Stretching out on the world's most unusual beaches

Our writers stretch out on some of the world's most unusual beaches, from quirky to quaint, bizarre to beautiful.

Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola, Galapagos Islands

Dugald Jellie

A woman in a bikini lies on coral-white sand as fine as caster sugar. Nearby, orange-legged crabs sidestep on black lava. Boobies swirl above in a cloudless sky. I sunbathe in the dry equatorial heat, beside a belle I think of as "Miss Galapagos". She bats whiskers, wiggles her bum, glances across and winks.

If I'm not mistaken, I think I'm being hit on by a sea lion.

(Photos: The world's most unusual beaches)

On bleached sand on Isla Espanola, the southernmost of these parched isles adrift on a distant plate of the Pacific, I'm surrounded by wet, glistening females. It's a colony of sea lions, all flippers and switching tails, snuggling with each other and spooning in broad daylight. Bulls in the water bark and grizzle.

On other beaches, on other islands in this otherworldly place, I've snorkelled with sharks and spotted eagle rays. Sea-lion pups swoop underwater, trailing ribbons of quicksilver bubbles. And in turquoise brine, I've met with green sea turtles, torpedo-like penguins and schools of butterfish flittering on the swell like hanging mobiles.

But for now I follow the woman in the bikini into the drink. I adjust my mask, flush the snorkel and plunge in for a look. I come face-to-face with a blistered belly and the leathery stumps of a marine iguana, paddling towards me.

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Nothing in this aquatic dreamworld surprises any more. Unless, of course, the critter was doing the backstroke. In a two-piece. That'd be something to write home about.

Sipadan Island, Malaysia

Andrew Heasley

As you wade into the warm Sulawesi Sea from the white sands of Malaysia's Sipadan Island, off the east coast of Borneo, an abundance of tropical fish flit in front of your snorkelling mask.

Get into chest-deep water and they grow in size - rainbow-coloured trigger fish, angel fish and parrot fish.

But it's beyond this point that Sipadan, touted as one of the top 10 diving spots in the world, is unique. Within about eight metres of the water's edge, swimmers are confronted by an inky-blue line. This is the "drop-off", where the sea floor drops almost vertically to a depth of 600 metres. Local dive operators say there's another shelf beyond this, with a further two-kilometre drop.

Deep-sea creatures ascend to warmer water at the edge of the drop-off. Here, as you look down into the abyss, you're likely to encounter green turtles, manta rays the size of picnic blankets, big barracuda, cornet fish as long as baseball bats, even giant whale sharks.

For divers, the possibilities are even greater. Among the most spectacular sites is the "turtle graveyard": a yawning cave entrance at about 25 metres that opens into a labyrinth of caves. Underwater signs warn divers not to enter. Big shells are all that remain of turtles that once swam in, ran out of air and drowned before they could find their way out.

In April 2000, a terrorist group with links to al-Qaeda motored to the shores of Sipadan in the middle of the night and rounded up 21 people, including 10 tourists, from their huts. The holiday-makers were held hostage for months on a remote island in the Philippines before being rescued. Now the Malaysian Government has military boats patrolling Sipadan and travellers can no longer stay overnight.

Lizard Island

Jane Reddy

Lizard Island, as we circle above it, looks like the back of an ancient silver sea creature rising from the turquoise water. Walking from the airstrip, bearing heavy backpacks, we leave the gravel road that leads to the island's exclusive resort and head up and over Chinamans Ridge to Watsons Bay.

The island, 28 kilometres off the Far North Queensland coast, is a jumping-off point to some of the world's best diving on the Outer Great Barrier Reef, including the Cod Hole. It is also a national park with a small number of permits granted for the campsite on the bay. The million-dollar view from our tent costs $3.85 a night.

We bring all that a small commercial flight will allow in weight: a tent, water bottles to fill from a hand pump at the camp, five days' worth of dehydrated food and a box of Saladas. The other four campers here have come in style. Their seaplane, chartered from Cooktown, is packed with ice, fresh meat and, for one day at least, cold beer.

In the early evening the sounds of drinks and dinner carry across the water from the yachts moored in the bay. On shore the pandani whisper in the breeze. This is sacred country of the Dingaal Aborigines who came here, to Jiigurru, for food and ceremonies.

At sunrise we walk to Cooks Look, a steep, sweaty, 395-metre climb, to see reefs and islands beyond, the southern winter a world away. By mid-morning the sun is blinding and the soft sand scorches my feet. I stay cool by snorkelling for hours in the clear waters of the bay. It's just a few hundred giant clams, coral, clownfish and me. And the sweetest solitude.

Cenito, Naples

Paola Totaro

There is a little beach in Naples, right there on the bay, that lives on in my dreams. It has been relegated to memory now, for the perfect childhood day can never be repeated.

Cenito is a mere thumbnail of sand, an ethereal ribbon among the Posillipo cliffs, shaped by the tides and the vagaries of nature. Sometimes it is there, many times it is not. Nestled beneath a clifftop it is a hiccup, a remnant of the natural world framed by the urban: splendid if oft decrepit villas, remnants of ancient walls and steep, rocky gardens overgrown with prickly pears and craggy Mediterranean pines. You can probably reach it by clambering down the hill from the road above but we would get there by water, in a small, wooden row boat, or sometimes, when we were impatient, in a dinghy with small outboard motor.

When Naples boiled and blistered under the August sun, Cenito offered solace: blue waters, grey-green shade, one tiny place where the cicadas out-roared the cacophony of the city above.

As a child and young teenager, on holidays from Australia, a morning spent at Cenito meant clean water away from the cheek-by-jowl litterbugs of Naples. Here, basking on a hot rock, dipping into blue waters at the foot of the city, we lived moments even more Neapolitan than freshly baked octopus eaten on the terrazzo of our grandparents' house or a late-afternoon stroll in the briny air of Mergellina.

Cenito had a magic intertwined and coloured by vaguely remembered Roman myths and ancient legends, of stories of the 16th century "spassi" when a floating musical theatre glided past the inlets of Posillipo, songs and odes hovering in the warm night air. We remembered stories of the siren who wooed sailors to their death and the Homeric tale in which Ulysses' companion, Bajos, was buried at Capo Miseno, not so far away.

Cenito, mysteriously, had a sand beach peppered with tiny flecks of coloured glass smoothed by the sea, salt and time. Indigo blue was rare; pomegranate red just as prized. Hours were spent collecting, swapping, envying.

I still have a tiny box of that coloured glass, a reminder of that far-away dream.

Matala Beach, Crete

Bruce Elder

I went to Matala in 1974. We caught the overnight ferry from Piraeus to the Cretan port of Heraklion and, during the voyage, befriended Papa Stelios, a Greek Orthodox priest, who asked if we were going to Matala because that was where all the "sheepies" went. He meant hippies but Cretans with their soft "sh" had accidentally created an amusing commentary on an often conformist lifestyle.

It was enough to tempt us and so the next day we caught the bus across the island and arrived in a tiny fishing village with one general store, a few cafes nudging the edge of a stony beach and, amazingly, a cliff face pocked with caves where "these freaks and these soldiers" slept at night, lay naked during the day and lived the dreamy life of true hippies.

We ate, found a room for a couple of dollars, marvelled at the beauty of the beach and chatted with a couple of footloose French who were heading to Israel for the winter.

This is the beach evoked by Joni Mitchell, who stayed here when she fled to Europe after breaking up with Graham Nash. In Carey from her album, Blue, she sings of the Mermaid Cafe and the warm winds that blow in from Africa.

And in a description so precise it can conjure the beach in the mind's eye of the traveller, she sings: "The night is a starry dome/ And they're playin' that scratchy rock and roll, beneath the Matala moon."

Ah! that Matala moon. Once seen while lying on the beach, it remains forever.

Brighton Beach, England

Richard Jinman

Brighton Beach isn't what you would call a beauty spot. It has pebbles instead of sand and water the colour of a dead fish's eyes. Attractions include a small electric train that runs along the back of the beach and an area reserved for some of England's most determined nudists, who are only partially shielded from prying eyes by a wall made of shingle. The famous Palace Pier offers a selection of overpriced funfair rides but at least it is open for business, unlike the West Pier, which has been flirting with demolition since 1975 and was devastated by fire in 2003.

No matter. I adore the place and come here as often as I can. For me - and anyone with a passing interest in popular culture - it is a sacred site. This is the place where Pinkie Brown, the teenage gangster from Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock, lived and died. The place where Mods and Rockers bashed the living daylights out of each other in the 1960s - an annual clash immortalised in the 1979 movie Quadrophenia - and the site of a legendary Fatboy Slim gig in 2002 that attracted a staggering 250,000 music-mad people.

In a word, Brighton Beach is hip. No wonder it became Britain's first wireless-enabled beach in 2003. If Greene were still alive he could unfurl a deckchair, fire up his laptop and bash out Brighton Rock 2 to the sound of the seagulls.

You meet all sorts of people in Brighton, many of them Londoners or ex-Londoners. They've been coming here in numbers since 1841, when a new railway line made Brighton accessible to daytrippers from the capital. Modern Brighton is a bit like one of London's cooler suburbs. It has a large gay community, hip boutiques and a legendary club scene.

The beach is where the two Brightons meet: the old Brighton with its piers, kiss-me-quick hats, candyfloss and rock (a stick of pink candy loved by generations of English children) and the new Brighton with its superstar DJs, high fashion and wi-fi enabled knowledge workers. Watch out for those pebbles, though.

Caspian Sea, Iran

Hamish McDonald

It was October 2001 and for me the War on Terror had hit a lull. Holed up in Tehran awaiting clearance to get to the Afghan border, I hankered for a swim in the Caspian Sea. The hotel's battered old Hyundai and its driver were available. Two new Iranian friends, a couple whom we'll call Aftab and Massoumeh, were free. We zoomed towards the arid mountains north of the city, threading along valleys of poplars and narrow farms. Over a chilly pass, we began the descent to a coastal jungle where Asiatic tigers used to roam. We drove past a deserted resort hotel that might have been an early James Bond locale - it was built in the Shah's time - and rusty lifeguard towers.

On a strip of beach, Aftab and I decided to take the plunge. But where to change? Massoumeh obliged by lending her chador, the cloak-like outer garment worn by many Iranian women since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Inside its tent-like folds, we changed into trunks, then dashed into the water. The world's largest enclosed body of water, the Caspian reaches depths of more than a kilometre. The water was warm and brackish, clouded with sediment. There were no sturgeon - its most famous denizen and producer of the world's most sought-after caviar.

We dried off and lolled in the autumn sun. Before driving back to Tehran, we stopped at a popular tourist restaurant and ordered some sturgeon, hoping at least to see a slice taken off a huge fish. Alas, it came from the market in fillets, the waiter said. It tasted like any other barbecued white fish.

I didn't get to Afghanistan that trip but I can say I cooled my heels in the Caspian.

Waimea Bay, O'ahu, Hawaii

Daniel Fallon

Hawaii has always meant big-wave surfing. The concept of "Waimea Bay" was introduced to me as a nipper growing up next to the shore-breaking dumpers of Coogee Beach. Two of my brothers were keen surfers and although I struggled to stand up on a McCoy board in whitewash, I listened intently whenever they spoke of the revered surf location. I studied images of Waimea's giant waves, up to 12 metres high, dwarfing tiny board riders in surf magazines and watched videos of these foolhardy men drop down the faces of monster swells.

I'd imagine myself in their position, reaching speeds that were well beyond the death wobbles. The proposition was daunting: commit to the moment and use every bit of skill and agility or be crushed beneath a wall of water and pushed towards a coral reef below. The images were mesmerising, the wipe-outs almost as spectacular as watching the surfers succeed.

When I finally got the chance to visit Hawaii, the first place I wanted to go was Waimea Bay. My plan was simple: dive into the white-water, get out quickly, return to Sydney and boast that I had survived Waimea to any who would listen.

The famous big-wave spot is located on the north shore of O'ahu and an easy drive from Honolulu. After tasting some fresh pineapple at one of the many fruit shops along the highway, we pulled into the car park at Waimea. A sign warned visitors about the dangerous waves (in case they hadn't heard of the legendary surf spot) and my heart began to race.

I looked out beyond the golden sands, expecting to see massive waves breaking - the type that sunk George Clooney and his crew in The Perfect Storm - and was dumbfounded. What lay before me was the most tranquil of scenes. Waimea Bay was perfectly calm - the pond-like azure water was completely still except where it gently lapped the beach.

I was then reminded that the season for big-wave surfing was winter.

The fleeting disappointment of not seeing humungous surf was quickly replaced with elation as I strode confidently into the worst Waimea could throw at me in the middle of summer.

Pendine Beach, Wales

John Huxley

My earliest holiday memories are of fearful nights lying awake in a cramped Pemberton Sunstar caravan with my mum, dad and two brothers, waiting for driving wind and horizontal rain to whip us off our exposed, clifftop site into freezing seas.

"Wish we weren't here," we wrote home on postcards from Wiseman's Bridge, in not-so-new south Wales, which overlooked a beach so inhospitable, even in summer, Winston Churchill used it in 1944 to rehearse the D-day landings. Or, as someone joked on the radio recently when offering possible tourism slogans, "Wales. You're welcome to it."

Fortunately, when we could drag dad away from the Wiseman's Bridge pub, there was a far better beach a few miles away: Pendine, not so much a beach as a flat, straight, seemingly endless stretch of sand. Indeed, so smooth, wide and uninterrupted was it after the outgoing tide, Pendine was used for landing airplanes, for car and motorcycle races and, in the 1920s, for attempts on the world land-speed record.

Many were successful; that of Welshman J.G. Parry-Thomas in 1927 wasn't. He was killed when his car flipped at 280kmh, decapitating him, burying his vehicle in the adjacent dunes. We loved that story.

Dad never risked the tortoise-slow family Morris Traveller on the sand. "Don't want to get salt water in the engine," we were told. But there were endless games of cricket on a beach hard enough for experienced bowlers to extract steepling bounce. Of course, fielders had to look out for fast cars. And occasionally, after heavy seas, other hazards emerged - unexploded munitions, left behind by the Ministry of Defence, which used the beach in World War II as a firing range. As my long-suffering mum pointed out, Pendine was the only beach in Wales where you couldn't pick up shells.

Jose Ignacio, Uruguay

Kendall Hill

It would be nice to think I was one of the first to discover the laidback allure of Jose Ignacio but the truth is Martin Amis, Naomi Campbell and Mario Testino beat me to it. They were the pioneers of the jetset crowd who now flock to this intimate beauty spot - "the new Hamptons" it's been labelled - on Uruguay's South Atlantic coast. But when I first visited here on a hot February day in 2005 there were no celebrities on show, just sybarites body-surfing the perfect breaking waves or lazing on the white-sand crescent of Playa Brava.

Outside the brief but slightly berserk peak season of January, this former fishing village reverts to a sunny, relaxed holiday rhythm best captured by a sign beside the only road: "In Jose Ignacio, only the wind is in a rush."

Miami Beach's luxury Setai Hotel plans to open an outpost here but for now there are just a handful of small posadas, or inns, that cater to tourists. The fabulously wealthy retreat to their stylish but discreet holiday homes set amid rolling hills and bushland, though you will inevitably rub designer-clad shoulders with them at the beachfront cafe La Huella (the Footprint, pictured above), where the famous and the anonymous feast on pizza, calamari and cocktails. The vibe is a world away (but just 30 minutes' drive) from the hyperactive summer playground of Punta Del Este, home to high-rise condos and high-cut bikinis. If Punta is Uruguay's Gold Coast, Jose Ignacio is its Byron Bay or Noosa, circa 1970.

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