If there are any beaches on Oahu that tourists have not overrun, Makapu'u may be among the last of them. Makapu'u Beach Park has long been considered a kama'aina (local residents) hangout. The presence of riptides, strong waves and jellyfish makes swimming or surfing here a challenge for all but the most experienced.
According to Hawaiian legends, a supernatural being traveled from Tahiti to Oahu and made this coastline her home. She was called Makapu'u, meaning "bulging eye,'' because her face was said to have eight bright eyes. This beach and the lighthouse prominence to the south, Makapu'u Point, take their names from her.
Makapu'u Beach Park is located along the Kalanianaole Highway en route to Waimanalo further up the East Coast. Just offshore are two islands, Kaohikaipu (Bird) and Manana (Rabbit), which provide a scenic vista. The Pacific waters that surround them are known as the Kaiwi Channel, which separates Oahu from Molokai Island. Currents here can be quite strong year round, but especially so in winter, when rough seas toss high waves to the shore.
Local surfers tell many tales of Makapu'u Beach, describing as a "paradise'' in one breath and a "nightmare'' in the next. The actual beachfront is rather small compared to others in the vicinity, such as Sandy Beach or Waimanalo. It is framed by jagged volcanic rocks on one side and an islet on the other. But the water is impeccably blue, and the waves range from big to towering. Winds from the northeast are present 90 percent of the year.
Even the two- to three-foot waves can be quite powerful, and they often come in rapid succession. For this reason, standard surfboards are less favored here. Instead, body-surfing and body-boarding are the preferred activities, and locals make a real sport of it. When not riding to shore on their stomachs alone, they will catch the waves with body-boards or kick-boards and sometimes even cafeteria trays "borrowed'' from school lunchrooms.
The favorite of Makapu'u Beach surf riders are paipo boards - short, prone-ridden surf-craft that are neither inflatable mats nor traditional soft, finless body-boards. They include small foam/fiberglass belly-boards with surfboard fins, as well as the original finless wooden boards created in Hawaii. Most body-boarders advise using the ones without skegs for the best rides.
Compared to the fine sands of Waikiki, the sand here may seem rather grainy. However, this is another reason why locals like Makapu'u Beach; they say walking on the coarse sand makes the soles of their feet "baby soft.''
For those who may not enjoy getting beat up by powerful waves, swallowing salt water, and being tossed like flotsam to shore, Makapu'u Beach Park still has its allure. The scenery has been described as somewhere between "absolutely beautiful'' and "gorgeous.'' Artists like to come here to paint seascapes, photographers love the oceanic sunrises, and picnickers appreciate the privacy of an uncrowded locale.
Lifeguards are on duty throughout the year. Phones, showers and restrooms are near at hand. One caution is to look out for the Portuguese man-o-war, a stinging blue jellyfish that seems to enjoy the waters here. Encounters with these can be very painful, and perhaps even deadly. Special signs will be posted by the lifeguards if the man-o-wars start to swarm. Observe the instructions and stay out of the water at such times.