While I welcome winter along with all the other skiers and outdoor aficionados here in Colorado, by the end of February I’m ready for a surf and sand break. But cramming onto a crowded beach towel-by-cooler with hundreds of other sunseekers is not my vision of restoring my winter-weary spirit.
When you’re a beach lover and a nature lover, the quest becomes to find those pristine stretches of sand that make you feel you’ve discovered a place where time stops; where the rhythm of sea on shore is the primary sound; where the sun’s slow slide behind the horizon is the only marker of day melding into night. A place like, say, Bai Kem Beach on Phu Quoc, one of 105 islands that comprise this idyllic Vietnamese archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. Picture a soft, white sugar-sand beach, fringed with slender palms. Phuket, half a century ago. No people. Just total, unspoiled beauty.
Granted, you may have to travel well beyond familiar locales to find such swaths of paradise. The list below should tantalize you enough to invest the effort. Yet you needn’t fly off to some exotic locale to find a clean and inviting beach that fits your vacation budget. Check out these dream destinations, then read on to see how you can find the best eco-friendly beaches right here at home.
Top 12 Ultimate Eco-Beach Getaways
1) Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia
A perennial choice for world’s best beach, this stunning 4.3-mile stretch of super-fine white silica sand on Whitsunday Island has won many national awards for resource recovery and environmental protection. Warm, clear azure waters swirl over the beach on one side, while tropical rainforest flanks it on the other. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority manages visitor access, which is strictly limited. Arrange a camping permit so you can stay overnight and soak in the solitude once the day cruisers have left. You’ll feel like Robinson Crusoe, just washed up in paradise.
2) Ofu Beach, American Samoa
Getting to Ofu makes a trip to Whitehaven, above, seem simple. But imagine the rewards. Two and a half miles of shining pink coral sand, the beach on Ofu Island is in the Manu’a group of American Samoa. Rising behind is a backdrop of lush greenery, sheer mountain slopes and palm trees swaying in the trade winds. The offshore reef is a diver’s dream, with excellent viewing of almost 300 species of tropical fish and some 150 species of coral. The allure of Ofu is in its profound seclusion and virtual emptiness. Don’t expect to find many tourist amenities here; even drinking water and toilets can be hard to locate. But you come here to feel like a castaway; that’s the whole point.
3) Turtle Island, Yasawa Group, Fiji
Some of the best white sand in the world is found in the Yasawa Islands, miles upon miles of empty, palm-lined beaches. The Yasawas, about 20 in all, are a volcanic island chain off the northwest coast of Viti Levu that stretches about 55 miles into the Pacific Ocean. For beach connoisseurs seeking the ultimate special-occasion retreat, run away to Turtle Island. The Blue Lagoon was filmed here, and the setting is every bit as entrancing as it was in the movie. Just 14 couples can be accommodated at this private island retreat, which is also a model for sustainable resort development in Fiji. More than half a million trees have reforested the island since its purchase 30 years ago, and special care has been taken to preserve acres of mangroves and coconut groves. A hydroponic and organic vegetable garden supplies fresh produce for guests and staff. The resort is also home to a turtle release program, designed to help save threatened Green and Hawksbill turtles. Any genuine eco-resort must also support its local people; Turtle Island funds medical and dental clinics to treat residents of neighboring islands and provides secondary-school education for 50 children from seven local villages.
If Turtle Island’s luxury must remain a fantasy, consider the simple pleasures of Long Beach Resort on Matacawalevu Island. The 200-passenger fast catamaran Yasawa Flyer departs for Long Beach each morning from Port Denarau in Nadi.
4) Koh Libong, Thailand
Think Thailand’s best beaches have all been discovered and overrun with tourists? Think again. Koh Libong is the largest island in southern Thailand’s Trang Province. The isolated beaches on its west side offer a serene taste of the tropics that most Thai beach visitors will never experience. While many small beaches surround the island, the crown jewel is a kilometer stretch of golden sand fronted by clear, aquamarine waters. Wildlife, rather than tourists, abounds here, and the island is home to a substantial colony of Dugongs, large marine mammals closely related to the manatee. These creatures feed on the sea-grass beds that flourish off Koh Libong’s southeast coast. A colony of green turtles are also residents. Human habitation is limited to three small fishing villages. The governor of Trang Province has stated that he wants to avoid the reckless tourism development that has ruined other island destinations in Thailand such as Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi. To help protect the natural beauty of the region, the Swedish Government has funded a master plan for sustainable development in Trang Province. In particular, on Koh Libong, Swedish environmentalists and Thai academics from Bangkok have joined forces in an effort to make the island an ecotourism model for the region. Go now, before development comes, eco-friendly or otherwise.
5) Beaches of Palawan, Philippines
The Philippines are an all-too-overlooked alternative to Thailand, Fiji or Hawaii. This tropical archipelago boasts more than 7,000 islands, a fraction of the tourists and so many deserted beaches that it’s easy to hire a fishing boat, sail off into the sunset and create your very own desert island fantasy straight out of South Pacific. The western island group of Palawan, which even Filipinos describe as their country’s last frontier, is inconceivably exotic and lushly romantic. It’s an archipelago of jagged limestone islands with underground rivers, rocky coves, virgin rainforest and, of course, white powder-sand beaches. Honda Bay, which has several islets including Cannon Island, Bat Island and Starfish Island, is one of the most popular destinations, but the fun in Palawan is in discovering your own secluded stretch of sand.
6) Playa Matapalo, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Blanketed in dense rainforest and known by locals as the lungs of the Earth, the remote Osa Peninsula on Costa Rica’s southwest Pacific coast is blessed with tremendous biodiversity and a conservation-minded government. Half of Costa Rica’s 500,000 species of flora and fauna are found here, mostly inland from beautiful Playa Matapalo, a wild, gray sand beach popular with surfers. The beach lies adjacent to the Portalon National Wildlife Refuge and is also the site of a marine turtle protection project.
7) Sancho Bay, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Fernando de Noronha is an archipelago of 21 islands and islets in the Atlantic Ocean about 220 miles offshore from Brazil. With some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, yet still largely unknown, the island group is a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded by many as the most spectacular marine park in the world. The namesake island of Fernando de Noronha itself is a protected marine ecological reserve, and just 420 tourists are allowed to access it at one time. Those who visit will find 15 beaches with sparkling blue water and white sand, but Sancho Bay, surrounded by natural rock walls, is one of the most unspoiled and secluded spots on the island. Perhaps not surprisingly: it is accessible only by a ladder wedged in a rock crevice.
8) Pelícano Beach, Puerto Rico
Pelícano Beach is tucked away on Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island, named for its shape) in the southern part of Puerto Rico, with ferry access via the city of Ponce. The city has collaborated with the national Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) to garner several environmental awards for the area. The island was designated as a nature reserve in 1980, making it a protected wilderness area. Pelícano Beach is a sanctuary for quiet, the waters lapping the sand are peaceful, and you might think you’re alone in the Caribbean with a sojourn here. A lighthouse atop the island’s highest point offers fabulous views of the beach and environs.
9) Patara Beach, Antalya, Turkey
Dubbed the world’s best beach by the London Sunday Times, Patara is one of Turkey’s 314 award-winning Blue Flag beaches, recognized for their supreme cleanliness and ecological health. The 9-mile stretch of sand on the Turquoise Coast, also known as the Turkish Riviera, is the longest beach in the Mediterranean. Backed by a wall of dunes and devoid of any buildings, the only sign of human habitation — from centuries ago — is the adjacent ruins of a half-submerged Roman amphitheater. Next to the beach is a loggerhead turtle nesting site, so tread lightly.
10) Brela Beach, Croatia
The crenellated Dalmatian coast on the east shore of the Adriatic offers some of the most picturesque beaches in Europe. Brela Beach, while hardly undiscovered, is nonetheless exceptionally appealing. South of Split and north of the resort town of Makarska, Brela is an attractive village set on a beautiful 4-mile expanse of white pebbly beach surrounded by fig trees, olive groves and pungent pine woods. The beach slopes gently into the turquoise sea, making it an ideal place for family holidays with young children and swimmers who fancy a comfortable dip in the warm Mediterranean. A series of secluded coves add privacy to your visit, as each becomes your own little swimming hole. Forbes magazine called Brela one of the world’s Top 20 Beaches.
11) Las Islas Cies, Galicia, Spain
Often considered one of the best beaches in Europe, the white sand of Las Islas Cies remains beautiful because of the island’s carefully protected status as a pristine national park. Declared a nature reserve in 1980, it is part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park — uninhabited, and open to the public only in summer. The number of visitors is controlled, cars are prohibited and overnight stays are restricted to camping. To reach this former pirate’s haunt, visitors hop a 40-minute boat trip from the pretty town of Baiona on the mainland. Even though the beach fronts the Atlantic Ocean, the setting is placid, the water usually as calm as a lake. Galicia as a whole possesses one of the longest and most unspoiled coastlines in all of Spain. Referred to as the “land of the 1,000 rivers,” this little-touristed region sits just above Portugal on Spain’s northwestern corner.
12) Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Zanzibar — the name is one of the most evocative on any list of legendary travel destinations. East Africa’s famed Spice Island, once a slave-trade port, is now a popular holiday destination. But if you know where to go, you can find a beach escape here where it’s pretty much just you, the palm trees, and some of the most gorgeous white sand and aquamarine water on the planet. On the island’s very northern tip lies Nungwi Beach, arguably the best on Zanzibar, and the nearby coral reef yields a beautiful lagoon for magnificent snorkeling. Low tides unveil sparkling white coral sand bars, and rock pools teem with marine life. Once you get to Zanzibar, you may choose to never come back.
How to find an eco-friendly beach at home or away
Even popular beaches can offer a refreshing escape from the winter doldrums if they are managed according to principles of sustainability — with strict criteria for water quality, clean shores, environmental education and information, and safety.
That’s what monitoring systems like the Blue Flag and Blue Wave programs seek to reward. The Blue Flag is a voluntary eco-label awarded to more than 3,450 beaches and marinas in 41 countries across Europe, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and the Caribbean. The program is run by the independent nonprofit organization Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). Spain topped the list with the most Blue Flag–awarded beaches at 522.
In the U.S., the Clean Beaches Council runs the most comprehensive, national environmental and public safety beach certification program in the country. The Blue Wave Campaign is recognized as a valued benchmark for well-maintained beaches. To find a Blue Wave–certified U.S. beach near you, check out the 2010 list.
The National Healthy Beaches Campaign (NHBC) also evaluates beaches using scientific criteria monitored by a panel of coastal experts. From Siesta Key to Hanalei Bay, Cape Hatteras to Coronado, NHBC helps guide beachgoers to safe, clean places to recreate.
The National Resources Defense Council also evaluates U.S. beaches in terms of water quality. Check out their guide for more information.
For a final resource, look at “Dr. Beach’s” annual list of the Best Beaches in America. The guide utilizes a list of 50 different criteria, from environmental cleanliness to sand quality to beach gradient for safe swimming, to come up with its comprehensive rating system
Think you know the beaches of the world, or want to learn more? Take this fun quiz from National Geographic. Then get planning your own seaside escape. Even a brisk winter’s walk on a northern beach can be soul-stirring … There’s no reason to wait till summer!