Can you guess which state is home to the best beach in the country?
Maui’s famously scenic shoreline has more than 30 miles of beaches, some with dramatic black sand, others with dreamy stretches of soft white sand, and one of the only green sand beaches in the world (Papakōlea Beach in South Maui). But it is stunning — and historic — Kāʻanapali Beach that took this year’s top prize for the best beach in the U.S., according to Tripadvisor’s latest ranking.
The crescent-shaped three-mile stretch of soft white sand along Maui’s West Coast, north of Lāhainā town, has long been a magnet for travelers — with its clear blue waters, home to coral reefs and vibrant marine life. Snorkeling and diving off of Kāʻanapali Beach (meaning ‘Kāʻana cliff’ in Hawaiian) are favorite pastimes of visitors, who might spot colorful tropical fish, green sea turtles, and broad stingrays. Even those who prefer to stay on dry land are treated to spectacular whale watching. Every year between December and April, the channel between neighboring Lānaʻi, Moloka’i, and Maui, known as the Maui Nui Basin, becomes a protected sanctuary where migrating humpback whales come to breed. This makes Kāʻanapali Beach and Lāhainā one of the best places to see mothers and their young calves breaching the surface of the ocean, easily visible from the shore.
Set against the west Maui Mountains, this beach has drawn visitors for more than 60 years with its powdery white sand, swaying palms, and kid-friendly activities. In fact, Hawai’i welcomed its first master-planned resort community, the Kāʻanapali Resort, in 1962 on Kāʻanapali Beach. A couple of years later, the property’s then-owners, American Factors, ran a promotional movie about the region, calling it the “Polynesian Riviera” and “the new queen of resorts.” Those who wished to experience it could hop on a charter flight from Honolulu airport and land directly on an airstrip next to the beach. Today, the Kāʻanapali coast is home to two championship golf courses and several Maui resorts, including the Westin Kāʻanapali Ocean Resort Villas.
But besides its year-long appeal with vacationers, Kāʻanapali Beach is also steeped in Hawaiian culture and history.
“Today, the area known as Kāʻanapali Beach is separated in half by Black Rock, or Puʻu Kekaʻa, which means ‘the rolling hill’ in reference to observing stones rolling down from the top without any known cause. There was a heiau, or temple, located at its summit. It is revered as a sacred spot; the place where a soul leaps into eternity,” Pōmaikaʻi Krueger, cultural advisor at the Westin, told Travel + Leisure.
Nowadays, the self-guided Kāʻanapali Historical Trail & History and Legends Tour educates travelers about the most significant events and legends related to Kāʻanapali Beach. For something more hair-raising, though, head to Pu’u Kekaʻa, which is located in front of the Sheraton Maui Resort, where every night just before sunset, the hotel hosts a thrilling cliff-diving ceremony. A local diver emerges on the black lava rocks lighting torches along the way as he approaches the edge. He then jumps about 30 feet into the water. The ceremony pays tribute to King Kahekili, who ruled Maui in the 18th century.
“Kahekili gained respect from many warriors for his leaps from Puʻu Kekaʻa, as most were frightened of the spirits who lived in the area,” Krueger added.
Kāʻanapali Beach has been facing serious erosion challenges for the past four decades that culminated last year when, after a series of strong south swells, parts of the beach’s paved walkway along the coastline collapsed into the ocean.
“The rate and severity of damage has accelerated, likely due to sea level rise and recent record high water levels,” reads the executive summary of Kāʻanapali Beach Restoration Project, prepared by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resource. “Modern sea level rise is a result of human-induced global atmospheric and ocean warming. Changes in storm severity have also been attributed to climate change.” As part of the beach restoration project, the state has brought in 75 cubic yards of sand into the area, but the community is still working on long-term solutions to preserve the country’s best beach.