Europe's Secret Beaches
You’ve donned oversize sunglasses and slathered on sunscreen for a blissed-out day of sunbathing along the French Riviera—you and about a million other pasty tourists. Finding your own little slice of sand in Europe can be as challenging as finding a local boutique open in August.
“You have to be prepared to make that extra effort: a drive down a dirt track, a hike down and around a hill, or a boat ride around a headland,” Kirsty Hathaway, editor of Beach Tomato, says. “There’s a direct correlation between just how amazing a beach is and the difficulty in getting there.”
Related: Best Beaches in Ibiza
Your effort will be heartily rewarded at secret beaches like the Côte Sauvage near France’s jam-packed Île d’Oléron. Break a sweat with some dune hiking, and you’ll reach 18 miles of sugary sand ringed by fragrant pine forests and fronted by the rugged Atlantic, a favorite spot of in-the-know surfers.
At Cala Varques in Majorca, Spain—far from the foam-party masses in Magaluf—you can catch a boat ride or a hike down a rocky footpath to the crystalline waters of Cala Varques. There are underwater caves to explore and cliffs for diving.
Another way to beat the crowds: follow the lead of celebrities like designer Christian Louboutin and actress Kristin Scott Thomas. They’ve been spotted sunning themselves among the thatched beach shacks and pristine shores of Comporta, a boho enclave about an hour south of Lisbon. But let’s just keep that between us.
Related: The Best Beaches in France
It’s also worth thinking beyond the obvious beach destinations. Scotland doesn’t immediately bring to mind suntans, but the northern isles have some of the most dramatic coasts in the world. “I spent my childhood summers on the Isle of Arran, dining on fresh lobsters, pooling for shrimp in the rock pools, skimming rocks into the sea,” recalls Hathaway.
Read on for more off-the-beaten-path beach escapes. And don’t worry—you can still rock those shades.
Ortolo Valley, Corsica, France
Thanks to feisty locals with little patience for outside intrusion, the Mediterranean island of Corsica remains relatively undeveloped—despite its bright blue, perfectly clear water, rugged mountains, and bracing pine and eucalyptus forests. The Ortolo Valley, once a wine region, is especially peaceful. Explore the walking trails and small beach coves from Domaine de Murtoli, a compound of 16 renovated shepherd villas. murtoli.com
Cala Varques, Manacor, Majorca, Spain
Between Portocolom and Porto Cristo, this white-sand beach, accessible only by boat or a rocky footpath, has swimming pool–like water, ringed by pine forests. One of the cliffs nearby grants access to a 1/3-mile network of underground (some underwater) caves. Pack water and a lunch, as there is nothing for sale here. It’s all about 20 minutes south from Manacor, where La Reserva Rotana, a 17th-century stone house, has been transformed into a private golf course and antique-decorated resort. reservarotana.com
Comporta, Alentejo Coast, Portugal
Hurry to experience this unspoiled, seven-mile slice of the Atlantic shore an hour south of Lisbon. Its protected white sand and brisk waves, whitewashed village and thatched-roof shacks have seen the likes of designer Christian Louboutin, actress Kristin Scott Thomas, and super-decorator Jacques Grange. It won’t stay this tranquil forever: an Amanresort will soon be joining the golf, wine, and hotel complex developed by the local agribusiness giant Herdade da Comporta. herdadedacomporta.pt
Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Among the far-north wild Hebrides Islands lies Harris, whose vast white-sand beach and crystal-clear azure waters see more deer, otter, and dolphins than the kite-surfers it seems tailor-made for. A rare sign of civilization: a seaside weaver selling original Harris tweeds a few miles away. (Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company, 6 Luskentyre, Isle of Harris HS3 3HL; +44-1859-550-261; visitscotland.com)
Ransvik, Skåne, Sweden
Rocky cliffs and gnarled oak trees ring one of the more secluded stone beaches on the Kullaberg nature reserve in southern Sweden, which requires a brisk hike for access. You won’t be totally alone, but the crowds are nothing like they were at the turn of the century, when Ransvik was famously the first co-ed beach in Europe. Fifteen minutes to the south, in the sweet village of Arild, you’ll find the Strand, a chic B&B. Rooms in the main building, dating from 1904, have the best sea views. strand-arild.se
Bidderosa Beach, Orosei, Sardinia, Italy
Not all of Sardinia is blinged-out like the Costa Smeralda. Head south to the 15th-century village of Orosei, whose historic center is made up of old stone houses like the cheerful Anticos Palathos B&B, 11 miles south of the Bidderosa Beach nature reserve. It shares the same pale white sands and transparent azure waters as up north, but not those Porto Cervo crowds, thanks to a policy that restricts the number of cars daily and the alternative of a two-mile walk, off a poorly marked exit on the SS125 highway. anticospalathos.com
Grenen Headland, Skagen, Frederikshavn, Denmark
The endless daylight of summer in Jutland, the far north of Denmark, is best enjoyed from Skagen, a colorful fishing village on a remote peninsula. It’s better still if you’re a guest at Hotel Plesner, with a farm-to-table restaurant in a 1907 house. A few minutes north of Skagen, around the Grenen Headland at land’s end, are dunes so displaced by wind that they’ve overtaken the medieval St. Laurentii church. The beach there is at the confluence Skagerrak and Kattegat seas, whose waves break the shore in opposite directions. hotelplesner.dk
Elafonisi Beach, Crete, Greece
Wade through the translucent shallows to reach the tiny islet facing this nature reserve beach at the southeastern tip of Crete. It’s unusually quiet and commerce-free, with pinkish sand and bright blue water (it takes either a bus or a car to get there). Chania, a charming village with a 15th-century Venetian harbor, is the site of the lovingly restored Casa Leone hotel. casa-leone.com
Porat Beach, Bisevo Island, Croatia
The most famous attraction on this tiny Mediterranean island off the Dalmatian Coast is the Blue Cave, a limestone sea cave so named for the refracted sunlight that glows an eerie blue. An equally worthy but lesser-known reason to visit: expansive Porat Beach, on the western and lee side, thanks to large limestone cliffs protecting it from high winds. It’s a scenic place to break for lunch or a drink at the small seafood restaurant and beach bar. crobeaches.com
Côte Sauvage, Poitou-Charentes, France
The French jealously guard any spare spot of beach they can get to. But not that many get to Côte Sauvage, which lies opposite the oyster- (and people-) heavy Île d’Oléron, on France’s untamed west coast. Surrounded by a shaggy pine and green oak forest, between Ronce-les-Bains and La Palmyre, this 18-mile stretch of white sand is accessible only after a serious hike over the dunes. visit-poitou-charentes.com