Even for die-hard swimmers, surfers, and sunbathers, sometimes a day at the beach is anything but. You know the drill: too many people, too much noise, not nearly enough serenity to enjoy the majesty of blue skies and white-crested waves.
The good news is that there are still undiscovered beaches out there—blissful hideaways where tourism hasn’t yet eclipsed the local culture and there’s more to do, for those so inspired, than loll on the sand. T+L went scouting for such secret beaches and turned up everything from a quaint, affordable fishing village in Portugal to world-class surfing waves in Todos Santos, a cliff-side artist colony in Mexico.
If you prefer diving to surfing, opt for the abundant displays of marine life around Ibo Island in Mozambique, known for mangrove forests and pristine sandbank beaches accessed by traditional African dhow sailboats. It’s just the kind of secret beach for travelers who want to return home with got-there-first bragging rights.
Cultural tourists will be drawn to Cirali, a protected village on the turquoise Turkish Mediterranean, where the beach leads to nature preserves and ancient ruins. The endangered loggerhead sea turtles that nest on these pebbly sands have helped Cirali fend off developers.
But you don’t have to cross the ocean to find a slice of beachy paradise. The tiny surf town of Cayucos—210 miles north of Los Angeles—is dotted with 19th-century western buildings, vintage shops, and a pier that stretches nearly 1,000 feet into the ocean. While Cayucos’s Ocean Avenue is chockablock with antique boutiques, other sleepy American beach towns have boardwalks that take a kid-friendly approach.
Of course, for some stressed-out folks, just finding a beach with lounge chair cocktail service is enough to revive the spirit. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith nailed it when he wrote this assessment of a day by the sea. “Total physical and mental inertia are highly agreeable…a beach not only permits such inertia, but enforces it, thus neatly eliminating all problems of guilt. It is now the only place in our overly active world that does.”
Grand Haven, Michigan
Trolley cars, a 2.5-mile harbor-front boardwalk, and two 19th-century red lighthouses give a sweet, old-time feel to this Lake Michigan town. Boaters and fishermen flock here, and hikers like the short-but-strenuous climb to Rosy Mound that includes 1,000 feet of stairs up and down the sand dunes to the shore of Lake Michigan. There are warm shallows for swimming, and the soft sand of two public beaches squeaks when you walk on it. After sunset, the local restaurants, ice cream parlors, and shops come alive. Retire to a Victorian B&B like the 1873 Khardomah Lodge (616-842-2990; doubles from $70), or a rental A-frame or bungalow with your own beachfront, as listed at Lake Michigan Cottages (800-870-3393).
Lord Howe Island, Australia
A close-kept secret among Sydney cognoscenti, this tiny Pacific Ocean island—where tourists are capped at 400, streetlights are a rarity, and most people get around on bicycles—is an easy two-hour flight from the city. Born from a volcanic eruption 7 million years ago, the verdant UNESCO World Heritage site is home to brooding basalt-stack mountains that plunge directly into the sea; guide Jack Shick leads challenging climbs up the 2,870-foot Mount Gower for jaw-dropping views. Down below, snorkelers have the run of a long and vibrant coral-reef lagoon. At Ned’s Beach, you can hand-feed kingfish—the Lord Howe specialty—while at Old Settlement Beach, turtles are known to laze on the sand. Book a room at the chic, nine-room Capella Lodge (doubles from $670 per person, all-inclusive), which sits atop Lover’s Bay. Owned by James and Hayley Baillie, whose other property is Kangaroo Island’s celebrated Southern Ocean Lodge, it’s known for its spa. For a room with a bit of history, check in to the low-key Pinetrees Lodge (011-61-2-9262-6585; from $300 per person, all-inclusive), which has been run by the same family since 1848.
Across the bay from buzzy Cap Ferret, on the southern Côte d’Argent, stands the 350-foot Dune of Pyla, a draw for avid hikers and beach lovers. Now there’s another reason to go: Philippe Starck’s La Co(o)rniche (46 Ave. Louis Gaume; 011-33-5-56-22-72-11; doubles from $345), a renovated hunting lodge with 12 white-on-white rooms, all but one of which face the ocean. At night, crowds gather on the hotel’s breezy restaurant terrace for seafood dishes such as cod in a coconut-and-lime emulsion and scallops with glazed beets; there’s also a lively bar that whips up Catalan-inspired tapas and mango mojitos. If you prefer oyster platters and heaping plates of moules frites, take the ferry to Chez Hortense (Ave. Sémaphore; 011-33-5-56-60-62-56), in the historic Quartier Ostréicole on the southern end of Cap Ferret
Ibo Island, Mozambique
The 32 coral islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago—which have been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for biodiversity and cultural harmony—beckon with mangrove forests and sandbank beaches (accessed by African dhow sailboats). Sparkling turquoise waters filled with marine life are superb for shipwreck snorkeling and deep-sea diving. Once the trading outpost of Mozambique, Ibo Island is the most accessible and historic isle in the Quirimbas, filled with stone architecture bearing the polyglot influences of Arab, Indian, and Portuguese settlers. For a luxurious, intimate stay, choose one of the nine rooms at the Ibo Island Lodge (011-258-27-21-702-0285; doubles from $730).
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
The largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc is nearer to Cambodia than mainland Vietnam. As a result, there is a sizable military force in this still underdeveloped tourist destination of less than 100,000 residents, known for uncluttered beaches and the country’s best fish sauce—a key Vietnamese ingredient. There are vanilla-white beaches with guesthouses lining the shore in small villages, which can be visited by motorbike, the most common vehicle on the island. But for the widest variety of lodging and entertainment options, most folks choose the east coast’s palm-lined Bai Truong (Long Beach) a 12-mile stretch with seaside resorts and cafés—tableside grilled squid is a local specialty—and the 43-room La Veranda Resort & Spa (doubles from $265).
Located three hours south of Lisbon near Cape Sagres, Salema is a small fishing village known for its gentle Atlantic shore break on a wide beach between two steep cliffs. While much of Portugal’s scenic Algarve Coast has been engulfed by new high-rises and resorts, Salema remains admirably authentic, with one main street, white stucco houses, an outdoor market providing staples for picnics, and just a dozen places to eat and drink. The lack of luxuries and diversions translates into accommodation savings: “Quatros” (rooms with bathrooms in private homes) go for about $26, while self-catering apartments at Pension A Maré are under $130 nightly.
Bethany Beach, Delaware
A boardwalk with a bandstand and a frozen custard shop, a landmark carved totem pole, and a sophisticated miniature golf course add up to an all-American destination—and one of T+L’s Favorite Family Beaches. Known as the Quiet Resorts, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island offer seven miles of Atlantic Ocean for swimming as well as a sheltered bay for boating and fishing, minus the hubbub of nearby towns Rehoboth Beach, DE, and Ocean City, MD. Lodgings and dining in Bethany Beach cater to the kid crowd, so if you’re seeking solitude, try a rental home (1150 Coastal Hwy.; 800-228-8833 or 302-539-9040; longandfoster.com; from $1,500 a week) or the Addy Sea (doubles from $250 in peak summer season), an adults-only oceanfront Victorian B&B.
Koh Lanta, Thailand
Far from the maddening crowds in Phuket and Phi Phi, Koh Lanta is about an hour’s van or speedboat ride from Krabi airport. The island’s western side offers nine sunset-drenched beaches on the warm Andaman Sea (mid-80-degrees year-round) with pristine sands and coral snorkeling reefs. Named one of T+L’s Sexiest Affordable Destinations, Koh Lanta has blossomed as a favorite among in-the-know travelers thanks to its authenticity (fishing villages and a community who live in stilt houses) and range of accommodations. The further south you go, the more secluded it gets. Don’t miss Time for Lime (dinner for two $25), an open-air restaurant where you can also take Thai cooking classes.
Palm Beach, Barbuda
The artist colony of Todos Santos is way cooler in both temperature and temperament than the Margaritaville of Cabo San Lucas, an hour to the south. Pacific breezes stir up rough and tumbling waves that have made this kicked-back community a surfer’s haven. (Swimmers should venture out only on calm days.) Like San Miguel Allende, Todos Santos has attracted creative expats and is filled with galleries and lively cafés. Guests at Rancho Pescadero (from $200) get complimentary use of surfboards, boogie boards, and bicycles, while a stay at Guaycura Boutique Hotel and Spa (877-448-2928; doubles from $156) comes with classic beach getaway amenities like a rooftop pool and bar. But the funky hippie spirit of the town may be best expressed at the 11-room Hotel California, which, having opened in 1948, has nothing to do with the Eagles’ song (doubles from $110). It hosted the first-ever Todos Santos Music Festival in January 2012.
Puako, Big Island, Hawaii
Tucked between the Kona airport and the plush resorts on the Big Island’s Kohala coast, Puako is a relaxed little residential enclave with one main road, a general store, and lovely, affordable vacation rentals such as Turtle Reef (doubles from $150 through MacArthur & Co; 877-885-8285). Divers, kayakers, and sunbathers can see the honu (protected sea turtles) in the Puako reef tide pools and on the rocks at the edge of these oceanfront properties, while surfers head south to the wild winter waves at the public beach Paniau. Keep walking, and you’ll reach the Mauna Lani resort and a field of ancient rock carvings known as the Puako Petroglyphs.
Locals call this tiny surf town 210 miles north of Los Angeles Cayucos-by-the-Sea. It’s a refreshingly underdeveloped beach retreat dotted with 19th-century western buildings, vintage shops selling Americana and folk art, and a pier that stretches nearly 1,000 feet into the ocean. Check in to the restored 1867 Cass House Inn & Restaurant (222 N. Ocean Ave.; 805-995-3669; doubles from $165), with views of the Pacific and a stellar farm-to-table restaurant serving four-course dinners. For something humbler, there’s the fish fry at no-frills Sea Shanty (296 S. Ocean Ave.; 805-995-3272; lunch for two $25), just a short walk away. Antiques lovers can stroll Ocean Avenue, chockablock with treasure-filled boutiques such as Rich Man Poor Man (146 N. Ocean Ave.; 805-995-3631) and Remember When (152 N. Ocean Ave.; 805-995-1232), then grab a bourbon shortbread cookie at Brown Butter Cookie Company (250 N. Ocean Ave.; 805-995-2076; cookies for two $2.40). Cayucos is the perfect jumping-off point for those looking to explore the Central Coast, including the nearby wine region of Paso Robles, Hearst Castle, and the artsy village of Cambria, a 20-minute car trip up the shore.
Panglao Island, Philippines
An hour-long flight from Manila to Bohol Island followed by a 25-minute drive across a 19th-century causeway brings you to this secluded Central Visayas isle, where the petite Ananyana Beach Resort & Spa (Doljo Beach; 011-63-38-502-8101; doubles from $220) occupies a prime spot on a mile-long stretch of sand. The 12 luxe thatched-roof huts have bamboo-framed king-size beds; the alfresco restaurant turns out Filipino-Mediterranean dishes such as penne with pork adobo; and the lounge is outfitted with regionally made rattan and abaca furniture. Hop a resort boat for dolphin watching, diving amid the drop-offs of Balicasag Island, or, for the ultimate castaway fantasy, a sunset dinner on deserted Puntod Island. Another option is to visit the Bohol Bee Farm (Dao, Dauis, Panglao Island; 011-63-38-502-2288; lunch for two $35), which serves dishes with organic ingredients grown on site. The treat of choice: house-made ube (purple yam) ice cream. You can also head back to Bohol Island to check out the Chocolate Hills—a surreal natural wonder of 1,776 dome-shaped hills formed from limestone covered in grass.
Brazil may be blessed with more than 4,600 miles of coastline—but finding untouched sands is harder than it seems. Yet a few rustic beach towns in the northeastern state of Alagoas remain relatively unknown. Once considered a backwater and long overshadowed by Bahia to the south, this small, laid-back region is finally on the map. In Barra de São Miguel, Kenoa—Exclusive Beach Spa & Resort (011-55-82-3272-1285; doubles from $617) is a high-design retreat that blends seamlessly into the landscape. Portuguese owner Pedro Marques brought his eco-conscious vision to life by enlisting the help of local architect Osvaldo Tenório. Rooms are adorned with contemporary art; faucets are refashioned from old iron pipes; and recycled railway trestles are used as coffee tables. You may just want to gaze at the turquoise sea from your villa’s floor-to-ceiling windows, but there’s plenty to keep you busy, from sampling Portuguese cataplanas (rich seafood stews served in traditional copper pots) at the hotel’s restaurant to visiting the nearby oyster-farming community of Vila Palateia, where you can try bivalves plucked straight from the mangrove lagoon. Seventy miles to the north, the white-sand beaches around São Miguel dos Milagres are just as secluded and are dotted with crystalline tide pools. A handful of forward-thinking pousada owners invested here over the past decade—and sophisticated travelers are finally taking notice. At the stylish Pousada do Toque (doubles from $375), imbuia-wood chairs from Brazilian Modernist Sergio Rodrigues and daybeds by Carlos Motta help set the scene in the spacious lounge, while the 17 bungalows have bathrooms with Japanese-style tubs looking out onto private gardens. In nearby Porto de Pedras, the light-filled Pousada Patacho (doubles from $190) has five intimate, white-washed rooms surrounded by towering coconut palms and vine-draped terraces.
Salt Creek Recreation Area, Washington
Twilight fans know Clallam County for the town of Forks, where Bella and Edward met. The northern edge of the region, however, has its own claims to fame. Tide pools at Tongue Point draw beachcombers and oceanography students; history buffs explore the remnants of World War II military base Camp Hayden; and everyone can appreciate views of Victoria, B.C., across the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. Visitors can stay at lodges on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park or in Port Angeles, which offers charming B&Bs like the George Washington Inn, a re-creation of the first president’s mansion on a lavender farm. (Doubles from $200.)
Agonda Beach, Goa, India
Rave music put Goa on the map as a party paradise in the 1990s, but this palm-lined beach on the Arabian Sea is known for its laid-back village feeling. Touristy, it is not. Surfers enjoy the wild waves but swimmers are warned that the currents can be dangerous. While other Goa beaches offer five-star resorts and chain hotels, nightlife, and gourmet Indian food, Agonda remains largely a simple and authentic destination where beach huts, which can run as low as $20, are decidedly rustic.
Happy Bay, St. Martin
North of Friar’s Bay Beach on the French side of St. Martin, Happy Bay is a happily underpopulated stretch of vanilla sand. It’s a hike to get there: 10–15 minutes on a well-marked footpath through the underbrush, which requires just enough effort to ensure the kind of privacy that has made it popular for those who prefer to sunbathe au naturel. (Nudity is tolerated, although this is not officially a clothing-optional beach.) Snorkelers are rewarded with tropical fish in the crystal waters, some of the best on the island. Services are virtually nonexistent, so stock up on supplies at one of the bars in Friar’s Bay.
Polihale Beach, Kauai
With sand dunes rising up to 100 feet and a commanding view of the Na Pali cliffs, this seven-mile stretch of white sand on the westernmost end of Kauai is the island’s hottest, sunniest spot. One of the most magnificent beaches in Hawaii, Polihale is also one of the most remote, accessible only by a dirt road off the scenic coast drive from resort towns like Princeville and Koloa. Currents are strong, so surfing and snorkeling are not advisable, but there is a 300-foot swimming beach called Queen’s Pond at Polihale State Park.
Lameshur Bay Beach, St. John
On the secluded southeast coast of St. John, Lameshur Bay is a short but bumpy Jeep drive from the luxuries of Caneel Bay, a Rosewood Resort. For those who enjoy mixing it up with the locals, there are nearby rental villas and eco-tents. At the end of the cobblestoned beach at Lameshur is a more isolated, sandier strip known as Donkey Bight. Snorkelers love this beach, which leads to Beehive Cove, a warren of caves and tunnels filled with coral, sea sponges, and reef fish. Landlubbers and hiking enthusiasts can soak up local history touring the ruins of an 18th-century slave plantation and climbing 1.2 miles to the 1,000-foot peak of Bordeaux Mountain, which overlooks the bay below.
Matagorda Beach, Texas
Matagorda County counts more than 50 miles of gulf shoreline, including a 20-mile stretch of sand open to vehicle traffic. Beachcombers may find sand dollars and old Spanish coins amid the driftwood, while kayakers can paddle down the Colorado to the bay. The biggest draw for this tiny town with motels, campsites, and vacation rentals is the fishing. Anglers flock to the Matagorda bays for trout and flounder, and boaters enjoy the hunt for saltwater trophies while offshore fishing in the Gulf.
La Pedrera, Uruguay
In the last year, T+L has crowned Uruguay as South America’s Latest Hot Spot. While the high-end resort towns of Punta del Este and José Ignacio have been jet-set getaways for decades, the seaside villages of La Pedrera and Oceanía del Polonio have emerged as laid-back, low-cost, eco-focused alternatives attracting a whole new crowd. There are more than 100 miles of rugged Atlantic shoreline with massive rock outcroppings in the Rocha area. Now, La Pedrera, a town that boasts no high-rise condos or beachfront businesses, has a boutique hotel, Brisas (doubles from $130), which is determinedly unplugged: rooms have no phones or TVs.
Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica
Just south of the popular surfer’s paradise of Samara Beach, Playa Carrillo is one of the least developed spots on the Nicoya Peninsula. Framed by mountains, the laid-back fishing village has a white-sand beach just off a palm-lined boulevard (there are no unsightly beachfront buildings). Known among divers for its excellent coral reef teeming with marine life, the beach is protected by rocky headlands, providing calm, warm water for swimmers. Accommodations such as El Sueno are off the beach, but quite reasonably priced. Don’t miss the La Selva Zoo and Bromeliad Gardens at the southern end of the bay.
Anse Source d’Argent, Seychelles
Although La Digue is the third largest inhabited island in the archipelago, it is an unspoiled natural environment where most folks travel on bicycles. The closest thing to a resort is La Digue Island Lodge, with thatched-roof bungalows and a 19th-century colonial house (doubles from $204). Though fashion photographers and film directors love it, the pink-sand beach of Anse Source d’Argent is a bit of a schlep, which means it is rarely occupied. Enormous granite boulders are part of the craggy shoreline, and an offshore reef provides protection from ocean waves, making it an ideal spot for swimming. Keep an eye out for endangered birds and giant tortoises.
Capo Sant’Andrea, Elba
The emperor Napoleon escaped from exile on this Mediterranean island after less than a year, but left behind his Villa dei Mulini. Plot your own escape to Capo Sant’Andrea, known locally as the piccola isola nell’isola (little island within the island). The beach makes a big impression with its granite magma cliffs and nearly cobalt-blue water that is so clear you can see the floor—where ancient Roman shipwrecks yielded archaeological treasures now housed in the town of Marciana. Visitors can stay in style at Hotel Ilio (doubles from $145) from mid April to mid October, when the mountain footpaths are ablaze with violets, lavender, lilies, and rosemary.