Move over, Waikiki and Hanauma Bay: Here are 10 must-see beaches on Oahu

HONOLULU — I did not plan to get up at 4:30 a.m. the morning after a 13-hour travel day from Chicago. It was dark, and the free hotel breakfast buffet didn't even open for another two hours.

My body clock had other plans, so I headed out for a beach sunrise.

Instead of strolling a few blocks to the famous, touristy Waikiki Beach, I hopped in my rental car and headed east.

Half an hour later I was in a serene cove at Makapuu Beach, where my only company was a local photographer; a surfer; and, very briefly, a monk seal.

The sunrise looked to be a bust because of heavy cloud cover and looming rain showers, but the sun came through at the last minute with a brilliant golden display.

"I'd say we scored,'' said Nick Pugay, a Honolulu wedding photographer.

Spiritually stirring sunrise or not, Honolulu visitors who venture beyond Waikiki Beach for their beach fix(es) will always be rewarded.

I traversed the island of Oahu for two days, putting more than 200 miles on my rental car in search of must-see beaches and was treated to sea turtle close-ups, sweet surfing and snorkeling sites and secluded sunrise and sunset spots. The best part: there were no admission or parking charges (though parking was a challenge at some of the spots), and there were facilities at most places.

All distances are from the Sheraton Waikiki in the center of Waikiki Beach. For beach conditions check the Hawaii Beach Safety website from the Hawaii Lifeguard Association.

The 10 beaches: 

South Shore and East (Windward) Shore

1. Makapuu Beach 

Why go: Stunning sunrises, lava rocks, body surfing and surfing. Rabbit Island, a bird sanctuary, is the island across the way.

Rave review: Layne McIntosh lives in nearby Waimanalo and says Makapuu is the most consistent surfing spot on Oahu. "The lifeguards surf here all the time, and maybe a handful of other Hawaiians,'' he said. Surfing hours are limited, and the rip current can be very strong.

Added bonus: The Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail, next door to the beach, is a popular paved hike with stunning ocean views at every turn. It's 2.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 500 feet. It took 70 minutes at a leisurely pace with stops for photos. 

Distance from Waikiki: 15 miles

Makapuu Beach at sunrise

2. Waimanalo Bay

Why go: Take a long walk in the soft sand, swim in the Caribbean-like waters or plop your beach chair in the sand and don't move. 

Rave review: Alex Vang and his extended family, visiting from Orange County, California, spent a week in Waimanalo on their first visit to Oahu in April. His 5-year-old daughter loved digging in the sand and playing in the water. "It's very, very secluded,'' he said. "There's not many people, so it's great for families.''  

Added bonus: You can stay here. The Vangs rented a beachfront house near Aloiloi and Laumilo streets. 

Distance from Waikiki: 19 miles

Swimmers head into the turquoise waters at Waimanalo Bay beach near Honolulu, Hawaii.

3. Kailua Beach

Why go: For a beach picnic with fixins from nearby Kalapawai Market, kayaking and canoeing, strolling up to three miles in the sand, reading a book from a (bring-your-own) hammock tied to the trees in the large shady section. 

Rave review: Stephanie Blanco, visiting Kailua for the first time with her husband and their young daughters, couldn't stop gushing about the turquoise waters and lack of crowds, at least in April. The water was a little choppy on the windy day but the girls, 6 and 8, still loved it. "This side (of the island) is quiet, peaceful, quaint,'' she said. "It just makes me want to live out here.''

Added bonus: Kailua, a favorite of former President Barack Obama, was just named the No. 1 beach in the country in the annual rankings by Dr. Beach

Distance from Waikiki: 16 miles

Kailua Beach, a favorite of former President Barack Obama, has earned many accolades including the top beach in the world by "Dr. Beach.''

4. Lanikai Beach

Why go: Lanikai, next door to Kailua Beach, is in a residential area that will give you a taste of what it'd be like to live in a exclusive beachfront community. Rent a kayak and head to the Mokulua Islands ("the Mokes") or sign up for a kayak tour. You can also paddleboard between the twin islands, and kite surfing is popular when the wind picks up.

Rave review: Alex Hoiles, who is stationed on Oahu with the Navy, took her visiting mom to intimate Lanikai, one of her favorite beaches. It's quiet and there's always a cool breeze, she says. "No matter how hot it gets it's always just wonderful,'' she said.

Added bonus: The nearby Lanikai Pillbox hike is popular — many would say overcrowded —  especially at sunrise.

Distance from Waikiki: 17 miles

Visitors taking it easy on Lanikai Beach in Kailua, Hawaii.

5. Sandy Beach 

Why go: Sandy Beach is one of the closest beaches beyond Waikiki Beach, located just past Diamondhead and the popular but packed and pricey snorkeling spot Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. It is just off the main drag Kalanianaole Highway so is easy to pull into for a visit. Tourists stop by to poke around the lava rocks, locals for the body surfing and body boarding. 

Rave review: Kanalu Kaupu, 18, grew up around the corner and has been visiting Sandy Beach since he was a kid and still tries to visit every day for body boarding. "It's one of the most famous body-boarding beaches in Hawaii,'' he said. It's not a spot for beginners, though, with the rip current and shorebreak leading to more than its share of broken necks, he said. Obama is a fan of this beach, too, though a proposal to rename it for him failed

Added bonus: The eye-popping artwork on the bathroom facilities.

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 13 miles

Sandy Beach, on Oahu's south shore, is a popular bodyboarding spot for its shorebreak.

North Shore 

6. Waimea Bay Beach Park

Why go: The crazy waves get all the attention in the winter, but the rest of the year tourists and locals line up to jump off the cliffs into the water. The beach has a large grassy area for picnics and plenty of sand to spread out blankets. Note that the parking lot fills up quickly and street parking is limited. I parked at a house offering spots near the entrance to Waimea Falls and walked to the beach.

Rave review: 13-year-old Abby Hebert, 13, visiting from Massachusetts with her family, loved jumping off the rocks even though it seemed like a long way down on the first try. "I've jumped off a bridge, but compared to this it's nothing'' she said.

Added bonus: The beach is across the way from Waimea Valley, a popular tourist attraction with a hike to waterfalls. 

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 38 miles

Cliff jumping is the most popular activity at Waimea Bay Beach Park on the north shore of Oahu

7. Laniakea Beach 

Why go: One word: sea turtles. The Hawaiian green sea turtles are easy to spot in the water (from the shore or while snorkeling and swimming) and regularly park themselves on the sand to bask in the sun and warm up. It's a great place to spend a couple hours. Kids love it. The place is rocky, so bring water shoes if you have them. The beach is not easy to spot from the road, but you'll know you're there when you see cars parked on both sides of the road on the way to or from Waimea.  

Rave review: Jenessa and Josh McAuley, 31-year-old budget travelers from Canada, took a city bus to the beach, a trip that took nearly three hours but was only $11 for two all-day tickets. They snorkeled with the turtles, using gear from their Airbnb. "This is one of the top three things we've done,'' she said. 

Added bonus: Volunteers from Malama Na Honu, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of Hawaiian sea turtles, are at the beach every day to educate visitors about the turtles and keep them a safe distance away. They are friendly and knowledgeable, telling you the turtles' names, ages and why they flock to Laniakea: a freshwater spring delivers minerals to the seaweed, which is what the turtles eat. "Essentially they have an open salad bar in the water,'' one volunteer tells visitors.

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 35 miles

Laniakea Beach, on Oahu's North Shore, is best known for its green sea turtles.

8. Sunset Beach

Why go: Sunset Beach, a star of the North Shore, features an endless stretch of sand that is enjoyable any time of the day and magical at sunset. In the winter, monster waves attract surfers and crowds.

Rave review: "Great place for the family to get into the water,'' a visitor from Austin, Texas, wrote on TripAdvisor in April. "We made sure that we stayed around until sunset and took in the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen."

Added bonus: Ted's Bakery is nearby. Stop by early for the best selection of pies and other treats. 

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 40 miles

Sunset Beach, on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii, is picture perfect any time of time.

9. Shark's Cove

Why go: Kids will love wading and and looking for fish in the shallow water, and everyone else will enjoy swimming and snorkeling in the cove. Note that the cove, including the beach, is rocky so water shoes or sandals are a good idea.

Rave review: Kristie Barlow lives on Oahu and took her 5-year-old daughter, Leah, to Shark's Cove for the first time in April. Her daughter couldn't stop talking about the eel they saw. The fish are the big draw, but it's also a free activity for kids on usually pricey Oahu. "Free is a big bonus,'' she said.

Added bonus: Shrimp trucks and other food trucks are popular in the area.

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 38 miles 

Kristie Barlow and her 5-year-old daughter, Leah, at Shark's Cove on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii.

West (Leeward) Shore

10. Yokohama Bay

Why go: For starters, to say you visited a beach most visitors to Oahu have never heard of let alone seen. "Yokes,'' as locals call one of their favorite beaches, is out of the way and worth it. There is a wide stretch of sand, and the waves are gentle. You'll have the place mostly to yourself at sunset, and a glorious sunset it is. I wished I had gotten there earlier and sunk a beach chair into the sand for a couple hours. 

Rave review: Evelyn and Bob Hartley, England residents visiting Hawaii for the first time, visited Yokohama as the last stop on a day-long self-guided tour of the island, which can be a challenge with military bases forcing travelers to backtrack. "It was worth it,'' Evelyn Hartley said, "because this is so quiet and peaceful. It's just beautiful.''

Added bonus: Sunset photos worthy of their own collection.

Distance from Waikiki Beach: 45 miles

Yokohama Beach, on the west side of Oahu, is a local favorite off the beaten path.