As the sun was setting on my first day in Rincón de Guayabitos, I was surprised to see humpback whales surfacing to clear their blowholes within sight of the shore. Like the whales, I come back every year, drawn by Guayabitos’s superb seafood and its warm and gentle waters.
A small town halfway up Mexico’s Pacific coast, Guayabitos is a cheap, authentic and lively destination that draws many domestic tourists but relatively few foreign visitors. Mariachis and indigenous Huichol musicians roam the sands, offering to serenade sunbathers for a modest fee, while passing vendors sell ceviche, coconuts and tropical fruits. Others offer exquisite skewers of freshly caught tuna, or prawns grilled in a smoky marinade and doused with hot sauce and lime juice – don’t leave without trying them.
The best place to stay is Cabañas del Capitán, a colourful beachside hotel with two pools, an outdoor jacuzzi and immaculate palm-lined gardens (doubles from £35 a night, family suites from £50). Tour operators will take visitors to explore nearby islands and see the whales up close (only in winter months), but those who just want to sit back and laze can crack open a cold Pacífico lager and admire the pelicans diving into the surf.
Fly to Puerto Vallarta with Tui from £758. Bus transfer to Rincón de Guayabitos 1hr 45min
Flight time 12hr 15min
Time difference -6hrs
Hiriketiya Bay, Sri Lanka
I used to swim at “Hiri” long before you could eat or sleep at this deep, horseshoe-shaped bay near Dickwella, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Set enough of a distance off the main Matara to Tangalle coastal road to be largely off-radar, it has Crusoe-like palm-shaded strands and gentle cobalt surf that promises year-round swimming. It remained a secret for years, except among in-the-know surfers (it’s got a great left-point break) and the local fishing community.
Over the past couple of years, hipsters, yogis, surfers and families looking for a quieter and more authentic alternative to the overblown beaches of Unawatuna and Mirissa have sought Hiri’s still-rustic charm, picture-postcard setting and gentle surf, though this hasn’t yet tipped the balance. Most accommodation is set well back from the beach, hidden beneath coconut palms, and is affordable, ranging from basic dorm beds to private villas with pools.
Soulful Salt House, a convivial guesthouse a few minutes’ walk from the beach, is an excellent place to stay (rooms from £60, including breakfast, yoga and surfboard hire). Its eight jungle- or garden-view rooms (including a two-bedroom family apartment) are simple yet stylish, its cafe serves nutritious home-cooked food (think healthy salads, superfood smoothies, seafood and gelato), and there’s daily yoga.
Fly to Colombo from £777 with Sri Lankan Airways. Bus transfer to Dickwella 2hr 53min
Flight time 10hr 30min
Time difference +5hr 30min
Keurboomstrand, South Africa
Somewhere on the planet there might be a more beautiful beach than Keurboomstrand, 10km east of Plettenberg Bay on the Western Cape, but I’ve visited a few beautiful beaches in my time and am yet to be convinced.
Plettenberg Bay is South Africa’s answer to the Hamptons, and Keurbooms is seemingly endless, wild and pristine – it feels lost in time.
I’m an inveterate strandloper (beachcomber) and love to search for pansy shells and rare paper nautiluses along its shore. Even during high season, I’ve only ever shared the beach with the occasional dog walker, fisherman or oystercatcher. Almost every time I’ve wandered along the sand, I’ve seen pods of about 100 bottlenose dolphins leaping through the crystal clear waves. Bryde’s whales are in residence throughout the year, while humpback and southern right whales bring their calves to play during winter. On one occasion, I counted eight pairs of mothers and babies, from the top of the dune, as I drank my morning coffee.
The Plett River Lodge, on the banks of the river that reaches the sea via the lagoon, is relaxed and highly rated (doubles from £62).
Keurbooms’ single flaw is its notorious rip current – this is not a swimming beach. But the lagoon behind the beach is as safe and warm as any in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean. For children, or those who prefer a gentle wallow, the lagoon beach at Pootjie (Little Paw) is perfection.
When tired of the sea, take a boat tour up the river to Whiskey Creek. There, early birds can claim white, sandy beaches for a picnic, and there are rocky cliffs from which bold children and adults can leap into the copper-coloured water that gives the creek its name.
The bijou Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve boasts the Big Five, and is 10 minutes’ drive up the Wittedrift road. There’s a decent, 18-hole Gary Player-designed golf course at Goose Valley. Also in the bay, Ristorante Enrico serves fresh seafood caught daily off the owner’s boat and offers a jaw-dropping view of the bay at sunset. I also love Emily Moon for its glamorous food, delicious grapefruit, gin and tonics, and romantic views of the Bitou river. Thyme & Again is the neighbourhood’s iconic roadside farm stall: it has an excellent deli, a salad dressing renowned across the country, a casual restaurant and sophisticated selection of cheese and wines.
Fly to Port Elizabeth via Jo’burg with South African Airways from £644. Transfer to Plettenburg 2hr 45min
Flight time 11hr 10min
Time difference +2hr
Quy Nho’n, Vietnam
Sitting between the busy coastal hotspots of Nha Trang and Hoi An, Quy Nho’n is a relatively unknown, quiet beach town. The intense resort development seen in the country’s more popular seaside locations has yet to reach this region, making for a laidback atmosphere and the perfect place for a relaxed getaway.
Despite its humble modern appearance, for centuries the area around Quy Nho’n was once the centre of the Cham empire, which ruled what is today southern Vietnam. The most visible reminders of this period are the Thap Doi towers, in a small park in the city, which are well worth a visit.
Quy Nho’n’s residential and commercial areas run right up to the long, broad, sandy beach, which curves around a bay, with low hills visible to the north. A major street separates the beach from the town, and there are a few cafes and bars right on the sand.
About 15km south of Quy Nho’n is Bai Xep, reachable by bus, taxi or motorbike. This tiny town is home to an up-and-coming travel community that slows the pace down even further. There are few better ways to enjoy a beach in Vietnam than whiling away the days with fresh seafood and an ice-cold beer beside the waves here. The eateries in Bai Xep’s fishing village offer similar menus – a whole grilled fish is always a good choice.
My preferred place to stay is Haven Guesthouse (B&B doubles from £24 a night), which offers simple, friendly accommodation right on the beach. It offers snorkelling trips to nearby islands (£4 each, minimum four people) where the water is clearer and you can see all kinds of colourful fish and sea creatures. Don’t expect the huge coral formations of the Philippines or Indonesia, but this is great snorkelling for Vietnam.
Fly to Ho Chi Minh from £460 with Vietnam Airlines. Transfer 12hr by bus or 1hr 10min flight
Flight time 12hr
Time difference +7hr
Rosario Islands, Cartagena, Colombia
Bendita Beach is the kind of powder-white, paradise beach you usually only see in adverts and dreams. It takes up most of tiny, uninhabited Isla Arena, with a few palm trees giving some shade at the heart of the island.
My mum and I – she was visiting from England – toasted our great find with mojitos from a freshly hewn coconut at the makeshift beach bar, which is the only structure on the island, apart from the few tables that make up the restaurant.
It’s one of the 30 Rosario Islands around 20 miles west of Cartagena (a one-hour boat ride). They’re a great choice for a peaceful escape. Despite their beauty, they attract far fewer tourists than closer mainland beaches, such as Playa Blanca, and islands closer to the city, such as Tierra Bomba.
It’s not possible to stay on Isla Arena, but it’s a great day-trip from Hotel San Pedro de Majagua on Isla Grande, a 15-minute boat ride away.
The hotel offers tranquility and well-equipped cabana-rooms overlooking the sea, with thatched roofs and marble bathrooms. It has two small, sandy beaches and is a great base to explore the island (doubles/triples from £160, but it’s worth a call as they offer good discounts, including the price of the hour-long boat trip from Cartagena).
There are significantly cheaper eco-hotel options on the same island, in the Paraiso Secreto hotel neighbourhood, such as the colonial-style Fulano Secret Paradise (dorm beds from £18, doubles from £40).
Isla Grande is small enough to walk the whole way around in a couple of hours; try to visit the lagoon at sunset. Private or shared boats ferry visitors to the islands from Cartagena’s tourist wharf.
Fly to Cartagena via Bogota from £770 with Avianca
Flight time 14hr
Time difference -5hr
Grande-Anse beach, Guadeloupe
We stumbled across the majestic Grand-Anse beach by accident, having taken a wrong turn off Guadeloupe’s main west-coast road on the Basse-Terre half of the island. Though we realised our mistake within a few minutes of picking our way along a rutted road with coconut trees and sea-grape bushes pressing in on us, we continued and were rewarded with a 1km, crescent-shaped expanse of magnificent fine sand and tranquil, crystal-clear water.
As we came to discover, there are easier ways to reach Grand-Anse. At the other end of the beach, there are cafes, restaurants and food trucks serving a mixture of mouth-watering French and Guadeloupian cuisine. A must-try is the national favourite, bokit: freshly fried dough, sliced open and filled with fish, meat, chicken or vegetables, topped with salad and smothered in a homemade sauce that ranges from mild to extremely hot. Those who attempt the hot sauce can cool the taste buds down with another local favourite – creamy coconut ice-cream, hand-churned on the spot.
Tucked away on a hillside, surrounded by lush vegetation, Habitation Grande Anse is five minutes’ walk from the beach and is a great place to stay (tropically styled studio apartments for two to seven, from £110). Breakfast is available, and the on-site restaurant opens for lunch and dinner. For Death in Paradise fans, the charming village of Deshaies, where the show is shot, is just a 20-minute walk away.
Beyond the village, there’s the Jardin Botanique de Deshaies, with its dazzling tropical flora and fauna. And a few kilometres further down the coast is La Maison du Cacao, a small cocoa farm and museum where visitors learn how cocoa is turned into chocolate, and sample chocolate products – and its liqueur is to die for.
Guadelouple made a swift recovery after Hurricane Maria and all beaches and hotels are open. See guadeloupe-islands.com for more information.
Fly to Guadeloupe via Paris from £610 with Air France
Flight time 11hr 30min
Time difference -4hr
Kirra, Gold Coast, Australia
Queensland’s Gold Coast often conjures glitzy and over-the-top scenes in the party strip of Surfers Paradise, but 25km away, at the southern tip, the azure waters are lined by quieter suburbs that have the feel of a lazy beach town but with the perks of a city.
Kirra is my favourite place in Australia, due to a mixture of good old-fashioned sentimentality and genuine gorgeousness. The beachside suburb was the first place I lived, eight years ago, with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. We would spend mornings soaking in the ocean before work and university, at times spotting dolphins frolicking just metres away.
Now when I visit (once a year at the very least) we stay in Kirra Beach Apartments, which has large balconies and breezy rooms (from A$130 a night for a one-bedroom apartment). It’s around the corner from a fantastic bakery and a couple of cafes, with the beach just a five-minute stroll away.
We sink schooners at Kirra Surf Club, overlooking the ocean, and walk around the hill to the buzzing restaurant strip of Coolangatta, which is bursting with Mexican, Japanese, burger and pizza places, and our favourite – the Greek Xenia Grill.
After dinner there are pubs to round off the night – I recommend the Cooly – and the Rattle Snake nightclub, or a cinema, before doing the whole lazy routine again the next day.
Fly to Brisbane from £518 with Air China via Beijing
Flight time 35hr 30min
Time difference +10hr
Bang Saen, Thailand
I am a city boy at heart, but sometimes the heat, traffic and general mayhem of Bangkok can take their toll. The perfect antidote is Bang Saen, about two hours’ drive south-east of the city. Most travellers shoot straight past it on their way to glitzier, seedier Pattaya but, luckily for me, when I arrived in Thailand four years ago, friends in the know introduced me to the low-key charms of this sleepy university town.
Foreigners are few and far between, save for a small community of retired Scandinavians who jokingly refer to themselves as the Vikings. On weekends, the place comes alive with Thai families who play on the long, sandy beaches, lounge in cosy cafes and gorge on plentiful fresh seafood. Personally, I prefer weekday getaways, when I can stroll along the coast and pretend to have the place to myself.
My first stop is Wangmook Seafood Restaurant (65 Thanon Saensook, +66 38 191 818), which has been serving delicious lonpu (coconut crab dip), orsuan (soft oyster omelette) and gaeng pa plahedkhon (local whiting in curry soup) for almost 30 years.
No trip to Bang Saen would be complete without a visit to the Buddhist monastery of Wang Saen Suk, also known as Hell Garden, the largest of its kind in Thailand (+66 89 690 3914). Luridly graphic statues labelled with helpful signs in Thai and English pair up sins such as intoxication and blasphemy with the appropriate punishment in the next world. Eternal evisceration and dismemberment are among the more lenient sentences depicted.
With a full belly and the roster of my worldly sins to contemplate, I lay my head down at the Coco Beach Resort, which opened in 2015 (doubles from £34 B&B). Rooms are modern (read: no unpleasant surprises), beds are comfy, and its spot opposite the beach is prime.
Fly to Bangkok from £500 with Thai Airways
Flight time 11hr 30min
Time difference +7hr
Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi, Malaysia
When I first visited the Langkawi archipelago there were just coconut trees, sandy beaches, paddy fields and barely a hotel in sight. Today, of all the resorts along Malaysia’s coastline, still nothing compares to these 99 islets in the Andaman Sea that sit just off Penang.
The main island (also called Langkawi) has obviously changed and been developed; the lively Pantai Cenang beach is packed with backpacker and budget stays, seafood restaurants and funky bars, while there is plenty of choice for those with more cash to splash, such as the award-winning Bonton Resort (doubles from £150 B&B). But one beach remains idyllic, peaceful and unspoilt: the three-mile white sand of Tanjung Rhu, looking out on jungle-clad limestone pinnacles that rise up out of the water.
Visiting again recently, I discovered Sunset Bay Cottage (doubles from £30 room only). Khairul Fadzin has built three cottages in the garden of his family’s house, with minimalist rooms on the beach with air conditioning and free wifi. For breakfast, there are local stalls nearby selling specialities such as nasi lemak (spicy coconut rice) and roti canai (flatbread).
Tanjung Rhu is also an excellent base for water sports and boat trips to snorkel, scuba dive, island hop or explore Langkawi’s unique mangrove ecostructure. And, accompanied by an ice-cold Tiger beer, the beach sunset is breathtaking.
Fly to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur from £520 with Malaysia Airlines.
Flight time 16hr
Time difference +8hr
Velas, Maharashtra, India
Stretching 450 miles south from Mumbai, west India’s Konkan coast is dotted with unspoilt beaches and fortified towns, offering a very different experience to the party beaches of Goa at Konkan’s southern tip.
One such beach is Velas, famed for its conservation of endangered olive ridley turtles, which lay their eggs on the beach in November and December. Overseen by the NGO Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra in collaboration with villagers, the turtles are closely protected during egg laying and hatching. When I visited, a crowd of 100 cheered as the little hatchlings emerged from the golden-black sand and started their journey towards the Arabian Sea.
Velas is so small it has no hotels or guest houses but a homestay can be arranged through Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra from £6-£12 – a great way to get a taste of local village life. Buses run from Mumbai and take about six hours.
Alternatively, visitors can take the Konkan railway, one of India’s great feats of engineering, which runs inland across rivers, past paddy fields and through mountains, on its way between Mumbai and Kerala via Goa. The nearest railway station is Mangaon, 50 miles away. From there you can take a taxi (2hr 30min, about £18).
Fly to Mumbai from £485 with BA
Flight time 9hr 30min
Time difference +5hr 30min
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