The travel blogosphere is awash with lists of the world’s best beaches. From the Maldives to the Galápagos Islands, every nomad has their own top 5, 10, or 50 to evoke envy in readers. Each list is limited by the writer’s own travel experience, and that’s what makes them unique. I haven’t been to the Maldives or Goa, to Barbados or Cape Town, so this list is of the best beaches that I have seen. Furthermore, it was raining heavily when I visited Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia, often celebrated as the best beach in the world, so I didn’t experience it at its best, and it didn’t make this list. I’ve tried to include every continent here, but South America is missing – again, that might be different had it not been raining so heavily when I visited Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Therefore, this is a list of the beaches that were most beautiful or striking when I was there.
10. Lamai Beach, Koh Samui, Thailand
Often overlooked in favour of busier Chaweng Beach, its popular neighbour directly to the North, Lamai is one of the quieter beaches on the Thai island of Koh Samui. The sand is slightly coarser than Chaweng’s and more golden than white, but where Lamai falls down in geology it excels in peace and quiet. Wading far out into the sea, it stays knee-deep for ages, and lying down in it feels like being in a warm bath. Lamai town consists of a single street, set back from the long beach, offering beachwear shops, restaurants and bars. Travelling on a backpacking budget in 2007, I stayed two nights in a beach hut – a small, wooden abode facing directly onto the beach, which held two beds shrouded in moquito nets, and whose bathroom consisted only of a toilet, sink, and a pipe coming out of the wall where you crank the lever and cold water comes out. In 32 degree heat, what more would you need? This is a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle after a long flight, a couple of days in crazy Bangkok, and an overnight train journey to the South.
9. Carrickfinn Beach, Donegal, Ireland
Located immediately alongside the tiny Donegal Airport in Ireland’s remote far north, Carrickfinn Beach could easily be in the Seychelles. I visited on a mild, bright and dry day in Summer 2015 with a band of acrobats. The pale sand stretches extensively along the long, flat strand, peppered with elegantly eroded soft rocks – a reminder that Ireland’s coastline isn’t always so peaceful, and that these beautiful shapes were fashioned by the Atlantic Ocean’s rough tides. The sea rages on the shore in enormous waves, and surfing, sailing and swimming are possible for those confident in the water. The beach is flanked by large sand dunes and a wide grassy area that separates it from the airport’s runway.
8. Cala Marcal Beach, Mallorca, Spain
A family favourite during my teenage years, Cala Marcal Beach stretches high up into a narrow cove between the seaside towns of Cala Marcal and Porto Colom on Spain’s Balearic island of Mallorca. Golden sand contrasts beautifully with an azure sea, and multicoloured parasols dot the beach during daytime. Rugged, grey rocks on the cove’s southern side present ideal opportunities for cliff diving, where tourists and locals alike plunge into the cool sea. The narrowness of the cove totally protects the beach from wind, making it a peaceful heat trap for anyone relaxing on the sand. We visited as a family a number of times between 2000 and 2003, and the area is safe to let children wander around.
7. Rainbow Beach, Queensland, Australia
Named for its multicoloured sand, Australia’s Rainbow Beach is geologically beautiful. Thanks to its rich mineral content, the dunes are golden, copper, rust, black, purple and white, depending on the layer of sand, and a fabulous marble effect is created on the surface. As you walk South along the beach, huge black rocks provide sheltered spots for sunbathing and relaxing. I spent two nights there in 2008, happily relaxing on the rocks and in the sand.
6. Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Nungwi is a tiny town tucked away at the Northern end of the island of Zanzibar, far from cars and ATM machines. Its few narrow, unpaved streets are lined with small, basic cafes, a grocery store, a hair braiding salon, low houses with corrugated tin roofs, and a few shops selling local art and crafts. The beach is lined with hotels, ranging from budget to five star, and walking between them along the shore is easy. The sand is pure white, and the sea pale blue, graduating to a dark royal blue as it gets deeper. The sunlight reflects off the pale sand in a way that makes everything seem all the brighter. Starting and finishing my day with sunrise and sunset yoga from Yoga Zanzibar while overlooking the sea here during a 2014 visit, was the perfect way to awaken my muscles.
5. Coumeenole Beach, Kerry, Ireland
Halfway around Kerry’s Sleigh Head Drive, close to the most Western point of Ireland, Coumeenole Beach can be found by wandering down the path cut into the cliff to the small cove where it rests, sheltered by the cliffs. Depending on the tide, the beach is variously enormous or quite small, and the wild Atlantic crashes on the rust-coloured sand. Sheltered from the wind by the cliffs, this shoreline is perfect for swimming. I visited on an almost weekly basis during Summer 2008 while working as a tour guide, travelling around Ireland with coach loads of young, adventurous tourists, and had plenty of opportunities to leap into the cold water. It’s worth noting that both Irish beaches on this list are located in Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas.
4. Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California, USA
Pfeiffer State Beach is easily missed. It is reached by turning off Highway 1 soon after Big Sur Village, and driving two miles down a narrow, winding road only wide enough for one vehicle, that could easily be somewhere in rural Ireland rather than on the California coast. At the bottom of the road there is a car park, and below it, Pfeiffer Beach sits beneath the cliffs. Waves batter the rock formations on the shore, eroding them into interesting shapes, and the white sand reveals black beneath it when dug into. The Pacific is cold here, and the beach is ruggedly scenic. I visited on a blustery day in 2013 while driving down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles, enjoying the scenery of Big Sur State Park.
3. Tulum Beach, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Ancient Mayan ruins sit atop the cliff at Tulum, a small, laid back town easily accessible from Mexico’s resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Exploring the ruins takes half an hour, and the view to the beach below is stunning, with white sand and a glittering blue sea shining beneath the Caribbean sun. The ruins share the clifftops with palm trees, and down below, a calm sea provides perfect swimming conditions, while large rocks give shelter from the sun. I relaxed there in 2014 after wandering around the ruins and eventually down the wooden steps on the cliff face to the sand below.
2. Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia
Cape Tribulation is one of the most difficult beaches to access on this list, but also one of the most rewarding and well worth the effort. Two and a half hours drive from the city of Cairns and hidden in the Daintree National Park, standing on the beach allows the visitor to look out across the blue sea to the Great Barrier Reef and in to the rainforest at once. The Northern-most point on my trip up the East coast of Australia in 2008, I took a day trip there from Cairns. Sharks and jellyfish in the water make it unsuitable for swimming.
1. El Matador State Beach, Malibu, California, USA
The top, most beautiful beach I have ever seen is El Matador State Beach in Malibu, California, a short drive North of LA. I reached it in a half hour driving from Santa Monica during a stay there in 2016. Located at the bottom of the steps down the cliff, El Matador State Beach has many scenic rock formations, glistening wet golden sand, and a calm Pacific Ocean to swim in.
Bonus beach: Santa Monica, California, USA
This is a city beach and included not so much for natural beauty as for enjoyment. Santa Monica Beach is my favourite place in the world. The sand is soft, the beach is both wide and long, and the Pacific glitters blue beyond it. Santa Monica Pier stretches out across it, with its iconic fairground lit up at nighttime. This is where I first learnt flying trapeze, in the sun and overlooking the blue sea. A section of the beach is taken up by the outdoor exercise equipment of Original Muscle Beach, free for anyone to use, and a community of gymnasts, acrobats and exercise enthusiasts congregate there each day, helping each other and giving tips on using the equipment. The beach is lined with towering palm trees that provide a perfect tropical silhouette against the area’s spectacular sunsets. A short 25 minute stroll along the coast is Venice Beach, LA’s centre of alternative culture, with its famous boardwalk populated by street performers, skaters and market sellers. My first taste was in 2013, and I couldn’t wait to go back. I later spent 10 days there in 2016, and I plan to be back again by 2018.