I wasn't destined to love beaches. I grew up in landlocked continental Europe and my earliest encounters with beaches, on visits to my grandparents in Ireland, did nothing to encourage the idea that beaches are a traveller's delight. The beaches were soggy and wind-whipped, and swimming wasn't a hot summer pleasure but rather a goose-pimpled endurance test.
My siblings and I would pull off our clothes and shiver as we hobbled across hard-ribbed sand and reluctantly entered the Irish Sea. Cold waves murdered my breath, seaweed wrapped around my legs and stoic pride was all that kept me in the water. Then my mother, perhaps fearing hypothermia, would shake out a giant towel like a flag of truce and, pink as ice-creams, we'd run up the beach into its embrace. Getting dressed afterwards was a contortionist's enterprise of towel and underpants and limbs sticky with sand. We warmed up with a bout of French cricket.
This was only part of the ordeal of the beach excursion. A picnic lunch of flaccid egg sandwiches would follow, nibbled in the lea of any convenient windbreak as I wiped my nose on a salt-encrusted wrist and fended off seagulls. My grandmother would produce a thermos flask of hot tea with the flourish of a magician pulling a dove from her sleeve, as if tea were a rare and wonderful treat. Then we would stroll along a waterfront grey with pebble-dash bungalows and parked cars and tatty amusements.
We were a family of mountain hikers, not beach goers. The characters in my childhood books didn't go to the beach either: they frequented Narnia and British farms and boarding schools. Robinson Crusoe certainly didn't want to be on the beach where he discovered a footprint and met Man Friday, and the tropical island of Lord of the Flies was a threatening world that brought children to savagery. A beach was somewhere you squatted while waiting for impending nuclear doom, according to Nevil Shute.
It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that my childhood image of beaches was abandoned, when I discovered that staple of tourism brochures, the full-on beach of golden sand and blue ocean and nodding coconut trees. It hit me with the impact of an atom bomb. I was backpacking down Malaysia's east coast between rice paddies and ocean, through villages where men in sarongs worked in boatyards. There were endless kilometres of beaches, scalloped between headlands, backed by coconut groves and fronted by sea as blue as a dream. I could wade in – it was warm! – and stick my head under the water and see coral, purple as heather and fine as Spanish lace, and fat yellow and marigold and neon-pink fish dodging about like a hallucination.
I stayed for weeks in fishing villages, in wooden huts on stilts overlooking beaches littered with coconut husks and driftwood. Dainty crabs staggered at the water's edge. Colourful fishing boats lay lopsided in the sand beneath racks of drying squid hung out like washing. By torchlight, I watched huge leatherback turtles scrabbling up the sand to lay their eggs. I watched great cliff-like walls of cumulous clouds gather over the sea, tinted pink in the dying sun. The tropical light was intense and luminescent. This was a long way from the Irish Sea. This world was Technicolour to Ireland's black and white, and I was suddenly head over heels in love with beaches.
In my toe-dipping childhood, I'd escaped from the beach. Now I understood why travellers might want to escape to the beach. You could be cast away from ordinary life into a sunnier, bluer and much slower world in which you had nothing to do except swim and sun-soak and read a book on the sand. You could slide into a state of bovine contentment, slurp on mangoes and live in shorts. This was the destination of tourism fantasies and happy holidays.
Beaches and holidays are synonymous. You have no other reason to go to a beach but for downtime. Nobody works on a beach, unless you're a lifeguard or a pesky trinket seller. When later I moved to Australia and lived in Manly I felt that every day was a holiday. I'd finish work in Sydney and hop on a ferry home, and when I got there be enveloped in a world of surf and sand and squabbling lorikeets. Twenty years on, Sydney's endless blue skies and beach culture are still a marvel to me.
Australia's beaches are the best in the world. They go on forever in a string thousands of kilometres long. I like best the quiet, almost old-fashioned beach resorts such as South West Rocks on NSW's mid north coast, just far enough off the Pacific Highway for major development to pass it by. It's a sleepy, snoozy place where people flop on the sand, meditate over fishing rods or meander along sand-dune tracks as the sun sets. You can see whales lurching past as you tuck into your barbecued sausages on the headland.
I like the kangaroos that nibble the grass, and the coughs of the Harley motorcycles that pull in at the Seabreeze Beach Hotel, where their bearded, leather-clad owners (stray extras, it seems, from Game of Thrones) devour plates of salt-and-pepper squid and nachos. I like the red and yellow parasols dotting the beach on Horseshoe Bay, and the way families picnic on the grassy hill above, shaded by Norfolk pines as tall as skyscrapers. An old wooden pedestrian bridge across the river makes me want to be a teenager, so I could leap from the railings into the water with a kaboom of spray.
Beaches make you feel young again. There's something pure and simple about them. You're suddenly on the edge of civilisation, even your clothes almost abandoned. Everyone is equal on a beach, invigorated and relaxed. You can be five or 50, rich or poor, lazy or sporty, a rocket scientist or a road worker. Few other travel destinations are as universally enjoyed. Few other travel activities are free.
Nobody in a museum goes skimpily clad, either. Let's admit it, beaches are the sexiest of destinations. Sun caresses hot skin, flesh is exposed. Everyone is sneaking a peek. Except for Brazilians, that is. Sneaky glances aren't necessary on Rio de Janeiro's beaches, where beach-goers seemingly demand to be stared at. Nobody carries off an itsy-bitsy, gold-spangled swimming costume with quite the spectacular, look-at-me elan of a Brazilian.
I'm a beach junkie these days. I've seen a lot of beaches, and I reckon the best are remote and have squeaky sand like washing powder, and rock pools at either end filled with scuttling creatures. Somewhere less remote, you get nice added perks, such as a fish and chip shop or a beach bar where you can dig your toes into the sand and sip on a beer at sunset. A boisterous crashing ocean is a bonus, although those lagoon beaches of the Pacific islands, with their limpid electric-blue shallows scarcely troubled by a ripple, are mighty fine, too. You could be a lotus-eater there, and just stay forever.
I'm not a big sunbather, so climate doesn't necessarily count. I've walked along some terrific beaches in chilly Norway and Canada. Winter storm-watching on the west coast beaches of Vancouver Island is magnificent. Big black breakers thunder in from the North Pacific, crashing on rocks and making the sand shudder beneath your feet. Cedar trees creak. Rain exfoliates your face, and afterwards you'll never enjoy a hot bath or a hearty meal quite so much.
I must admit I now have a newfound respect even for Irish beaches, providing I don't have to take off my clothes or eat egg sandwiches. Many are magnificent, embraced by purple hills sprinkled with the windblown yellow confetti of gorse flowers. Waves pound against gull-haunted cliffs that might be topped with the beehive stone dwellings of ancient Celts. The wind is exhilarating, and the soft changing Irish light dances across the landscape in bands of gold and purple. A walk on an Irish beach makes you want to write poetry or ponder life or kiss someone's freckled face. Even if you want to swim, just don't. On some beaches, you'd really best stick to the sand, and be content.