Some will make you want to strip off, some will have you dressing up, some will even have you wrapping up. We’ve found the world’s top seaside stunners
Nisbet Beach, Nevis
Empty, easy and open to all
Best because: You glide down a symmetrical green avenue, all lawn and sweeping palms, and seemingly hit the ends of the Earth, it’s so empty. Nisbet is open to the public, but you’ll likely be staying at the genteel, ageing-gracefully Nisbet Plantation, where — as elsewhere on the island — you’ll feel as if you’ve found a big Caribbean secret. Take a breezy walk first thing, along virgin sands and rugged, volcano-backed grassland, followed by a dip in glacier-blue shallows, or a flop into one of the hammocks strung between the palms.
Where urban Rio gets wild
Best because: Ipanema and Copacabana grab the headlines, but this bay of talc-fine sand, washed by bottle-green waves and backed by rain forested mountains, is where locals go to sunbathe, surf and beach-shack- snack. It’s in a nature reserve beyond the urban sprawl, so take a taxi from Jardim Oceânico Metro.
Low Newton-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, UK
Remote windswept drama
Best because: You’ll only hear the wind along this vast open stretch, owned by the National Trust. With only one road in and out, it’s all yours in low season for rock-pooling, blustery walks and home-brews at the Ship Inn, tucked into a square of fishing cottages. After dinner at the Inn (booking essential), stay on for Gothic drama from the moonlit ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, overlooking Embleton Bay.
Ras Mkumbuu, Pemba, Tanzania
Tropical idyll above and below water
Best because: You’ll find a crumbling 14th-century mosque hidden between the palms as you stroll Ras Mkumbuu’s white sands, and you can dive with psychedelic shoals on the wrecks and reefs submerged in its Indian Ocean waters. Few foreign visitors make it beyond neighbouring island Zanzibar, so Pemba feels like a total escape. Leave the beach to find vervet monkeys and flying foxes in the Ngezi jungles, and see turtles hatching in the sand on the desert isle of Misali.
Ancient port with natural perfection
Best because: It’s an uncannily perfect, omega-shaped beach of white sand and clear sapphire water. Once the port of ancient Pylos, it’s no secret, so arrive early in summer (there’s nowhere to buy supplies so bring them with you). Take walking shoes, too, to hike up to the ruined castle for extraordinary views of the beach and adjacent bird-filled Gialova lagoon.
Rootsy, remote tented tranquillity
Best because: It’s typical of the serene, yellow-sand shoreline that attracted hippies to Goa decades ago. The beach is as soft underfoot as crumble topping, rinsed with tranquil shallows and scattered with basic loungers shaded by low-slung palms. Don’t expect more than drowsy silence here, as couples unwind in studenty simplicity, murmuring occasionally over paperbacks, drinking in the thatched-roof café and admiring ruby sunsets over rice-and-veg dinners picked from the Biro-scribbled menu.
Mimizan Plage, Cote d’Argent, France
Sand dunes and surfer-friendly waves
Best because: South of the mighty Dune du Pilat, Europe’s largest sand dune, stretches a wild and unspoilt coastline of golden sandy beaches bordered by towering pine trees. Aim for the beaches in and around Mimizan Plage, where the huge Atlantic rollers tumble in (hire surf kit locally) and you can play castaway, with the beach to yourself year-round.
Best because: It’s a soulful Alentejo sizzler for simple family holidays. You’ll come for the beach sheltered by cliffs and watered by a shallow river that’s irresistible to tots. But it’s the blissed-out, bygone vibe that’ll make you linger: fishermen’s cottages not villa resorts; friendly local surfers (join them); and instead of a posey beach bar, nicely shabby Esplanada do Mar — low prices, with million-euro views.
Paddling with penguins
Best because: You get to swim with penguins. An hour from Cape Town, you can stand within metres of hundreds of knee-high birds braying like donkeys (hence their ‘jackass’ nickname). Follow one boardwalk above the year-round colony’s nests in the dunes, or take the upper-level boardwalk to find another concealed beach where a dozen or so birds sunbathe on boulders and paddle in the shallows. Fancy a race? Prepare to lose — they may waddle on land, but they hit 24kph in water.
Hollywood looks; backpacker prices
Best because: With squeaky white sand, gentle aquamarine seas, frangipani-scented air and one tiny bamboo and palm-thatched resort, this is one of the few stretches in Southeast Asia that still delivers on the budget-travel dream. There’s little to do but sunbathe and swim — most magically at night, when the ocean glows with phosphorescent plankton and the sky fills with a million stars.
Clifftops and crystal waters
Best because: Mother Nature couldn’t have made this a more ideal cliff-jumping spot. They carved the rockface to perfect leaping height, then dredged the sea to the purest turquoise. (Mortals made it even easier by notching steps to the clifftop from the ashy beach.) Drive down to this south-coast spot at 10am and you’ll have space to spread out, or come at 5pm for the last rays.
Teignmouth Back Beach, Devon, UK
Beach huts and boats
Best because: While Teignmouth’s main beach draws the crowds, tiny Back Beach is the locals’ favourite. Admire the line of colourful beach huts, rows of gig boats and views down the Teign Estuary, eat superb seafood at the Crab Shack, pause for a paddle, then take the dinky, centuries-old ferry across to the village of Shaldon.
Sunj, Lopud, Croatia
Dubrovnik’s secret sands
Best because: You get two for one in the loveliest pine-scrubbed bay near Dubrovnik. First there’s sand (the exception in pebbly Croatia) that’s fine enough for castles. Second, there’s the dreamy day trip to Lopud: relaxed, car- and crowd-free. The opposite of summertime Dubrovnik, basically. Access is via vintage ferry from Dubrovnik’s Gruz port; golf-buggy taxis whisk you from harbour to beach for $3. Come for a long lazy day, punctuated with lunch at the palm-thatched café.
Retro-Riviera fishing-village nook
Best because: Its startlingly still, stony shallows are as pure as a paperweight, and warm enough from May onwards for a rejuvenating plunge. An hourly ferry from Portofino deposits you in San Frutt’s cove of butterscotch homes shadowed by an abbey, the lot hemmed by steep flanks of pines. Come as early as you can to bag a sunlounger. While you could bring a picnic, the point of the place is largely lunch, preferably mussels at
Shoal Bay, Anguilla
Isolated Caribbean paradise
Best because: The twin elements are startlingly, improbably beautiful: fine sands have the pearly purity of a supermodel’s smile, waters are layered in the horizontal blue shades of a Rothko canvas. And there you have its appeal. Nothing else — neither crowds nor high-rises — blemishes the flawless shoreline. Just a bleached branch tossed photogenically, perhaps, and sounds from Gwen’s Reggae Grill. This is where you must eat and drink.
Beirigh, Isle of Lewis, UK
Wild white sands and seals
Best because: Cut adrift near the western tip of the Outer Hebrides, Traigh na Beirigh (Reef Beach) is dizzyingly remote — you’re 65km from Stornoway, so it’s probably just you, the 2km-long, bone-white beach, and the occasional curious seal bobbing in the turquoise bay. Bring your binoculars — you might see orcas, dolphins and whales. The Callanish Standing Stones are the fabulously haunting Neolithic bonus, only an 11km swim (OK, 30-minute drive) away.
World-beating sunset spot
Best because: The kilometres of squishily soft, gently shelving sand aren’t even Negril’s best bit. This beach is one of the Caribbean’s finest sunset spots: come 6pm, myriad colours fill the sky and reggae soundtracks the dying embers of the day. While the hippie vibe isn’t what it used to be (the beach is now lined with resorts), you can seek out bohemian allure by heading further south to Negril’s limestone outcrops, where local kids like to cliff-jump into the azure.
Morris Bay, Antigua
Low-key Caribbean cove
Best because: Powder sands, smooth sea lapping gently shelving shallows, and a fringe of coconut palms providing shade for beach picnics — it’s a stunner that’s often deserted, but is easy to access on the southwest coast. Bring your own mask and snorkel, and stay until sunset to watch for the green flash as the sun sinks into the ocean.
Plage de Saint Guirec, Ploumanac’h, Brittany, France
Beguiling pink granite fantasia
Best because: It’s the star of Brittany’s Côte de Granit Rose. Fringed by pines and a romantic little oratory that’s isolated at high tide, Saint Guirec’s pale sands are strewn with rose-tinted boulders eroded into voluptuous Henry Moore-ish shapes. Get up at dawn to see the rocks blush hot pink, then top it off with the easy, but spectacular, walk along the surreal coast to Ploumanac’h’s lighthouse.
Best because: The ribbons of sand that wrap along this unexplored northern coast are black — deep, jet black, not dirty-washing-grey like Seminyak, or pewter-ish as on the east coast. It’s a two-hour drive from Ubud through the mist-licked Abasan mountains to reach tranquil Tejakula and you’ll want to pack beach shoes for the pebbly beach. But you’ll be doubly glad you bothered come sunset, when the swimmable, dolphin-dotted Bali Sea turns to molten gold.
Tai Long Wan, Hong Kong
Treks and the city
Best because: You get a triple-whammy of peroxide-blonde sands splashed by luminous blue seas. Yet only a handful of Hongkongers ever make it to Tai Long Wan. The reason? It can only be reached by hiking 10km along the magnificent Maclehose Trail, swooshing through mountain peaks, forested valleys, curvy coastline and abandoned villages. Or take the speedboat from the seaside town of Sai Kung. We’d recommend doing both: hike in the cooler morning (with supplies), then cruiseback on the final 5pm boat for sunset.
Swim while you’re sightseeing
Best because: There can’t be many gorgeous beaches that come with their own slice of Mayan history. Bring your costume to Tulum’s World Heritage Site, so you can follow the stairs down the cliff, wade out over fine, pale sand to float on gentle Listerine waves, and gaze back up at the impressive 13th-century clifftop El Castillo. Coach parties from Cancún fill the site by mid-morning, but stay down the road in modern Tulum and you can be at the gates at 8am for your own solitary dip.
Natural beauty laid bare
Best because: It’s a natural winner on the otherwise manicured Algarve. Twice-hourly 20-minute ferries from the ancient Moorish town of Tavira take you to this, the first of three beaches along the 11km Ilha de Tavira sandbar. Alight through pines to sand studded with sunloungers and small cafés. Miss the 5pm ferry back, and you can grab a water taxi.
Mawgan Porth, Cornwall
Surfy, sandy walking paradise
Best because: In summer months, this big Cornish beach, framed by cliffs, is a bucket-and-spade dream of soft sand, rock pools, caves and surf-perfect waves. It’s also busy, which is why it’s often best during the quieter, cooler months. That’s when its adjoining walking paths, snaking up and down the grassy coast, turn blustery and atmospheric. Hike north up the cliff from the sands, and you’ll be rewarded with Cornwall’s finest, fluffiest homemade scones in the cosy Carnewas Tea Room at Bedruthan Steps hotel.
Reynisfjara, VÍk, Iceland
Rugged, wild and wind-blown
Best because: Just 10 minutes’ drive from Vík village on Iceland’s stormy southern coast, this is a beach for invigorating walks along seemingly endless, empty black sands, past pounding breakers, brooding black crags and ocean-carved cliff-caves. Year-round, come well wrapped up in Icelandic woolly jumpers and raincoats to withstand the icy spray. From October to March, arrive late afternoon and stay until night to see the Northern Lights shimmer majestically overhead.
Glam urban resort
Best because: Pastel-hued Art Deco hotels, palm trees and a boardwalk line the 4km stretch of South Beach sand on the city-island of Miami Beach. Find space to sprawl amid families and dog-walkers in the south, or work up a sweat with the muscle set in the free outdoor gyms and beach volleyball courts of Lummus Park midway up. But the big draw is in the sexy northern area, where DJs spin tunes steps from the waves, and bartenders dole out drinks to beautiful people on sunloungers, backed by swanky high-rise hotels.
Under-the-radar Caribbean corker
Best because: No-one’s heard of it! Most tourists are queuing at an all-inclusive buffet miles away, so you’ll only meet local families and guests of the two discreet hotels that were lucky enough obtain planning permission among the palms. Also here are a handful of colourful numbered fish kiosks frying up the day’s catch for a few dollars — go to shack No. 12 for the most photogenic parrotfish and friendliest waiters.
Ao Yai, Koh Phayam, Thailand
Surfing, sunsets and sweeping sands
Best because: It’s a refuge for The Beach-style backpacking, made accessible by cheap flights from Bangkok. Framed by jungly headlands, the powder playground of this bolthole near Burma provides 5km of hippie heaven. Learn to surf with boards hired at Phayam Lodge, then stay for sundowners as heavy bass booms from driftwood-formed Rasta Baby. (There are no ATMs on the island — take cash.)
Sydney’s secret strip
Best because: Bondi is busy, busy, busy. Instead, head to this secluded harbour beach in the upmarket Eastern Suburbs. One of Sydney’s secret weapons, it offers dazzling views of the iconic city skyline. The soft, creamy sand here melts into diamond-clear shallows that are ideal for all-day frolicking. Bring along a giant inflatable and snap a shot with the Harbour Bridge photo-bombing in the background. Follow the Hermitage Foreshore Walk track for five minutes from Nielsen Park to find it.
La Concha, San Sebastian, Spain
Scrumptious city-centre stunner
Best because: Nowhere else has such an exuberant holiday spirit so close to the city action (world-class eating, in San Sebastián’s case). Yes, the sands get crowded, but somehow everyone slots in — partly because at low tide the 1.5km horseshoe sweep is vast, partly because so many are playing frisbee, strolling the shallows, paddleboarding or swimming out to diving platforms. Don’t fancy sunbathing? People-watch and soak up headland-hugged views from La Concha café, up on the prom.
Margate, Kent, UK
Old-fashioned, but cool seaside fun
Best because: The Old Town may have been gentrified, but down on the shore you can still build sandcastles, eat fat, just-fried chips, play in the amusement arcades, buy 99 Flakes and paddle with your trousers rolled up to your heart’s content. You’ll find plenty to explore just steps from the beach: the seafront Turner gallery has regularly changing world-class art exhibits; the Old Town and curving harbour arm are well-endowed with cafés and indie art shops; and the retro-chic theme park Dreamland does a great line in rollercoasters, roller-discos and old-school circus acts.
Baie des Anges, Nice, France
Unfussy urban strand
Best because: It’s so much less pretentious than you thought the French Riviera would be. The promenade whirrs with cyclists; beach bars serve jars of drinks to sip as you gaze at the hazy blue horizon; coiffed dames with parasols avoid the rays, while clusters of nut-brown teens make the most of them.
New York hipster hideaway
Best because: Old-money Manhattanites have been weekending for decades in the Hamptons, a clutch of posh towns east of NYC on Long Island. But they’ve always ignored the island’s eastern tip, Montauk, so young Brooklynites have recently co-opted it as their own. Join in: surf or splash in the Atlantic rollers that crash onto cliff-backed Ditch Plains Beach; scoff fish tacos and artisan espressos from the summer-only shacks along the 1km swathe of latte-coloured sand; or get takeaways from the permanent outposts in the hippie-chic town centre, two kilometres away.
Late-afternoon limestone lovely
Best because: Rising out of the Andaman Sea like a jagged tooth, circled by heavenly white sands, blue and yellow angelfish and red brahim sea eagles, this jungle-covered limestone isle feels positively prehistoric — at least until the tour boats arrive. Although not as busy as its more famous neighbours, Phi Phi and James Bond Island, Poda still has crowds in the hundreds between 10am and 2pm. Dodge the hordes and arrive early or late on a private longtail boat from Railay Beach.
Faraway islet with rose-tinted sands
Best because: The radiant colours of the pink-white sands and shallow turquoise lagoon are irresistible. Buses from Chania make for a two-hour journey, but you should stay nearby for the sunsets, magical night silence, and the unforgettable chance to be first on the beach. Coachloads do turn up mid-morning, so if it gets too busy, walk to Elafonisi island and its numerous coves — often possible without getting your feet wet.
Cocktails and surfers
Best because: The upbeat mood is infectious, as kids boogie-board, music lilts from dozens of iconic bars, and out on the horizon, the best of the best skim eight-footers towards the shore. Book a group surf lesson to take the pressure off (the school in front of the Hilton is good), then reward yourself with a ice-cold drink at Outrigger’s, its tables clustered around a gnarled Banyan tree, creating a wonderfully scenic spot.
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand
Wave-carved caves and crystal waters
Best because: You get two beaches for the price of one here. Separated by a jut of cliff as smooth and white as a slab of tofu, twin stretches of eggshell sand slope into luminous blue water. The star of the show, though, is the cavernous, wave-carved tunnel that links the two beaches at low tide. It’s a gentle 45-minute hike here from the seaside town of Hahei, but it’s far more fun to skid ashore in a kayak.
The movie icon
Best because: This is California on steroids. Literally. Buzzy Venice is where you’ll find the beefcakes of Muscle Beach pumping iron for the crowds, acrobatic teens doing tricksat the beachfront skatepark, hippies tight-roping between the palms, and bikini-clad blondes rollerskating along the promenade. Stop for Baywatch-inspired selfies by the lifeguard stations, but to do Venice like a local by taking a swing on the monkey rings (no excuses — the boardwalk is lined with outdoor gyms).
Secluded, idyllic wooded cove
Best because: Its beauty is all the more pristine for the effort it takes to get there — half an hour from Ciutadella on the south coast, it’s accessible only by boat or a 20-minute hike through pine trees. The reward: white, sugar-soft sand, transparent turquoise water (bring your snorkel) and the chance to dive off the low, white cliffs that hug the cove. Bring all supplies, although fruit-sellers are on hand in summer. And if the beach gets too busy, swim over to its little sister, Cala Mitjaneta.
Karma Beach, Bali, Indonesia
A beach to reach
Best because: At the bottom of a cliff in Bali’s rugged Uluwatu district and reached only via open-air cable car, this exclusive private beach club offers a 007-worthy entrance. The beach is ideal for paddleboarding and snorkelling, but it’s all about that descent.