Winning tip: Punta Uva, Costa Rica
Just a winding road away from vibrant Caribbean-infused Puerto Viejo is theGandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge, a haven for free-range iguanas, sedentary sloths, all manner of feathered, scaled and furry creatures – and a few lucky human visitors. Explosions of vegetation burst with beneficial botanical properties; the Refuge is a tropical garden of Eden. Follow a trail through the towering bamboo canes, skirt around zig-zagging trails of tiny crabs, and discover a serene, pristine stretch of soft white sand, fringed with coconut palms. The gentle rustle and sway of tropical vegetation blends with the gentle swoosh of the turquoise tide – Punta Uva is a secluded slice of paradise.
• Holiday guide to Costa Rica
Boulders Beach, South Africa
With relatively warm water to swim in and protected by giant boulders, this is a superb beach. You can climb on the rocks, collect shells and swim with, or just watch, the African penguins who have made the beach their home. It is on the tourist trail from Cape Town to Cape Point, Western Cape and part of the Table Mountain national park. On the way, you pass the next three best beaches in the world: Fish Hoek, St James and Muizenburg.
Patara beach, Turkey
On this part of the south-western Turkish coast most beaches are flat rocks, carved into the cliffs that drop sheer into the Mediterranean. Patara would be unusual just for having fine sand and shallow waters. But there’s more drawing people – locals, as much as tourists – to Patara: it’s the longest unbroken beach in Turkey, and the 18km of dunes could swallow legions of people before it felt crowded. Ten minutes’ walk from the beach are incredible ancient Lycian ruins, and visitors can get a thrilling view over Patara from the top of the partly restored amphitheatre.
• Turkey’s best beaches: readers’ tips
Black volcanic sand, seals, icebergs broken off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier … this is no palm-fringed idyll! Turn your back on the glacial lake where hundreds of tourists will be lining up to get on boats to marvel at the coastal scenery and instead follow the shortest river in Iceland to this beach where you can walk around, climb and even lick the icebergs without anyone else in sight.
• In hot water: a guide to swimming outdoors in Iceland
Phalasarna, western Crete
Forget the brochure fodder of Agia Marina and the gaudy sands of Malia; Crete’s real coastal wonder is on its western haunch. Found curving its way along the base of the mighty, wild Gramvousa peninsula, Phalasarna is formed by sporadic stretches of sloping yellow sand that’s broken by the occasional rocky finger poking into the Med. It’s backed by fields of tomatoes, olive groves and jagged coastal mountains topped with cloud. A smattering of tavernas serve gritty Greek coffees next to the ruins of an ancient acropolis closer to the shore.
• Greek island holiday guide
While fastidiously fulfilling all cliched holiday brochure beach criteria, Otres has a magic that bewitches all who visit. Perhaps it’s the bioluminescent plankton that glistens like stardust for night-time swimmers, the jaw-dropping Turneresque sunsets, or the delightfully raggle-taggle family of Khmers and westerners who call this place home… whatever it is, it’s just very hard to leave.
Spirits Bay, New Zealand
Beaches don’t come more idyllic than Spirits Bay on the northern tip of New Zealand. Sitting alone in the middle of a 12km arc of soft white sand is a privilege. It’s a sacred place in Maori culture, which makes sense as the feeling of space and pure natural beauty makes the bumpy 16km gravel road seem a small price to pay. Behind you an impossibly green hill curves down to an endless expanse of sea crashing against the shore. This place is such an untouched beauty you feel truly transported. It’s worth knowing you can camp here at Kapowairua for only $6.
Praia dos Três Irmãos, Algarve
Looking down from the cliffs you’d think the lush vegetation was all there was to see in the view. But down a winding series of steps you will discover the most stunning beach the Algarve has to offer. Praia dos Três Irmãos (three brothers) is short walk from the fishing village of Alvor. Between the cliffs are magical caves to explore, with rock pools for children. It’s not as touristy as other beaches in the Algarve and retains its charm and beauty without sun parasols blocking your view.
• Holiday guide to the Algarve
Muggy Muggy Beach, Dunk Island, Australia
Don’t let the unpromising name put you off: Muggy Muggy Beach off Queensland is as close to a tropical idyll as you’ll find anywhere. Palm trees lean appealingly towards the pale yellow sand and driftwood, bleached by the sun, is dotted about – perfect for den-building if you’re here with kids. The beach is reached by water taxi – an event in itself – followed by a short bushwalk. In winter you may well have Muggy Muggy to yourself (we did). The island is part of the Family Islands national park.
• Great Barrier Reef travel guide
This is a beautiful beach in the far south-west of Ireland, golden sands surrounded by dunes and with views of spectacular scenery; whether relaxing on a sunny summer’s day or going for a wintry walk, it never fails to make me breathe deeper and feel happier, at peace with myself and with the bird life and clear water.
Rhossili Bay, south Wales
The Gower peninsula, that lies just beyond Swansea, has a truly unspoiled coastline. If you keep going past enticing cliff top walks, and a series of long sandy beaches and hidden coves, you reach Rhossili Bay. The three miles of golden sand and spectacular surroundings keep us coming back again and again.
Maitland Bay, New South Wales, Australia
This great place is an hour’s drive north of Sydney, in Bouddi national park. There’s a 10-minute walk through bushland to get to Maitland Bay, but that’s a good thing: once you arrive, there are no shops, no houses, nothing. Just a glorious sweep of beach, which on a good day will have fewer than 20 people on it. The beach faces south rather than east, so the waves are not too bad for weaker swimmers, and there is a little group of rocks in the middle where there are plenty of interesting fish. At the north end of the beach is a rocky headland with the remains of the Maitland, a ship that foundered there a century ago and gave the bay its name. At the back of the beach is a short steep cliff, which provides useful shade.
Playa de Famara, Lanzarote
On the west coast of the island this beach is wild, wind-battered and challenging for swimmers – though popular with surfers. There is a shipwreck there to remind us of the power of the turbulent waters. It’s stark, yet utterly compelling. One of the best in the world.
• Canary Islands holidays
Voidokilia beach, Messinia, Greece
A perfect crescent of pinkish sand, backed by sand dunes and a lagoon rich in bird life. About 35 miles west of Kalamata there are no shops, water sports or amusements, but should you tire of swimming, sunbathing or admiring the scenery, you can take a walk by the lagoon to see the kingfishers and other bird life, stroll up the headland at one end of the beach to visit the 3,400-year-old tomb on top. If you fancy it you can climb up to the cave halfway up the cliff at the other end or even, and if feeling really energetic, up to the ruined Venetian castle at the summit with fantastic views along the Peloponnese coast. Take cheese pies, peaches and drinks for a perfect day on the beach.