It’s not widely known but Kaneohe Bay, serenely nestled on the lush windward side of Oahu, is a shortcut to Nirvana. (And if we’re honest, we’re all looking for a shortcut – who has patience for all that meditating?) Spend some time here and you’ll catch at least a fleeting taste of transcendence. You’ll also understand why these shores were once the prized home of rulers and royalty – including Kamehameha the Great – and their most trusted warriors.
At eight miles long and nearly three miles wide, Kaneohe Bay is the largest sheltered body of water in Hawaii. About two-thirds of its length is open to the Pacific, but protected by a barrier reef that has navigable channels to the ocean on either end. Patch reefs (excellent for snorkeling) dot the bay, and fringe reefs line the shore.
Kaneohe Bay’s sheltered, reef-rich environment makes an inviting home for sea turtles, manta rays, eels, sea cucumbers, octopuses, baby hammerhead sharks, and myriad tropical fish. Its protected waters also are ideal for a variety of watersports, from kite boarding to stand-up paddling.
Ahu o Laka, the large mid-bay sandbar (3 acres of sand at some low tides), is perfect for kicking back and taking in a stunning backdrop: the majestic Ko’olau mountain range. During the week, you’ll only encounter a handful of people, but the sandbar can draw a crowd on weekends. It’s a favorite local spot for barbecuing, hanging out with friends, tossing a football, or just enjoying the water and the spectacular view.
How to get out there? Private boat tours are available, but pricey. Group snorkeling tours on large boats visit the sandbar, but they’re confined to designated stops. If you’re comfortable in the water, the best way to enjoy Kaneohe Bay is in a kayak. Holokai Kayak & Snorkel offers both guided kayak tours and independent rentals out of He’eia State Park. This outfit is a good option if you don’t have a car because the park is accessible by city bus. You can launch directly from the park and kayak out to the sandbar, or simply opt for snorkeling at nearby Coconut Island (of 60’s TV show Gilligan’s Island fame).
If you do have a car, another idea is to rent from a shop in Kailua, such as Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks or Windward Water Sports. They’ll help you get rental kayaks (up to two) on your roof so you can drive out to Kaneohe on your own. Kailua has several great breakfast spots that make an early morning start, which is recommended, more palatable. Once in Kaneohe (about a 20 minute drive), you either can put kayaks in at He’eia Kea Small Boat Harbor or at a small public boat launch located 1.6 miles to the north, where Lulani Street meets Kamehameha Highway. Once you’re in the water, steer for the flat island you see straight out from this location and you’ll find the sandbar (look for boats that appear to be anchored in the middle of the bay). It’s a 30- to 45-minute paddle, depending on wind and how many breaks you take.
Kaneohe Bay has two low tides a day: one in the morning and one in the evening, usually after dark (check the bay’s tide calendar). Though the sandbar is sometimes exposed, depending on the tide there’s usually 1-2 feet of feet of water covering it. People who arrive by boat get around this by setting up long-legged beach chairs and tables on the sandy bottom. For kayakers, it’s easy to bring a small cooler, and kayaks become lounge chairs when padded with lifejackets. Just be sure to tether your paddle – you’ll have a tough time getting back to shore if it drifts away unnoticed. A small folding anchor is another key accessory if you plan to spend time on the sandbar. Whether you decide to take a walk, a swim or a nap, you’ll want to ensure that your kayak doesn’t wander off without you. The rental shop should be able to either rent or sell you one (around $25) when you pick up your kayak.
While it’s true that weather can make or break any given visit to Kaneohe Bay, if you hit it right you won’t regret making the effort. Sitting in a kayak just inches from the Pacific Ocean, soaking up regal mountain views, and observing sea life in its element does something for your soul. And isn’t that why you came to Hawaii?