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What is it about the humble meeting of sand and sea that seems to enchant us? It's more than just the sum of its parts, a beach. It's more than sand to lie on, more than water in which to swim. It's romance, it's adventure and it's the time of your life.
Beaches mean so much. They're building sandcastles when you were a kid. They're family holidays away from school. They're the feeling of catching your first wave as a teenager. They're wild nights in foreign lands in your 20s, the relaxing getaways of middle age and the long walks of later years. Beaches are freedom. Beaches are an escape.
We're spoilt, as Australians, with beaches. When your home boasts places like Whitehaven, Cable Beach, Cox Bight, Burleigh, Palm Beach and Turquoise Bay, you come to expect a lot from that humble meeting of sand and sea. Yet still we travel in search of perfection, to discover and enjoy beaches the world over, to soak up culture and difference while getting a hit of vitamin D.
There's variety in beaches, easily enough to keep you amused for a lifetime. There are the hidden beaches, those secluded wonderlands that you feel like keeping to yourself forever. There are the bustling city beaches, European hotspots of carefully primped sunbathers and oblivious foreign gawkers.
There are the stunning, windswept northern beaches of Scotland, in whose cold waters you would never dream of dipping a toe. There are the spring-break beaches of the Caribbean, the surf beaches of Tahiti, the family-friendly patches of Fiji, the stunning backdrops of South Africa. Whatever your preference, there's romance, joy, relaxation and adventure in every beach. It's impossible to deny the attraction of that humble meeting of sand and sea.
PERFECT PACIFIC ISLAND BEACH
Vomo Island, Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
WHY I LOVE IT Maybe it's the memory of skimming the waves on a little Hobie Cat or maybe it's the "Say it, it will happen" attitude of the private island resort, but the beach on Vomo Island holds a special place in my heart. Most of Fiji's best beaches are found in the Mamanuca Islands and further north, in the Yasawa Islands group, north-west of Nadi. After all, this is where The Blue Lagoon, the movie that started it all, was filmed in 1980. Roll out of your beachside bure and it's hello, tranquil turquoise water! And prepare for your heart to melt when you see Vomo's baby-turtle breeding program.
WHAT TO DO Be sun smart and pack a rash vest. The snorkelling is excellent, but no-one likes burnt backs and calves. And don't spend all day in the water or in your hammock. The sundowners at Vomo's Rocks Sunset Bar are a must. The dry season is from May to October, and the rainy season from November to April.
DON'T MISS If tiny Vomo still isn't private enough for you (it has just 30 bures and villas), get schmoozy on uninhabited Vomo Lailai (or Little Vomo), a few minutes away. Here's the recipe for a perfect day: a picnic hamper, bottle of something that sparkles and favourite person. First in gets exclusive use of the island.
NEED TO KNOW Vomo Island is about 90 minutes with South Sea Cruises from Denarau Marina, or go the luxe option, with a 15-minute flight by helicopter. Bures cost from about $1136 a night, full board. vomofiji.com.
PERFECT SOUTH-EAST ASIAN BEACH
Ungasan Beach, Karma Kandara, Bali, Indonesia
WHY I LOVE IT We're so spoilt for amazing beaches in Australia that other stretches of coastline can look shabby in comparison, but not the secluded cove at Karma Kandara, Bali. Perched high on the limestone cliffs above the Indian Ocean in Uluwatu, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the Greek islands. Stone bridges and pathways meander through tropical gardens to the fabulous di Mare Restaurant, rooftop Temple Lounge with 180-degree ocean views and astonishing cliff-hanging spa. The resort's Karma Beach Club, previously the Nammos Beach Club, is located on one of Bali's best beaches, Ungasan and is reached by inclinator. Guests descend the cliff face and arrive at a crescent of white sand fringed by cerulean waters. Grab a sun lounger and wile away the afternoon or explore the dramatic limestone cliffs by sea kayak.
WHAT TO DO You could easily spend the entire day at Karma Kandara's beach, drifting into the night to the grooves of the resident DJ, sunset cocktails in hand. Weekends can get packed, as can party days, so it's best to go midweek or arrive early to avoid the crowds. The fringing reef is great for a snorkel, but be warned the beach can be rough, depending on the tides.
DON'T MISS Book a tented, Karma Spa cabana for the ultimate in privacy and a seven chakra signature cocktail made by the resident mixologist.
NEED TO KNOW Entry costs $24, or free for hotel guests. Jalan Villa Kandara, Banjar Wijaya Kusuma, Ungasan, Bali karmabeach.com.
PERFECT SURF BEACH
The Pass, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
WHY I LOVE IT It's hardly a secret that these days it's hard to find a wave for yourself among the holidaymakers keen to nab the perfect wave and the hardy locals trying desperately to hold onto it, but when you score a wave at The Pass, it goes, and it goes and it keeps going. I first surfed there on the front of my uncle's longboard as a five-year-old. Since then, I've logged maybe more than 1000 hours. I figured every beach had dolphins that tried to ride waves with you, a view to Mount Warning and waves that broke as perfectly as they do across Indonesia's reefs. Not likely: it turns out that the first beach I surfed was also the best.
WHAT TO DO Avoid The Pass during northerly winds – you might wrestle with a blue bottle or two. The Pass is best in a south-easterly wind and, because it's a tube-riding mecca (you want the waves to have hollow faces), time your surf for the hours leading up to and just after low tide. Watch out for dive boats. They are launched there, but don't worry, they will let you know when you're in the way.
DON'T MISS While you will mostly find celebrities around the corner at Wategos Beach, keep your eyes open at The Pass if you fancy a good gawk. There's also a fair collection of the usual eccentrics who occupy the sand around Byron (chanters, yogis, meditators, dancers). The cafe at The Pass is not as well known as the Clark Beach Cafe, but it's cheaper and less crowded, and you will get to eat with goannas sharing gorgeous views of the waves through the trees. Make sure you do the walk over the headland to Wategos.
NEED TO KNOW Parking costs $4 an hour, The Pass Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch (thepasscafe.com.au). For up-to-date surf conditions, see coastalwatch.com.
PERFECT FAMILY BEACH
Palm Cove, North Queensland, Australia
WHY I LOVE IT It's beautiful, accessible and safe. Towering melaleuca trees line a strip of white sand and turquoise waters within a minute's walk of dozens of hotels, cafes and restaurants. You can ride bikes on the path that skirts the sand, hire paddleboards on the beach, or fish from the jetty. The water is warm year round. This is a lovely, old-fashioned family holiday: we spent a whole day climbing trees and building sand castles.
WHAT TO DO The best time of year is between May and October, avoiding stinger season. Eating out can be expensive, so stock up on supplies in Cairns after arriving at the airport. If you're adventurous, hire bikes from the Country Club to tour the crocodile-infested wetlands behind the beach.
DON'T MISS Take a trip on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway over the stunning Daintree, or the Big Cat to Green Island for world-class snorkelling.
NEED TO KNOW Stay at the family-friendly Alamanda Palm Cove. lancemore.com.au/alamanda.
PERFECT CITY BEACH
Playa de la Concha, San Sebastian, Spain
WHY I LOVE IT It's not just the beach itself, although this is a picture-perfect, stunningly beautiful stretch of sand, a wide, crescent-shaped shoreline in a sheltered bay. It's what's around the beach, however, that's even better: the city of San Sebastian. Lovers of food, rejoice, for this Basque town that hugs the sand is a gastronomic wonderland, a place of tiny bars and restaurants that sell the best cuisine you could imagine. Gather together, pasty white people, because here is your succour from the hot sun: bar after bar, cafe after cafe, with the finest produce served in the most convivial atmosphere. For someone who can become easily bored and burnt on the sand, this is my paradise.
WHAT TO DO You could have a traditional laze on the sand, which would be fine, and you could go for a swim, which would also be good, but it would be a day truly wasted if you didn't wander along to the east end of the beach and into San Sebastian's Old Town, a warren of narrow alleyways lined with bars and restaurants. Grab a glass of txakoli, the local sparkling wine, and a few pinchos, the Basque version of tapas, and you're doing San Sebastian right.
DON'T MISS The views from Monte Igueldo, on the west side of Playa de la Concha, are well worth the hike up to the top of the hill, or you can take the funicular.
NEED TO KNOW To get to San Sebastian, most visitors fly to nearby Bilbao and connect by bus. sansebastianturismo.com
PERFECT AUSTRALIAN BEACH
Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania, Australia
WHY I LOVE IT With its opalescent sea, snow-white sand and fragmented granite shores, Tasmania's east coast has several of Australia's most beguiling beaches, particularly around the Bay of Fires but for sheer aesthetics, it's impossible to top Wineglass Bay, on the Freycinet Peninsula, where a translucent, blue-green Tasman Sea lolls against a fine quartz beach that appears like a calligraphic curlicue fashioned by an Elizabethan quill. With parenthetical boulders laced by orange lichen and its dunes nudging the toothy Hazards mountain chain huddled behind it, this swirl of vanilla-coloured sand is spectacular in any weather.
Adding poignancy is a history of 19th-century whaling in the bay, the name Wineglass originating from when southern right whales were hauled in for processing, their blood turning its waters the colour of claret.
WHAT TO DO It's a steep one-hour return walk to the Wineglass Bay lookout in Freycinet National Park, with an offshoot track leading to the 1.6-kilometre-long beach (2.5 hours return). Wineglass Bay cruises depart at 10am daily, May to September, from nearby Coles Bay. Adults $125, children $85. wineglassbaycruises.com
DON'T MISS Mortgage your spouse, sell the house, send your children up some chimneys or do whatever it takes to stay at Saffire Freycinet resort, the world's top boutique hotel (World Boutique Hotel Awards 2014), 10 minutes' drive from Freycinet National Park. The all-inclusive $1800 a room tariff is justified by everything from the view across Great Oyster Bay to the faultless food concocted by head chef Hugh Whitehouse and his team.
NEED TO KNOW Wineglass Bay is in Freycinet National Park, 2.5 hours north of Hobart. Entry $24 a vehicle or $12 a person. parks.tas.gov.au discovertasmania.com.au
FIVE MORE GREAT PACIFIC ISLAND BEACHES
TAPUAETAI (ONE FOOT ISLAND), AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS It's uninhabited, yet one of the most touristy beaches in the Cook Islands, so you may see another boat, and the (unstaffed) post office, which sends your postcards off with a foot stamped on them.
CHAMPAGNE BEACH, VANUATU It doesn't get all that attention by being ugly. White sands, swaying palms and turquoise waters make it a living postcard. Nearby Lonnoc Beach provides more of the same with fewer people.
LONG BEACH, KADAVU ISLAND, FIJI Sensibly named, this beach is on Fiji's fourth-largest and little explored island. The big lure is the Great Astrolabe Reef, with its spectacular drop-offs, but snorkelling straight off the beach is no hardship either.
MAROVO LAGOON, NEW GEORGIA ISLANDS, SOLOMON ISLANDS This one is on my 2015 hit list, because it's the longest saltwater lagoon on the planet, it's heritage listed, it's fringed by ancient volcanos and the rainforest stops where the sand begins.
MONU ISLAND AND MONURIKI ISLAND, FIJI They are highlights of the Mamanuca Islands. Deserted, sandy beaches lead down to wildly colourful coral gardens and marine life, offering sensational snorkelling. Trivia hit: Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks, was filmed on Monuriki.
FIVE MORE GREAT SOUTH-EAST ASIAN BEACHES
Datai Bay, Langkawi, Malaysia This stunning beach on the Andaman Sea consists of a half-moon bay of white sand, flanked by rainforest on the island's ancient north-west tip.
Trisara Resort, Phuket, Thailand Among Thailand's many pretty beaches, the one fronting Trisara resort on Phuket's north-west coastline is particularly fetching. Trisara supports the Keep Phuket Clean campaign, so regular beach clean-ups ensure a pristine cove.
Baros Resort, Maldives Life is but one perfect beach after another in the Maldives, but Baros resort boasts one of the country's best house reefs. See reef sharks, sea horses and hundreds of varieties of tropical fish and coral when you snorkel literally a metre from shore.
White Beach, Boracay, Philippines The famous powder-soft, four-kilometre White Beach, the social hub of Boracay in the Philippines, is home to cool cocktail lounges, reggae bars and spectacular sunsets.
Gili Meno, Gili Islands, Indonesia With no motorised traffic, thatched beach bungalows, deep coral reefs and a handful of beachside cafes, the hardest decision on Gili Meno is whether to read, nap or take another dip in the jade-coloured sea.
FIVE MORE GREAT FAMILY BEACHES
Emily Bay, Norfolk Island, Australia This is a tiny piece of Tahiti, surrounded by Australia's convict past. Your kids might find relics from the wreckage of the Sirius while snorkelling.
Seal Rocks, NSW, Australia Pumping surf, diving with the sharks, and sliding down sandhills: this place has got it all for the active family. You can stay in the heritage-listed lighthouse.
Wategos Beach, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia Yep, I'm a bit of a hippy. I can think of nothing better than sipping a chai latte or nibbling on a quinoa salad, while watching the kids bodysurf at Wategos.
King's Beach, Caloundra, Queensland, Australia There's a water play area on the foreshore of this flagged beach. Take the kids to Table Manners at nearby Dicky Beach: no devices are allowed at the table and they are forced to eat with their cutlery.
Scarborough Beach, Perth, Western Australia Watching the sun set over the water as the kids splash in the shallows? Priceless.
FIVE MORE GREAT CITY BEACHES
Bondi, NSW, Australia Sydney's iconic city beach still draws the crowds, who come for the white sand, the grassy promenade and the chance to be seen on either.
La Barceloneta, Spain It seems as if there's always a party happening at Barcelona's main beach. The trick is to make yourself a part of it.
Ipanema, Brazil No list would be complete without the sunbathers, footballers, swimmers and gawkers at Rio de Janeiro's best patch of sand and sea.
Camps Bay, South Africa The scenery on this upmarket stretch of Cape Town coastline, with Table Mountain towering in the distance, is almost impossible to beat.
Santa Monica, United States From the long pier to the beachside taco stands, there's always something interesting to see and something good to eat in Santa Monica.
FIVE MORE GREAT AUSTRALIAN BEACHES
Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park, near Esperance, Western Australia Officially Australia's whitest beach, according to the National Soils committee, and complete with kangaroos attracted by freshwater springs, the name "Lucky" is truly appropriate.
Memory Cove, Lincoln National Park, South Australia The Eyre Peninsula is full of sweeping beaches, but this is a small, serene bay, where the loss of eight of Matthew Flinders' men off nearby Cape Catastrophe in 1802 is commemorated. Camping overnight at one of only five sites allows you to savour the seclusion and hear the mournful call of the bush stone-curlew.
Elizabeth Beach, Pacific Palms, mid-north coast, NSW I'm biased, as it's one of seven top NSW beaches, including surfing favourites Boomerang and Blueys, on my doorstep, but Elizabeth is as calm as a yogi after shavasana, as velvety as a creme caramel and as family friendly as a labrador puppy.
Shell Beach, Shark Bay, Western Australia A glimmering smile formed by billions of tiny coquina bivalve shells, attracted by the bay's hyper-salinity, the beach curves around L'Haridon Bight for 110 kilometres and the shells are 10 metres deep in places.
Seventy Five Mile Beach, Fraser Island, Queensland This is a hard-working but lustrous beach on the world's largest sand island that encompasses a four-wheel-drive highway, an airstrip, the wreck of the Maheno, sand in dozens of different colours and the divine transparency of Eli Creek.
THE RECIPE FOR A PERFECT BEACH
The finer, the better; the whiter, the better. You want blindingly pale sand that squeaks under your feet, the stuff that's like castor sugar, unblemished by pollution, untracked by human footprints. That's the stuff of beachy dreams.
It's all personal preference. Perhaps you want a consistent two-metre reef break upon which to surf, or maybe you want something calm for the kids to paddle in, or something in between. Regardless, it helps if the water is warm and clear.
Again, this depends on personal preference. There are some who would prefer their ideal beach to be as difficult to access as possible, meaning there are fewer people with which to share it. Ideally, the beach of your dreams is one you can roll up to and visit any day of the year.
Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it's desertion, a tropical island ringed by palms, maybe it's a city beach lined with bars and restaurants, or perhaps it's the rugged green hills of a place like Ireland. There's no wrong answer.
It could be a campsite, a boutique resort, a high-rise building or a tiny bushwalkers' shack. Regardless, it helps if the perfect beach has somewhere you can lay your head at night and listen to the waves crashing on the sand beyond.
In the pictures-for-proof age of Instagram and Facebook, it's ideal to have a high vantage point from which to be able to capture the beach of your dreams and share it with your probably very jealous friends. A mountainous headland is perfect.
Passionate surfers might like to argue, but the perfect beach for many of us contains something to see underwater – reefs upon which to snorkel, to check out colourful, abundant marine life in between all that time lying in the sun.
This is the beachside X-factor, the unexplainable. Take the "beach" near Isola Bella in Sicily – it's actually more a stretch of slippery, ankle-breaking rocks, but you would be hard-pressed to not be smitten by this stunning bit of coastline. Romance has no set definition.