World's best beach holidays (that don't involve resorts)

Once touted as "Mexico's last nude beach," Zipolite, along the southern coast of Oaxaca, now has more gawkers than those ...
TRACEY EATON/TNS

Once touted as "Mexico's last nude beach," Zipolite, along the southern coast of Oaxaca, now has more gawkers than those choosing to go au naturel.

There are beaches, and there are beach resorts. They might sound as if they go together like airports and boredom, like LAX and a pat-down – you could easily think that if you wanted to spend a week by the sand you'd have to spend it in a huge hotel with a buffet breakfast and a kids club. But that doesn't have to be the case.

Some of us don't like resort life. I'm not a fan of lying by pools and I don't really like huge crowds of tourists, so the idea of a week in a beach resort is not ideal. I'd rather be in a city with more things to do, or hanging out in a tiny place where you can imagine you're there on your own. But I still want sun and sand.

If you feel the same way, if you'd rather avoid the resorts but still spend a holiday by the beach, then you need to go to one of these places.

Itacare, Brazil

Itacare, up in the northern state of Bahia, is postcard Brazil. It's all the cliches you'd be picturing right now: palm trees lining white-sand beaches, dreadlocked surfer dudes running back and forth into the water, guys playing football, girls strolling up and down the shoreline, little shacks selling coconuts and caipirinhas. Itacare is a beautifully quite, locals-only beach town that is the perfect place in which to get stuck for far too long.

San Sebastian, Spain

This is perhaps the ultimate city beach town, a place where you get the choice of spending time during the day on one of two patches of sand: Playa de la Concha, a beautiful sheltered bay that abuts some of San Sebastian's more expensive holiday apartments, or Playa Zurriola, a surf beach with great waves and access to far cheaper accommodation. The distance between these two beaches? About a 10-minute walk. And once the sun goes down you get to hang out in the best city for nightlife in Europe.

Tourists relax at Bocagrande beach in Cartagena.
JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/Reuters

Tourists relax at Bocagrande beach in Cartagena.

Zipolite, Mexico

This little coastal town in the state of Oaxaca is many things, but crowded it ain't. You'll be lucky to see more than 20 or 30 people on its long stretch of sand at any one time. It's something of a hippy gathering place, Zipolite, one of the few beaches in Mexico where clothing is optional, but it's also a favourite holiday spot for local Mexicans who like to combine their beach-going with a cheap bungalow and a few basic restaurants under the trees. 

Armacao de Pera, Portugal

Sometimes this little place in the Algarve region can feel a bit resorty, in that the beaches are dominated by rent-a-brollies and everyone seems to be on holidays. But it's nowhere near as busy as nearby Albufeira, and still retains plenty of its Portuguese nature (as opposed to having restaurants that sell full English breakfasts and curry chips). Here you can still feast on beachside churros while watching the fishing boats come in with their daily catch.

Taormina, Italy

If you could possibly pick a downside to staying in this Sicilian village, it's that the beach isn't exactly sandy: it's more a collection of smooth stones. But it's what surrounds those stony shores that makes Taormina so great: an old mountain village brimming with culture; the stunning Isola Bella perched out there in the Mediterranean, and the sort of views of Mount Etna that will have you racing back to the hotel to grab the camera. Also there are shops selling granita, which is an icy dessert that's sort of a halfway point between gelato and a milkshake, served with brioche. Trust me: you want to try that.

Kamakura, Japan

You may not immediately associate Japan with beach holidays, and that's understandable. This is a place you'd normally go to for mountains and metropolises. But venture about 50 kilometres south of Tokyo and you'll find Kamakura, a small town that was once the seat of the Japanese Shogunate, but is now a pleasant seaside village with a number of great beaches on one side, and forests strewn with ancient temples and shrines on the other. Oh, and on a clear day there are views all the way to Mount Fuji. Find me a resort that can compete with that.

Playa de La Concha in San Sebastian, with Mount Igueldo and Isla Cristina in the background.
123RF

Playa de La Concha in San Sebastian, with Mount Igueldo and Isla Cristina in the background.

Cartagena, Colombia

There are two sides to this beautiful Colombian city. If it's culture you crave, then you should be going straight to the old colonial town, a walled area filled with historic old buildings, bustling plazas, bars, restaurants and museums. When the need for sun and sand takes hold, head over the Bocagrande, Colombia's answer to Surfers Paradise, a place of modern holiday apartments set next to long stretches of beachy paradise. Just ensure you book your accommodation in the old town – because, well, the Surfers Paradise thing.

Baddeck, Canada

The water might be a bit chilly in Nova Scotia, in the far east of Canada, but that's more than made up for my the natural beauty that surrounds it. Set at the beginning of the famous Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Baddeck is an old fishing town filled with historic buildings and restaurants serving locally caught lobster. You're not going to catch any waves here, but it is the perfect location for sailers or those just keen to cruise around on calm waters. It's a beach town for people who don't really like beach towns.

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