In the middle of the summer high season, it seems possible to walk from one end of the beach at Waikiki to the other without ever touching sand or surf because of all the bodies and beach towels.
At Kaanapali on Maui, the beaches are fronted by luxury hotels, and a boardwalk moves the hordes from spot to spot, beach to bar, sand to shopping.
Finding a beautiful, nearly deserted beach isn't a tropical fantasy. You just might have to make a long, sometimes bumpy ride or a bit of a hike. But if you long to be alone, buy a good map and head for these places where you can still get lost in paradise.
—Kauai: Polihale Beach. A well-developed dirt road takes you the last part of the drive to the longest beach in the islands, so it's best to rent a Jeep or SUV — something with a little ground clearance. Officially, most rental car companies say the beach is off-limits — meaning if you get stuck, you are on your own getting out. But in more than a decade of visiting the beach, I've never had a problem with the road if I had the right kind of vehicle. The reward is a beautiful sunset spot with only a scattering of visitors. The road keeps the crowds out, but because it is a state park, there are plenty of benches, bathrooms and barbecue spots. The water here is usually too rough for anything more than a knees-and-below dip. Native Hawaiians believe that the souls of the dead jump off into the afterlife from the cliffs at the north end of the beach — the most westerly point in the main islands.
Difficulty getting there: medium.
—Oahu: Army Beach. Finding a good deserted beach on an island known as "The Gathering Place" is difficult. My top choice is on the "other" side of the North Shore, west of Haleiwa — away from Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. The Hawaiian name for the spot is Mokuleia Beach. But its nickname is Army Beach because an Army recreation center was located nearby until 1989. There's a rocky shelf that requires reef walker shoes to navigate. But the beach is gorgeous and there is usually no one around — which is why they filmed much of "Lost" on this stretch of oceanfront. The water is calmest in summer. This is the easiest of the beaches on this list to get to. It's just a few feet off a paved road. But that also means it is sometimes a spot for car break-ins. Put all your valuables in the trunk and leave the windows rolled down. That way there is nothing to take.
Difficulty getting there: easy.
—Maui: Hamoa Beach. You have to make the long, twisting drive to Hana and then go on even farther. Regularly voted one of the most beautiful beaches in all the islands, Hamoa is often deserted, or nearly so. It's just too much of a time and distance commitment for all but the most determined beach enthusiasts. But once you get to the Hana area, finding the beach is easy, with decent parking and a short walk to the water's edge. There's plenty of shade in the trees above the surf line. The waters are placid in winter and a little bit more rollicking in summer. A visit is best in the early morning and late afternoon, when the day trippers making the Hana Road drive have yet to arrive or have already left.
Difficulty getting there: medium
—Lanai: Polihua Beach. I love Hulopoe Beach on the south coast — it's one of the most beautiful in the state and a great place to swim, body surf and snorkel. But with the Manele Bay resort on the west end and a popular local park on the east end, it's usually as full as a beach on tiny Lanai can get. The opposite is true of Polihua, on the north coast. You'll need a four-wheel drive Jeep in Lanai City. Unlike on other islands, the Dollar rental car agency expects that you will be taking your vehicle onto primitive roads, and the price — $139 a day — reflects the wear and tear on the Jeep. Get a good map and drive north on the dirt roads toward the stone formations known as the Garden of the Gods. From there, it is a steep grade to finally pull up to a wide, golden stretch of sand with views out to Molokai. You'll likely have it all to yourself except in the late afternoon, when a sundowner crowd of locals comes down to TGI whatever day it is. Don't drive too far onto the soft sand — it's a long (and expensive) tow out.
Difficulty getting there: hard.
—Molokai: Kaupoa Beach. It's not hard to find a deserted beach on Molokai, the island with the least developed tourism of the main Hawaiian islands. Even a spot like Murphy's Beach, popular in most guidebooks, is usually sparsely crowded at best. I've never been to Papohaku Beach, which sounds like a prime candidate for this list. My choice is Kaupoa Beach, on the west end of the island. It's not too far from Hoolehua, the main town on Molokai. The beach's look is right out of Hawaii central casting — with a beautiful white crescent, set off by blue waters and dark brown of volcanic outcroppings that run down to the beach. If the water is too rough — watch out for a quick drop-off — then stick to shore and check out the tide pools. Once you get your bearings, it's a fairly easy drive and walk to the beach.
Difficulty getting there: medium
—Big Island: Waipio Valley Beach. Distances are big on the Big Island, and as the youngest volcanic island, the shoreline is almost always rocky. There are a few classic beaches like Hapuna, along with some distant spots like the Papakolea Green Sand Beach near South Point. But they're usually too crowded or too far to drive. So I'll go with the black sand beach at Waipio Valley at the north end of the island. Be warned: It's a tough hike in and out. Most visitors come on organized tours to explore one of the least developed traditional Hawaiian valleys in the islands. At the beach, you will almost certainly be alone, with the exception perhaps of a fisherman or maybe a few local surfers. It's more for strolling and driftwood collecting than taking a swim — the water is often rough and a lifeguard is miles away. You'll love it until you hit that hill on the way back up to the highway. You'll work up a sweat for your solitude. Difficulty getting there: very hard.