A locked gate, arrests, and citations discourage visitors to unofficial nude beach
Niko Zdraljevic certainly didn’t expect to end up in handcuffs when he set out for his favorite beach on a sunny Sunday in January. The coconut tree trimmer from Huelo just wanted to soak up some rays, go for a nice long swim, and relax.
But the beach he chose—a small crescent of sand carved out of Puʻu Olaʻi, a cinder cone at the north end of Mākena’s aptly named Big Beach—has been a bone of contention among community members, state agencies, and county officials for decades.
Dubbed “Little Beach,” it has long been a bastion of liberty for decades—some claim as many as 70 years—where naturists have enjoyed the freedom to swim and sunbathe au naturel without harassment or persecution.
“Everybody that goes there feels like there’s something special about that beach,” Zdraljevic told MauiTimes. “There’s a confluence of energy, there’s a confluence of communities, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Thanks to its lack of restrictions and semi-private location—separated from Big Beach by a steep, narrow, hidden foot trail over sharp lava rocks—Little Beach also became a place where gays and lesbians felt safe and welcome. Families were comfortable letting their kids run naked and free, frolicking alongside LGBTQ+ couples soaking up the sun and pot-smoking hippies gathered around a drum circle. Couples met and lifelong friendships were formed.
“For the gay community, which has no meeting place to speak of, that is our social life,” Kīhei resident Robert Burke told MauiTimes. “That’s just the go-to place. That is where we connect with people.”
Drummers and dancers have held a weekly gathering at the north end of the beach on Sunday afternoons for as long as most beachgoers can remember, culminating in a crescendo of thumping congas and djembes accompanied by wild dancing as the sun sinks into the sea. Then the fire dancing would begin. It’s a ritual that some consider a spiritual experience, comparable to going to church.
“That drum circle is what made it so beautiful on Sundays,” recalled Kīhei plein air artist Pamela Neswald. “To come and be able to lay on the sand and listen to those drums and feel that vibration and how it played off the waves coming in. It’s an artistic and spiritual response to nature, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful experience.”
That’s what Zdraljevic was expecting that Sunday afternoon, but when law enforcement officers from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) arrived and began clearing the beach almost an hour before the posted 4:00 p.m. closing time—which itself has been a matter of dispute—he decided he’d had enough.
He had spent most of the day alternating between sunbathing and swimming. “Then I took a little nap, and the next thing I know there’s this lady nearby, freaking out, yelling, ‘The cops are here! The cops are here!’ Everyone was commenting how early they were as they were scrambling for their clothes, getting ready to leave,” he said. “That sort of triggered me.”
Civil disobedience isn’t something that the mild-mannered tree surgeon had considered before. “I’ve gone to Little Beach for a long time, and I’ve complied, but at that moment justice felt really strong and I resolved to stay.” He had been nude earlier in the day, but was dressed in board shorts when the officers arrived, so he figured that trespassing was the worst charge he would face.
“They were kind of ushering people out and they finally came up to me and said, ‘Sir, it’s time to go,’ and I said, ‘I’m not leaving,’” Zdraljevic recalled. The officers threatened him with a citation, but he remained steadfast. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving unless you force me to leave,’ and so I forced their hand in arresting me,” he said. “They actually didn’t want to.”
“Oh, you’re going to be that guy, are you?” one of the officers asked. Zdraljevic recalls, “They started threatening me, saying ‘This is a closed area,’ and I said, ‘Well, no. It’s confusing, because the law actually does state that I have access to this beach in the daylight hours.”
True, the Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes (HR 115-5) state that, “The public has a right of access along the beaches and shorelines in the State situated below the upper reaches of the wash of the waves.” As explained on littlebeachmaui.org, a nonprofit group and website established by beachgoer Bill Watts to protest the crackdown, another section (HRS 115-9) establishes penalties for anyone who “by action, or by having installed a physical impediment (of which gates are specifically included), intentionally prevents a member of the public from accessing…a beach transit corridor and thereby obstructs access to and along the sea (or) the shoreline.”
Burke points out that owners of oceanfront property who put up gates to privatize the shoreline are routinely penalized. “The police will go after them, they’ll be fined, and the gate will be removed every time,” he insists. “Yet, this has remained in place.”
According to HAR 13-146-4, the DLNR’s own rules state that the agency may establish limited hours or area closures “when necessary for the protection of the area or the safety and welfare of persons or property.” Watts doesn’t feel this requirement has been met and calls the gate and the beach closures “illegal.”
His website claims that the state tolerated nudity at Little Beach for 33 years before suddenly beginning to issue citations for it in 2020. He has posted a petition link on the site which calls for Little Beach to be designated an officially sanctioned nude beach, for it to remain open the same hours as Big Beach, and demanding removal of the gate which was put up to enforce the closures.
The steel gate was first installed to block passage over the narrow, rocky path leading to Little Beach in January 2021 following a particularly large and raucous gathering the Sunday after New Year’s Day that park officials dubbed a “superspreader event.” A few weeks later, it was cut down by “vandals” and tossed into the ocean, but has since been replaced with another gate along with new signage stating that nudity, fires, and alcohol are prohibited. The gate has been locked periodically to enforce beach closures ever since, including every Saturday and Sunday when DLNR officers clear the beach and lock the gate at 4:00 p.m.
“That gate was never legal, in my opinion,” said Neswald. “My reaction was outrage.” She agrees that the crowds had become unruly and the drinking was getting out of hand, but she called blaming it all on the drum circle “ridiculous.”
When the last of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in February 2022, park officials pivoted to nudity as the reason for the restrictions. However, the prohibition on skinny dipping and sunbathing naked is only enforced on weekend afternoons when the cops want to lock the gate. Zdraljevic feels that officials’ claims that they’re just protecting public safety is a red herring. “They don’t like the large amounts of people gathering at Little Beach and then crawling over the rocks at nighttime, inebriated,” he said. “At least that’s what I’m hearing.” But then he adds, “You don’t shut down the highway because there’s drunk drivers.”
Justin Kekiwi works for the DLNR at Mākena State Park and is a lineal descendant of the Honuaʻula moku where it is located. He cites desecration of cultural sites, public defecation, drug abuse, and rampant public drinking as evidence that the weekend party scene at Little Beach had gotten out of hand.
“Basically, it was a place where individuals felt entitled to break the rules and get away with it,” he wrote in response to a social media post. “Our parks should be safe havens for the community and accessible to all, not just a specific group. Denying access does not benefit anyone, but it has stopped a lot of the illegal activities from continuing. People need to be held accountable and respectful of the rules and all park users.” Emails to Kekiwi’s boss, State Parks District Superintendent Larry Pacheco, were forwarded to the agency’s communications department, which failed to respond as of press time. Calls to the office went unanswered.
As he was facing arrest, one of the officers began to record Zdraljevic with their smartphone so he spoke to the camera, repeatedly saying “this is an injustice and I will not stand for injustice.” A group of people had gathered and began taunting the officers, complaining about them closing the beach.
“Eventually, they saw that I wasn’t leaving and they were going to have to handcuff me to get me out of there,” he recounted. “So, one of the officers got me in handcuffs and we started walking away.” Zdraljevic said he didn’t resist at all. It was his first time being arrested and put in cuffs.
“They took my name, but my name’s pretty complicated, so I was giving him the military way of spelling it, you know, ‘zulu, delta, romeo,’ and I hesitated for a second and he’s like, ‘He’s making this up. He’s making fun of me!’” A quick check of his wallet proved that he was, in fact, Niko Zdraljevic. “I was trying to make light of the whole situation, so when he said, ‘How do you pronounce that?’ I said ‘Smith,’” he chuckled.
The officers didn’t enjoy the joke, and marched him over the rocks, past the gate, to their truck parked at the beach entrance. An MPD squad car was summoned to transport the bearded, pierced, and tattooed Zdraljevic to the Kihei police substation, where he was photographed, finger-printed, booked, and assigned a court date. As of press time, he wasn’t sure how he would plead at his February 23 arraignment, but he’s seeking legal counsel. He thinks somebody needs to take a stand against what he considers bigotry.
He’s not alone in suspecting prejudice. “For many of us in the gay community, Little Beach is the driving force of why we moved here,” said Burke, who was an annual vacationer on Maui for more than two decades before moving here full-time two years ago. “No gay bar on Maui has ever survived,” he asserts. “There’s gay-ish bars, but there’s no meeting place on Maui. We should be creating spaces for gay culture to exist, but it’s just so restrictive.” He’s written to every public official he can think of, but ultimately, he thinks that the issue of access needs to be brought before the State Supreme Court.
“That’s my favorite spot on the entire planet. Just to go out there and be with community is a really powerful thing for me,” said Burke. “I can’t point to the discrimination, but I can’t help but think this feels discriminatory towards us.”