10 of the world's most breathtaking beaches
Sun, sea, sand
From pink sands to white pebbles, here's a selection of strands, coves and beaches that may prompt a little cry at your desk...
Pfeiffer Beach, California
Look at it. Just look at it! Pfeiffer beach (above) is cut into the coastline just a quarter of a mile or so south of Big Sur. Highway One, which runs more or less parallel to California's Pacific Coast, throws up its fair share of spellbinding beaches, but this is surely a contender for the best. Word is out, so be sure to pick your moment to arrive and avoid the crowds (there's a small parking charge and narrow access roads can be a squeeze for cars). Crushed seashells lend a purplish tinge to the sand, and there's a gorgeous waterfall streaming off the rocks. Instagram doesn't do beaches, but if it did...
Matira Point, Tahiti
The dramatic Mount Otemanu, aquamarine lagoon and necklace of coral reef make Bora Bora (pictured above) a dead ringer for Neverland. Tropical foliage, valleys strewn with hibiscus and splendid isolation (it's an hour's flight from Tahiti) make it a bucket list destination for honeymooners all over the world... and there's a bar called Bloody Mary's, too. White sand beaches slope gently into water teeming with fish and manta ray, with Matira Point pick of the crop. A scattering of luxury resorts and spas complete the sense of an ultra-romantic getaway. And no, I haven't been. Sigh.
Baia do Sancho, Brazil
Think of Brazil, and beaches like those at Ipanema and the Copacabana come to mind. But this is a very big country, as World Cup fans recently discovered, with a whole host of surprises lying off the beaten track. Baia do Sancho, stashed away 340km off the coast on Fernando de Noronha, has been voted best beach in the world in TripAdvisor's Travellers' Choice Awards. The islands themselves form part of Brazil's first national marine park, and visitors need to both fly to get here (from Recife or Natal) and pay a daily environmental tax. Those who undertake the effort and expense, in other words, are richly rewarded with swathes of sand, wreck dives and dolphin-spotted waters to themselves.
Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián
Beaches don't have to be remote to be beautiful. In fact, you could come up with a whole separate category for urban settings - Bondi in Sydney, Miami's South Beach, Rio's Copacabana et al. La Concha is a scallop-shaped stunner, framed by leafy-green mountains, Santa Clara Island and the glistening Bay of Donostia. It was here that Jake Barnes swam in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and that generations of locals, tourists and Camino pilgrims continue to walk, swim, sail and sunbathe. The Old Town and its pintxo bars are just minutes from the sand, and beyond that you'll find the city's surfing hotspot, Zurriola Beach.
Keem Bay, Achill Island
Achill boasts five Blue Flag beaches, but this is my favourite by a country mile. Part of the delight is the distance you have to travel to get there - once you hit Westport, Keem is at least another hour west. Keep driving, over the Currane Peninsula, across the bridge and boggy island interior, until the road runs out at one of the Wild Atlantic Way's finest Signature Discovery points. Framed by cliffs, undeveloped save for an old stone cottage and heaven for snorkelers and sea kayakers, it's a first impression that lasts a very long time. On my most recent visit, the lifeguard told me a kayaker had just been paddling with a basking shark. Magic.
Shipwreck Beach, Zakynthos
Recognise this one? Of course you do. Shipwreck beach is one of the most photographed in Europe - thanks to its chalk-white cliffs, jewel blue waters and the picturesque wreck of a merchant vessel lodged in the sand. Also known as Navagio or Smugglers' Cove, the beach lies to the northwest of the Greek Ionian Island of Zakynthos (AKA Zante), and can only be accessed by boat. Views from the cliffs above are worth the price of any rental car, however. The 900-foot drop is a favourite of the BASE jumping community, too. They land on the beach in summer.
Pink Beach, Barbuda
Yes, the sand really does look pink. That's because the coral offshore is crawling with microscopic animals known as forams. Forams have red skeletons, which mix with the sand and the shells after they die to set off the whole pink crush effect. Neat, eh? The isolation is another draw (Barbuda measures just 60km2, with most visitors coming by catamaran daytrip from nearby Antigua). If you do make the crossing, or stay in one of the few resorts, bring your snorkel. A pick 'n' mix of fish darts about the reefs, and turtles can be seen from June to October.
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Reynisfjara Beach, Iceland
Some beaches woo us with their palm trees, emerald waters and white sands. Others brood in the corner like bold or gifted children, refusing to stick with the script. The southern Icelandic beach at Reynisfjara is one of those. Set near the village of Vík, the black pebble beach looks out on a striking series of dark sea stacks said to be the frozen forms of two trolls. Look out for a dramatic cliff formed by basalt columns reminiscent of the Giant's Causeway. Warning: swimming is not safe here, and visitors need to be very wary about sudden waves.
Paxos is a tiny speck in the Ionian Sea, an hour-and-a-half by hydrofoil from Corfu and barely 13km in length. Several dozen white pebble coves offer respite from the crowds of Acharavi or Ipsos, but Monodendri (literally, 'one tree') is pick of the bunch. A sweet little arc of pebbles reached via thin roads winding through thick pine forests, it's a cool, peaceful oasis where you can sunbathe, swim and snorkel before grabbing a drink at the friendly taverna. Paradise does pizza, Wi-Fi and a saltwater swimming pool, too. Worth every mile of the journey.
Anse Source d'Argent, Seychelles
National Geographic once published a book called The 10 Best of Everything. Naturally, that listicle of listicles featured a pick of the world's 10 best beaches, and topping it was Anse Source d'Argent. It's hard to argue with that. With pale pink sands laid out along a particularly beautiful stretch of La Digue's coastline, the beach is among the most photographed in the Indian Ocean (Rosanna Davison recently posted Instagram snaps of her honeymoon there). "The sands sparkle against a backdrop of towering granite boulders, worn by time and weather," as Nat Geo puts it, and the turquoise water is cosseted away from the ocean by a reef. Bucket list, anyone?