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The Evolution of Beach Culture

Hotel Bora Bora overwater bungalows

Photo: Courtesy of Amanresorts

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.


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