My childhood was spent in Laguna Beach, California where I was often treated to the joys of seeing dolphins playfully surf the morning waves, where the salty scent of the sea permeated the walls of my home, where tangerine-sangria sunrises and sunsets bookended my days, where tide pools were liquid pockets of wonderment flush with otherworldly life – sea stars, translucent anemones, and urchins that looked like little purple hedgehogs. My first boyfriend was a surfer, my skin was sun-kissed most of the year, and my virtual high school uniform was a bathing suit, so I feel I have some authority on the subject of the world’s most wonderful beaches.
In fact, seeking out the world’s best beaches has been a lifetime pursuit. Yet, I am always drawn back to Diver’s Cove and Crescent Bay, two fabulous beaches that were a mere hop, skip and jump from my childhood front door. So, I begin this list of wonderful beaches with those close to my hometown of Laguna Beach, and I end it with a handful of beaches I still dream of twirling on, bikini-clad and sun-drenched.
In between are a handful of other beaches that I am lucky enough to have visited, and I can speak of from personal experience. Some are the best for swimming while others are best for tide-pooling or snorkeling, but however you size them up, they are all fabulously enchanting beaches that should be on your sand bucket list, if indeed you are a beach-lover like me.
Or you can sit back and enjoy these beaches right at home, by scrolling through the following images.
The Beach Boys made California famous for a reason. While there are dozens of excellent beaches in my home state from San Diego to Malibu to Mendocino, my favorites as noted above are Diver’s Cove and Crescent Bay. Both beaches are great for swimming. Diver’s Cove is cozy and intimate with rocks you can dive off of into a blowhole if you dare. Crescent Bay has a moon arc of sand, great body surfing waves and fun tide-pooling.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
I lived in Ecuador for nearly five years and while there I was lucky enough to visit the Galapagos Islands twice – once for two weeks and a second time for a month. Without doubt, this volcanic island chain teeming with wildlife is one of my favorite places in the world. And the best part is, most of this wildlife is on or near the beach. If you are an animal lover, photographer, and beach enthusiast then kick a trip to the Galapagos up to the top of your sand bucket list. This place is AMAZING. I wrote this description of the Galapagos for Ecuador Explorer, an online travel guide I co-founded in the 1990s:
On land and in the sea, the Galapagos Islands give the impression of a diabolic Garden of Eden. The islands’ tumultuous volcanic history of scorched earth and fiery flows are evident the moment you arrive. Inhospitable. Uninhabitable. Tortured. These are the adjectives inspired by this lava-sea-scape.
But look closer and this seemingly spartan landscape is in fact teeming with life; the first of the Galapagos’ many contradictions. Suddenly you realize that what you thought was a rock is in fact a sun-seeking iguana! And to add to your surprise, it doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed by your intrusive gaze– another Galapagos contradiction.
Since travelers to the Galapagos, as well as residents, are strictly prohibited from accessing most of the island territory except by permitted boat tours, every beach is pristine, most are wonderfully wild, and both bird and beast are completely nonchalant about your presence. A few will show curiosity like the young sea lions that playfully swim right up to you nose-to-nose, but most of the wildlife just goes about their business as if you do not even exist. On some islands you actually have to watch where you are walking to avoid stepping on blue footed boobies, marine iguanas or nesting albatross!
Rimmed with swaying palms, ivory sand, rock formations that look like they were dropped on the shoreline by giants and water the color of jade, malachite and turquoise, not many places can outdo Thailand for the title of enchanting tropical paradise.
I spent a year in Thailand as an exchange student and fortunately for all of us foreign scholars, field trips to southern Thailand were part of our study abroad agenda. Southern Thailand, after all, is where you find the stunning beaches of Haad Rin on Ko Pha Ngan Island, Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Island and Phra Nang Beach in Railay.
If you are young and adventurous with a wild streak, don’t miss Ko Pha Ngan’s legendary Full Moon Party. When I went to it in the mid 1990s it was a slightly smaller affair. Now 30,000 party-goers typically show up on full moon nights for the buckets – yes literally buckets – of Thai Whiskey combined with Thai Red Bull and rave dancing on the beach until dawn. If this is too wild for you, do know this same cove of full moon debauchery is relatively quiet and laid-back the rest of the month.
Unfortunately, Maya Bay has become overly crowded thanks in part to the movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but it is still a gorgeous beach and should be on every beach lover’s bucket list.
As far as I know, Tulum, Mexico is the only place in the world where archeological ruins spill so dramatically off rocky cliffs – and onto a beach with sugar sand and turquoise seas. The Mayan truly picked a sweet spot to build one of their walled cities. Known as El Castillo, the Castle, reached it pinnacle in the 13th century as a seaside trading post and was one of the last Mayan cities to fall to the Conquistadors in the late 1500s. Today, you can contemplate the Mayan Calendar while frolicking in the Caribbean sea with El Castillo looming magnificently in the background.
Personally, I like my beaches warm, but I forgive coastal Oregon for its breezy chilliness that often requires windbreakers and cable knit fishermen sweaters as the tide pooling is awesome. Arcadia State Park, Oceanside, Devil’s Punch Bowl, Yaquina, Seal Rock and Yachats are my favorite places to poke around for sea life with names like nudibranches, chitons, winged kelp, giant green anemones and sea stars. The sunsets are lovely too – and a great way to end a salt-sprayed day on America’s Pacific coast.
No list of great beaches would be complete without a mention of Hawaii. There are so many fabulous beaches here it is difficult to say which is my favorite. Lanikai on Oahu has stellar swimming in crystal clear waters, Hanalei Bay on Kauai boasts a nearly perfect semi-circle of golden sand with a land backdrop of waterfalls and lush emerald green mountain ridges. Maui offers Kapalua beach with its swaying palms, apricot-colored sand and easy swimming, while the Big Island has Hapuna Beach, a long stretch of ivory sand that gently slopes into the sea creating excellent swimming and snorkeling opportunities. Oh, and the Hawaiian sunsets – they truly are legendary!
St John, U.S. Virgin Islands
For such a small dot in the sea, St. John has a fantastic collection of white sandy beaches: Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, Lameshur Bay, Francis Bay, Gibney Bay, Salomon Bay, Hawksnest Bay, and Honeymoon Bay. The sand skirting the island is particularly soft and fine, the water is crystal clear nearly year-round and the sea and shore gently meet thus making ideal wading and swimming for all ages. Furthermore, most of St John beaches are part of the Virgin Islands National Park and therefore protected from the rampant development that has scarred so many other lovely beaches around the world.
Na’ama Bay, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
Visit the Sphinx and the pyramids and then travel to the Red Sea and enjoy Egypt’s beaches and the magical underwater world of Ras Mohamed National Park. The Park and surrounding areas have excellent diving and snorkeling thanks to Egyptian conservation efforts.
Bedouin-style hotels and cafes make you feel like Lawrence of Arabia may join you at any moment – an experience I nearly had when Adley, the charming, dark curly-haired owner of the local hotel I was staying at rode in through the courtyard on a white horse and asked me to join him for Bedouin tea and belly dancing. I, of course, said yes!
As noted above, Egypt has garnered recognition recently for its environmental efforts and thus ecotourism is booming.
Puerto Rico, officially known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States and is very under-appreciated by mainland America. Unbeknownst to most Americans, this little archipelago of Caribbean islands is a treasure trove of colonial architecture and history, pirate lore, tropical rainforests and fabulous beaches. My favorite Puerto Rico beach is Playa Flamenco. Others in-the-know apparently agree with me as on more than on occasion this little slice of paradise has been granted the title of “Best Beach in America.” I love its mile long stretch of white sand that hugs a curvy coastline dotted with palm trees and – and in one spot, a big rusty completely out-of-place military tank!
Cambodia is usually overshadowed by neighboring Thailand when it comes to beaches, but this little Southeast nation boasts five fabulous beaches if you are into white and gold stretches of sand, seashells, and bio-luminescence:
Southwestern Beach, Koh Rong
Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Saloem
Long Set Beach, Koh Rong
Koh Thmei Beach, Ream National Park
In Sanskrit, “Maldives” means “garland of islands,” a charming description for these stunningly beautiful tropical isles. The Maldives are high on my sand bucket list and so should it be on yours – however, getting to the Maldives is not an easy nor inexpensive proposition as this particular garland is in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But for those lucky honeymooners, divers and world travelers that do make it to these islands, they are treated to glassy blue and green waters, excellent diving and snorkeling and palm-fringed beaches with powder sugar sand. Sun Island Beach, one of the Maldives’ gems among gems is nearly always included on any list detailing the world’s best beaches.
Along with the Maldives, the Seychelles vie for top spot on any “best beaches in the world list.” Anse Source d’Argent is a ribbon of sand that weaves seashell pink and white sand around slate grey or golden boulders and into one of the most photographed beaches in the world.
Bora Bora, Tahiti
Almost too perfect to be real, Matira beach on the South Pacific Island of Bora Bora is the quintessential beach of honeymoon fantasies – peaceful, sensuous and lush. It is said a spell of romance is cast on every traveler that dips even a toe in the waters of this French Polynesia island. Personally, I am thinking this little slice of paradise would make a great wedding anniversary retreat!
So, this is my list of the world’s most enchanting beaches, but do know it is only a starter list, a list to stimulate your sea, sand and sun fantasies – and mine!
Do you have a favorite beach? Please do share!