From toga-wrapped emperors to board-toting surfers, all walks of life have flocked to the seaside for renewal, reflection, and amusement, and the tide of influences has defined beach culture around the world. Transcending time and place, surf fever over the centuries proves our obsession for sea and sand is here to stay.
First Century A.D.
Early VIP sunseekers to Italy's Amalfi Coast (Nero, Augustus) build summer residences in the town of Baiae, on the Bay of Naples, and it soon becomes a spot for imperial indulgence and hedonism.
Here comes the fun: the first roller coaster in the U.S. is erected on Coney Island, establishing the future home of funnel cakes and hot dog–eating contests. This early seaside vacation spot sees the arrival of upscale hotels on Brighton Beach (not to mention the louche side of boardwalk life: prostitutes and con artists).
Four years after daytime swimming is legalized in Sydney—and it's no longer immodest to get wet in public—the city records an uptick in drowning deaths. The Bondi Surf Life Bathers’ Life Saving Club forms to combat the problem. One of the first rescues: 10-year-old Charles Kingsford Smith, who grows up to be a famous Aussie aviator.
Wearing a fitted red swimsuit and a stocking cap, the soon-to-be-famous Jantzen Red Diving Girl introduces the Oregon company’s new figure-hugging wool jersey. The birth of modern swimwear signals, some say, the demise of propriety.
The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Flying Down to Rio turns Brazil's ultra-glam Copacabana Palace (doubles from $500) into the place to be seen south of the equator. (In truth, the movie was shot on an RKO soundstage.) The hotel attracts the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Brigitte Bardot; Mariah Carey and the Cruise-Holmes clan are among recent guests.
With Hawaii Calls, a weekly live radio show, millions of American listeners welcome into their homes the sound of rolling waves and steel guitars. In 1936, commercial air travel to the islands is born with the seven-passenger Hawaii Clipper, which travels from San Francisco to Honolulu for $360 (and in a mere 22 hours!).
French engineer Louis Réard unveils the modern version of the two-piece swimsuit—30 square inches of fabric connected by a string—at a Paris swimming pool. Knowing the two-piece would make an “atomic” impact, he named it after nuclear-weapon test site Bikini Atoll.
Nightclub impresario Teddy Stauffer strikes gold in Acapulco, Mexico, with his club La Perla (miradoracapulco.com; dinner for two $50) on the rocky cliffs of La Quebrada, where cliff diving will soon become an iconic pastime. It's not long before JFK and Jackie arrive for their honeymoon and Liz Taylor weds husband no. 3 here.
Sun-worshippers bare all as the first nudist resort debuts on Montalivet Beach, on France's west coast. Two decades later the adults-only Hedonism II (hedonismresorts.com; doubles from $330) resort will arrive in Negril, Jamaica. The property has two sides: one for nudes and one for prudes.
Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys becomes the sound track for the emerging southern California boarding culture. Paradise Cove, in Malibu, is the backdrop for beach-bunny prototype Gidget, along with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon of Beach Blanket Bingo.
French Polynesia lures travelers to its pristine, far-flung shores by introducing the next must-have amenity: the overwater bungalow. Among the pioneers is the Hotel Bora Bora (reopening in 2011), which made its debut a decade earlier as the island’s first resort.
The release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws promotes a widespread fear of sharks, especially on Martha’s Vineyard, where the movie was filmed; night swimming abruptly stops. But it doesn’t keep celeb regulars away (Walter Cronkite, James Taylor, William Styron).
Amanresorts opens its inaugural property, Amanpuri (doubles from $500), in Phuket, Thailand. By now, this Andaman Island is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular destinations—and, thanks to resorts like Amanpuri, not only for the backpacker set.
Island Records founder Chris Blackwell brings chart toppers to the Caribbean with the launch of Island Outpost resorts. Among them is Geejam (doubles from $595), in Jamaica’s Port Antonio, which has hosted musicians such as India.Arie and Gwen Stefani.
With an influx of new properties—including Sol Kerzner’s 100-room One&Only The Palm, Dubai (oneandonlyresorts.com; doubles from $780), set to open in October—Dubai’s man-made Palm Islands are the latest option for the beach-going jet set. Swim in the Persian Gulf, anyone?