Photo by Pakawat Thongcharoen/Shutterstock.com
Courtesy of Tourism Whitsundays
Beaches just don’t come more photogenic than Australia’s Whitehaven Beach, one gorgeous gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Whether you’re a wildlife-watcher, hiker, or just a plain-old sun-worshipper, there’s a gorgeous beach just waiting for you somewhere on the globe.
We’ve brushed the sand off and smoothed on the aloe to present to you these 20 best beaches in the world. Sure, we’ve factored in the requisite picks on the most superlative stretches of dreamy Caribbean, Mediterranean, Hawaiian, and South Pacific shores, but we’ve turned up finds along some more unexpected coasts, too, from Africa to Australia—and beyond. So pack that sunscreen and swimsuit, and set off to explore these 20 incredible beaches around the world.
Whitsunday Island, Australia
Beaches just don’t come more photogenic than this. Head to Whitsunday Island, the largest of the Whitsundays, where Whitehaven Beach is easily the brightest and whitest you’ve ever seen. The silica in the sand is credited for its striking white color, but it does double duty to ensure that it doesn’t retain heat from the sweltering Aussie sun, making it a glorious place for a barefoot stroll. The glassy, clear waters—reaching out into the Great Barrier Reef—make for a refreshing dip, and tidal currents sculpt the sand to varying depths, creating gorgeous ocean swirls of greens and blues.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
For generations, iconic Ipanema has been pictured in travel brochures and on billboards across the world, tempting tourists to its yellow sands on the edge of Rio de Janeiro. And it’s all for good reason—Ipanema is a quintessential Rio experience. You won’t find seclusion and serenity here: Residents descend on the sand in droves during any spare moments they find to sun themselves, play volleyball, or surf. But the views of the verdant Dois Irmãos mountains and tangible party vibes here are simply unmissable.
If you’re a surfer, this is the beach for you. Waimea is famous as the home of “The Eddie,” a big-wave winter surfing tournament that sees the world’s top surfers compete on waves reaching heights of up to 30 feet. If you come during the winter months, when the waves are at their biggest, get a spot on the wide, pristine, yellow-sand beach to watch the spectacle of surfers tackling huge waves. In summer, as the waves subside, conditions are perfect for beginner surfers to learn or to snorkel and dive into the underwater world just beyond the sand, where you might be lucky enough to encounter a pod of dolphins or a solitary sea turtle. Adrenaline junkies should beeline for the huge black rock set at the southern end of the beach, from which you can plunge into the cobalt blue ocean, some 25 feet below.
Perched at the far northern reaches of Germany, the island of Sylt proposes an intoxicating mix of glamour, luxury, and scenic nature. While it’s tempting to make way for the more popular 18-mile-long stretch of sand at Weststrand, the beaches fronting the main town of List are equally beautiful, with their white sands and grassy dunes, and are far more sheltered, too, lapped by the calm waters of the Wadden Sea. Pick up a fresh fish sandwich from the Gosch Lister Fischhaus in the harbor, and head down to the sands to enjoy views that stretch across to Denmark.
Bora Bora, French Polynesia
On the western side of a long, thin peninsula at the southern tip of Bora Bora, Matira Beach is the island’s best publicly accessible stretch of sand. It’s popular among the locals for a sunset stroll and feels a world away from the glitzy resorts that monopolize many of the beaches on the island. The white grains are silky-soft underfoot, and the calm, glittering ocean is astonishingly clear. When the sun sets, dip into one of the low-key beachfront restaurants, grab a cocktail, and toast the day’s end with the fiery display on the horizon.
Almost two miles of dazzling white sand are lapped by calm, warm Caribbean seas at Grenada’s very best beach. Hemmed in between the ocean and a leafy resort area with a good selection of hotels and beach bars, Grand Anse is a tough spot indeed to tear yourself away from. But you must because there’s so much to see under the ocean’s surface: Get your dive certificate with Dive Grenada, or just snorkel to delve down below where the greetings of stingrays, seahorses, and sea turtles await. (For more advanced divers, a plethora of shipwrecks on the seabed are ripe for exploration, too.)
Viti Levu, Fiji
Beautiful beaches are bountiful in the Fijian archipelago, but with yellow sand sloping into a sublime turquoise ocean, Natadola Beach is one of the finest. And the fact that you don’t have to be staying at one of the five-star resorts (located at the strand’s southern end) for access is a huge plus, too. There’s good swimming here, but there are also decent waves inside the bay for beginner surfers looking for practice; the outer area has bigger waves for the more experienced. Locals hawking seashells and coconuts wander up and down the beach, and for around $30, you can opt to take a slow amble along the shoreline on horseback.
Come at high tide, and you’ll be sorely disappointed, since Spain’s Praia de Augas Santas is nowhere to be seen. Wait until the waters recede, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a seascape marked by spectacular nature-carved sculptures, set atop the wet golden sands. The ocean currents and brisk coastal winds here have been carving the rocky shoreline for centuries, resulting in a series of impressive natural archways and buttresses that have given this beach its other name: Cathedrals Beach. At low tide, you can walk among the sculptures (access is via a set of steps from the cliffs above); some of them are nearly 90 feet tall. Just take heed: While swimming is permitted here, it’s essential to be aware of potentially dangerous tidal times.
Awards come easy to this Grand Cayman gem—Seven Mile Beach has been lauded as one of the best in the Caribbean on numerous lists. And for good reason—even if you must ignore the fact that it’s actually around five miles long, not seven. Here, you’re faced with a striking stretch of bright, white, soft sand that’s well-served by restaurants, bars, and swank resorts, with plenty of activities on hand, like parasailing or snorkeling excursions just off the coast, at the Cemetery Reef.
The rugged rocks strung out across the Pacific at Oregon’s Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint are certainly striking, but it’s not just about the views here. Miles of soft golden sand stretch in either direction, affording plenty of space to set down your towel in relative solitude. Birdwatchers will delight in scouting nesting seabirds atop those iconic sea stacks, while fishers can harvest the shellfish that cling to their crevices (just be sure to purchase a license first). Tip: Don’t miss one of the numerous Circles in the Sand events scheduled throughout the year, when visitors can walk along the stunning labyrinthine patterns in the sand, designed by local sand artist Denny Dyke.
Koh Rong, Cambodia
Often compared to the unspoiled beaches of Thailand some 30 years ago by wistfully nostalgic backpackers, Cambodia’s islands have some spectacular stretches of serene and secluded sand indeed. On the island of Koh Rong, Long Beach is the star of the show, with more than four miles of white, powdery grains. It’s a 40-minute boat ride from mainland Cambodia (at Sihanoukville), or stay right on the shores at a beachfront hotel (try the bungalows at Sok San Beach Resort) to step out of bed and right onto the sand.
Marietas Islands, Mexico
This remote yellow-sand beach, tucked away in Mexico’s Marietas Islands National Park, is accessible solely by swimming or kayaking through a tunnel in the rock at low tide. The aptly named Hidden Beach—also called Playa del Amor—is a truly surreal spot that’s essentially a gaping, nearly 100-foot-wide hole in the earth, which is rumored to have been created when the Mexican government tested weapons on the island. Facilities are nonexistent here, but outside of peak season, so are the crowds. Come via a small group speedboat excursion (it’s about an hour from nearby Puerto Vallarta), and you might have the whole hole entirely to yourselves.
In the Saint Jean quarter of ritzy St. Bart’s, you’ll find not one beach, but two, separated by the luxurious Hollywood-star hangout Eden Rock Hotel (currently under post–Hurricane Irma renovations and reopening in late 2019). The white-sand stretches sit within a clamshell-shaped Caribbean bay, gently lapped by warm waters and backed by a smattering of hotels for all budgets. The far western end of the beach is cordoned off, as the tiny St. Bart’s airport landing strip starts almost on the sand, but there’s plenty of room for sunbathing further east, and the tranquil seas make for excellent swimming and sailing territory.
Backed by grassy dunes, Machir Bay proposes the best stretch of sand on the Scottish island of Islay and some spectacular coastal walks, too. Birdwatchers may glimpse geese, guillemots, gannets, golden eagles, and even puffins here. Given its northern reaches, however, sunshine is never a guarantee, and temperatures are far from balmy (rarely topping 60 degrees, even in the summer months). But dramatic Scottish skies only add to the beauty when the weather’s not on your side. A tour of and tasting at the nearby Kilchoman Distillery will warm you up: Grab a bottle of scotch and enjoy a beachfront sundowner.
Naxos has a multitude of brilliant beaches, so it’s hard for sunseekers to go wrong on this Cycladic Greek island. Plaka is the best of the bunch, with its shimmering yellow sand and tempting turquoise waters. The 2.5-mile stretch has a wide variety of beach bars and restaurants serving fresh grilled fish and Mediterranean salads, and there’s plenty of seafront accommodation on hand. It’s a prime sunbathing beach, but if you want to get out on the water, you can rent a paddleboat or stand-up paddleboard or learn to windsurf or wakeboard with Plaka Watersports. (Tip: For those seeking a little extra freedom, the northern end of the beach tends to be where the nudists congregate.)
Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, Portugal
If sun-kissed, gold-hued sand and reliable surfing waves are what you’re after, look no further than Portugal’s Praia da Adraga, which is protected within the country’s Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. Picture-perfect scenery abounds with rocky outcrops in the ocean, sea-carved archways on the beach, and mossy cliffs at its sides. Just an hour’s drive from Lisbon, it’s a popular weekend spot for locals, but midweek, it’s a relatively quiet little cove. Tip: Try the excellent Restaurante da Agrada, serving seafood stews, grilled fish, and fresh crab to hungry sunbathers.
The roughly 1.25-mile-long curve of fine yellow sand that fronts the coastal city of Cefalù is by far one of Sicily’s best beaches. Backed by an enormous sandstone rock formation, with a medieval cathedral presiding over its northern end, it’s a picturesque place to while away the day. Spend a morning discovering the Old Town’s charms, then follow its winding lanes as they spill right down to the waterfront, where you can settle in the sun for an afternoon on the beach. The waters are brilliantly clear and pleasantly warm, and umbrellas and lounge chairs can be rented. When the day is done, retire to one of the traditional Italian restaurants overlooking the ocean at the strip’s northern end, where you can pair your fare with a good Italian wine.
This mile-long stretch of Blue Flag beach is a preferred vacation spot for locals, offering a less touristy alternative to busy Bodrum further south. Backed by the delightful town of Çeşme and facing the Aegean Sea, the beach has plenty of facilities—lounge chairs, beach bars, and seafront hotels—and is a top spot for windsurfing, too (the world championships are held here annually, in August).
It’s impossible to see where the beach ends and the desert begins here because the sands at Namibia’s seaside resort at Dolfynstrand sit right on the edges of Namib-Naukluft National Park—the oldest desert on the planet. Unsurprisingly with all that vastness, the beach feels wonderfully enormous, and thanks to its remote location in the world’s most sparsely populated country, you’re unlikely to have to jostle for space. A morning fog often lingers here through lunchtime—hence the number of shipwrecks strewn on the sand further along the coastline—making it a perfect destination for late morning snoozes and long afternoon beach days. Get your wildlife fix at nearby Walvis Bay, a 30-minute drive, where thousands of stinking seals slump about on the sand.
The Indian state of Kerala boasts a distinctly laid-back vibe compared to much of the country, and its beach culture is no exception. Varkala Beach, in the town of Varkala, at Kerala’s southern end, is one of the most popular hangouts for travelers and locals alike—little wonder, given that it’s believed bathing in the ocean here will wash away your sins. The wide, yellow stretch of sand is backed by orange cliffs with tufts of dark green grass, and atop this busy little tourist town are accommodations for all budgets and a superb selection of restaurants serving South Indian dishes like dosas and piquant fish curries.
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