Seasons Manele Bay on the former pineapple plantation island. There are trees for shade and picnic tables for get-togethers, and a nice mix of tourists and locals.
Hamoa Beach (No. 5 this year): Travelers really, really have to want to visit this beach. It’s just beyond the Travaasa Resort at the end of the twisting, 52-mile Hana Highway from Kahului. The beach is framed by coconut palm trees that give shade on hot days. The beach is actually the side of an old volcanic crater. The area has been a favored getaway for celebrities for nearly a century. Aviator Charles Lindbergh is buried in a churchyard nearby, writer Ernest Hemingway called it one of the most beautiful beaches he’d seen, ex-Beatle George Harrison lived not far away and TV host/magnate Oprah Winfrey owns property on this side of the island, though her main residence is now upcountry near Kula. If all goes according to the trend, Hamoa should reach the No. 1 designation later this decade.