The Expeditioner Staff: Our 5 Favorite Beaches In The World (And Why)
Friday, August 12, 2011
A convenient 12-hour jaunt north from the Mozambique capital of Maputo in a sure-to-break-down Chinese-donated bus crammed full of German backpackers, firewood-toting locals and a small baby playing with your backpack while its mother sleeps leaning against a window, is Tofo, a small fishing village known for generations by locals primarily as a fertile bay for a variety of seafood, and as of late ground zero for Scuba enthusiasts in search of the best location on Earth for manta ray viewing.
A massive bay etched out of the southeastern coastline in the Indian Ocean, the waters of Tofo are a “cleaning station” for Mantas, which mean the rays — who can grow as wide as 25 feet — stop off here in search of cleaner fish who swarm around them, nibbling away at the parasites on the rays’ skin. A deep-sea dive of around 40 meters and you can watch this spectacle, along with the likelihood of a visit by a few stray whale sharks, and maybe even a humpback or two.
The first night I was there, the group on the bus whom I had driven up with quickly made camp on the vast, unpopulated stretch of sand and sipped rum and Coke while passing around snacks for dinner. The next week I would spend my time sleeping in a hostel dorm hut that sat on the upper banks of the beach, learning to Scuba in the warm waters out in the distance from the shore, and laying on the sand while recovering from a bout of malaria.
The beach has a utilitarian aspect to it rarely seen in most developed countries — here fisherman fishe, campers camp, families picnic, workers nap and countless sea creatures live. One full-moon night I walked to dinner a half-hour north along the packed sand exposed during low tide, using the abundant light bouncing off the water as a guide. Another evening a group of us leapt in after a night out at the local pub. Countless other moments I gazed out into the far distance, imagining what it’d be like sailing out past Madagascar, onto India then beyond into Southeast Asia like the many Portuguese sailors did generations ago.
This beach may soon be overrun with travelers and built-up with eco-lodges and boutique hotels, but for me the wonder it inspired during those days in early September can never be destroyed, and for that I can only thank the illusion of time.
I must admit, I’m not much of a beach-seeker. I get off on the experience, culture and intangibles of the areas surrounding epic beaches. That being said, my favorite beach is one that flies under the radar — so far under the radar it doesn’t even register.
In 2003 I took a sea kayaking trip in Lake Superior near Wisconsin. My friends and I island-hopped for four days through the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We explored caves and arches carved from the typically brutal surf crashing against the island chain. The weather was postcard-perfect all week, our camping spots were phenomenal and the water was pristine.
On our last day, we pulled up to a small crescent beach tucked in a cove protected by 500-foot cliff walls on three sides. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lost myself in the rhythms of the crashing waves; it felt like I was the only person on Earth. It was by far the greatest place I’d ever eaten lunch and a beach experience I’ll never forget. I only wish I could find that spot again.
You can’t swim there. By 10 a.m. the sun turns the volcanic sand into a skillet, forcing you to put sandals on (and who wants to wear shoes at the beach?). The locals are constantly setting off fireworks, like the crazy costaleños they are.
I’ve been to better beaches, calmer beaches, more relaxing beaches. But Monterrico, Guatemala, will always be my beach. And to a select group of some of the most important people in my life, it will always be our beach. It will always be the beach where my friend, Charlie, became one of my best friends. I went there with him a few months after I had moved to Guatemala.
We drove in his Geotracker Jeep, the top down, brandishing machetes. I still remember that trip to the beach when the bar closed at 4 a.m., Charlie stumbling up to the counter to order six beers, him shoving three into my arms and us sitting down in front of the shore to have one of those deep heartfelt conversations that can only follow a night of drinking and dancing. We had the classic “guy talk.” Talking about ex-girlfriends, love, life, whether or not God existed, the things we were proud of, ashamed of, our hopes, dreams, goals and mutual love of Cuba libres.
Before the ocean scarred me out of it, I used to go swimming there. And during one off these forays into the ocean, where I almost got killed for the third time, the current brought me so far from my point of departure that I could not find my clothes. Naked, I stormed the beach and ran to Johnnies Hostel where I grabbed a tablecloth to cover me. The bartender, who began chasing me — an whose leg was luckily in a cast — tried to catch me to reclaim the cloth, but I ran off into the salt-scented night.
Monterrico will always be the beach where I went with my friends whom I studied with in Chile when they visited me in Guatemala. It was where my “Chilean” friend, Jordan, brought his new fiance and we had a fake wedding in anticipation of the real wedding to come. But the wedding was only fake insofar as the “minister,” Chris Mathew, did not have any religious or legal authority to marry them. The girls all dressed up in flowers that I stole from the church, and the guys wore sarongs and ties. Hallowed-out watermelons were filled with rum punch. We invited half the town, and the kids who showed up thought it was a real wedding. It was the best wedding I have ever attended.
Monterrico is the beach where I’ve taken the girls I’ve dated over the past three years, and hidden here and there are those romantic reminiscences. In my three-and-a-half years living in Guatemala, I have been to Monterrico at least two dozen times. I’ve gotten to know many of the locals and ex-pats living there. It’s nice to get off a shuttle and see people that seem happy to see you — people who have become your friends. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And most of them seem glad that you came.
So Monterrico, you may not be the prettiest beach or the nicest beach. Your waters may threaten everyone with death, and you may not have snorkeling or surfing, but all that doesn’t matter, because you’re my beach. And I love you, beach.
I want to personally thank Matt for allowing me to talk about my favorite beach during this very special “The Expeditioner Beach Week” segment. Nothing really makes me happier than a fabulous beach, and that’s why I’m so excited to share my favorite spot with all of you fine people.
For this long stretch of golden-brown sand is the perfect place to get away from it all, and yet, somehow, get way more than you could bargain for. Located in southern New Jersey, Belmar Beach truly has it all: ebullient crowds, loads of fried-food vendors, all kinds of rare sightings such as the occasional shark and Snookie, and the best saltwater taffy a girl can find.
When first presented with the difficult task of picking my favorite beach, I thought of nominating Pelay Beach, a magical spot on the seldom visited Hong Islands in Krabi, Thailand. Here, you can watch the traditional practice of young men shimmying up bamboo poles to the tops of palm trees to collect bird nests; its components later used in making the local delicacy of bird’s nest soup. After spending a day on Pelay Beach, I was almost convinced that this vast, deserted cove of white sand framed by towering limestone cliffs, aquamarine waters and lush forests could compare to Belmar’s buff lifeguards and alluring brown-hued water, but thankfully I came to my senses.
I also thought of a small beach on an exquisite island known as Bozcaada located approximately five hours southwest of Istanbul. The island itself is one of the most fascinating places I’ve been. Lost somewhere in time where men still gather to play backgammon in the town square and restaurant owners ask patrons to choose their entrées from display cases featuring the local catch of the day, this tiny island is a true gem filled with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
My favorite beach on Bozcaada is rarely visited except for the occasional snorkeler or spear fisherman. It’s in a hidden cove next to a public beach publicized as Akvaryum (Aquarium) Bay, but if you talk to locals they’ll tell you that the quiet cove is the real Aquarium beach. Small and picturesque, the cove is covered by pink and brown hued stones that stretch into the limpid, calm waters of the bay. I sat for hours admiring the abundant sea life that scurried in the shallows, and soaking in the tranquil seascape.
But even this experience does not compare to taking in the high decibels of house music my neighbors blared during those sun-soaked days on Belmar beach. Ah, the memories . . .
So, yes, as a New Yorker turned proud Jerseyite, my vote goes to Belmar beach at the good ol’ Jersey Shore.
My favorite beach is the one where I first learned to surf, Ngarunui Beach in Raglan, New Zealand. You drive to the water from your hostel and rent surfboards strapped to the top of your car. You don your ill-fitting wetsuit and carry the cumbersome beginners board down to a beach that stretches for miles, vibrant cliffs curving inwards in the distance. You charge into the wave break like you have seen countless times in the movies.
Four hours later, you float on your surfboard frustrated, arms aching with exhaustion and sunburn. What’s all the fuss about? And then you feel the other surfers around you stir with excitement. A wave is coming, and with a determination that you didn’t know you had, you decide this wave is your wave. You paddle hard and keep your board straight. Jelly-like arms manage to shove your unusually light body upwards.
For a moment you are a god. Soaring towards the most beautiful beach you have ever seen, certain you will head right into those cliffs. And you understand not only surfing, but also the whole world. You see yourself in a way you have never seen before. You don’t dare breathe.
And then you pitch forward, belly-first into the frothy surf, the spell broken. Ngarunui has gritty sand, high winds and water that is not turquoise. But it is where I learned to fly.