A swath of blue colors the night sky, as light peeks above the horizon in the early morning hours of dawn.
Sitting on the beach with my toes in the sand, I’m watching the sunrise from the Windward Side of Oahu at Bellows Field Beach Park, where we had camped for the night.
Approximately 30 minutes from Waikiki in the country town of Waimanalo, 50 campsites—all of them filled—dot the park behind me, their tents pitched in the shade of ironwood trees. And yet, it still feels remote here. The giant Koolau Mountain Range shields us from the city, if only for the weekend. Our group planned a lazy couple of days, and, so far, things are going as planned. The clouds turn a cotton-candy pink then purple, until the sun emerges from below the sea, lighting the sky and blinding my eyes.
Taking the sun’s cue, a couple of kids run down to the water with their parents not too far behind. An early-morning jogger leaves footprints in the sand, until the next wave leaves no trace of them behind. The campground is coming to life with people making preparations for breakfast and a long day of lounging.
The beauty of Waimanalo’s miles-long, white-sand beach is what draws campers to its coast. The offshore islands, Mokulua and Manana (also known as Rabbit Island), frame the turquoise waters and its gentle waves. “It’s like a postcard,” I say to myself as I swipe through the dozens of photos I’ve shot with my phone.
Oahu is known for its hundreds of hotels, but oftentimes overlooked are its campsites, such as Bellows Field Beach Park, which gets you an oceanfront spot at a fraction of the cost of a room. Three-day camping permits cost $32 for up to six people. But, unlike the Big Island or Kauai, where camping or going off-the-grid is commonplace and supplies are easy to rent, Oahu doesn’t have many options for tent rentals. Your best bet is to bring one from home, or pick one up from the local sporting goods store.
Adjacent to the campgrounds is Bellows Air Force Station, an important air field during World War II. Named after 2nd Lt. Franklin B. Bellows, a World War I hero, the air force station is now a training and recreation area for active and retired military and civilian employees. The beach park is also owned by the military but is open to the public on weekends through an agreement with the City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation. No military IDs are necessary here.
My friends and I lay out towels on the sand and settle on the beach for a few hours, sunbathing, reading and Instagramming. The gentle shorebreak is a magnet for kids, who play in the surf, with and without boogie boards. Two men throw a football to each other in the ocean. A woman waddles a giant, inflatable flamingo toward the ocean and awkwardly falls into it when she reaches the sea.
I roll over. A game of volleyball is being played on the beach near the campsites. It’s a large group of people who look like they could be celebrating a family reunion. Another group is flying kites. Even with all this activity, it’s still not as crowded as you’d expect a beautiful beach like this to be. I close my eyes and let the sound of the waves drown out the activity around me, then open them just in time to see the flamingo catch a wave to the beach without its owner. Smiling, I’m content with staying just like this, amusing myself with my surroundings until sunset.
The wind picks up toward the evening, bending back the ironwood trees. We shower and change while the men get a fire going. The gates to the campground close at 8 p.m. and don’t open again until morning, so we get ready to settle in for the night. The beach is pitch black by now, but the sound of waves is a constant reminder of where we are. The campgrounds are buzzing with chatter and laughter as we dig into our hot dogs and burgers, then S’mores, until one person says, “OK, let’s go.”
The guys grab a couple buckets and walk the kids toward the beach. They’re going to catch sand crabs. I grab a flashlight and follow behind. It’s a popular activity for kids to catch crabs on the beach and then release them, but the men in my group are just as enthusiastic. One of them even has a trick. “Turn off the flashlights,” he tells us. We all stare at each other wondering why. Suddenly, he turns on his light and takes off sprinting toward the wet sand. Before we can catch up, he’s walking back to us, smiling and showing us his catch—a large sand crab at the bottom of the bucket.
The night winds down and the campground becomes quieter in the late-night hours. The cool air persuades me to seek the warm sleeping bag inside my tent. Then, the large trees rustling above soothe me to sleep at this peaceful retreat, until the next morning when the sun rises.
Bellows Field Beach Park
Campsites can be reserved on Fridays up to two weekends in advance. For more information, visit camping.honolulu.gov.