You don’t need to go far to find your own slice of paradise.
For the first couple of days you’re quite content to hang out on the hotel beach – and why not? It’s a lovely spot and you’re being spoiled rotten. But come day three, the instinct to explore is awakened and you are looking for things to do. You start studying maps, gathering intel from hotel staff and planning a sortie in search of the beach that’s the locals’ best-kept secret. These are the beaches that you’ll bore your friends about when you return: empty sands, clear waters and reassuringly off the beaten track.
Words by Chris Haslam
Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
If you’re looking for old Arabia, come to Ras Al Khaimah. Situated an hour north of Dubai – the name means “top of the tent” – it has forged a reputation as the wild Emirate: the one with the untrodden desert, craggy mountains, lush oases and long, empty beaches. The best of them are hidden among the mangroves behind the dunes alongside the E11, south-west of the main drag. Coming from the hotel zone, pass the Cove Rotana resort, find any sand track on the right and follow it to the sea. There are no shops or bars but apart from the turtles and flamingos, you’re pretty much guaranteed exclusive use.
Stay at: Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa
Nui Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Just five miles south of Phuket’s busy Karon beach, at the end of a jungle track, lies the gorgeous cove at Nui: a 400ft curve of pale sand, palm and rock. It should be at the top of your list of things to do in Phuket. There’s a distinctly Greek look to the beach, with its rocky, scrub-covered surrounding slopes, sheltered pools and restaurant tables scattered over various levels in the woods above the sands. The beach is maintained by the private Nui Bay Member Club, which, in return for a small entrance fee, gives you a towel, an umbrella, a beach mat and guaranteed immunity from the hawkers you’ll have encountered on Karon. Sea toys are available for hire, and the restaurant does a plate of sweet and sour fish that feeds two. Get here either by tuk-tuk, on a rented scooter, or by longtail from Kata Noi.
Stay at: Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa
Topsail Hill Beach, Florida, USA
If you’re staying in the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Florida’s spectacular Panhandle and looking for the best things to do in the area, finding this local secret is a walk in the park. The Topsail Hill State Park, to be precise, which lies just a mile and a half east of the hotel. It’s a dazzling spot, with shimmering white, powder-soft quartz sands backed by tall dunes and lapped by the palest blue seas. Bring a parasol, a coolbox, and, if you fancy your luck, a fishing rod: pompano, red fish, Spanish and king mackerel are said to throw themselves onto hooks. You’ll need a visitor’s fishing licence which you can buy from the Campground Store behind the dunes. Kayaks are also available for rent.
Playa del Amor, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Should you find yourself, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta, you must see the Playa del Amor in the Marietas Islands, an hour’s boat ride west. This is the one surrounded by an amphitheatre of solid rock that you can only reach by swimming through a tidal tunnel. Quite how it was formed is a matter of debate: some attribute the ring of rock to erosion and others to a bomb blast back when the Marietas were a testing range for the Mexican military. Either way, it’s astonishing natural beauty was almost its downfall: with upwards of 3,000 tourists coming every day, pollution and illegal fishing was killing the coral. So the Mexican government closed it last May, reopening it four months later with a strict limit of 116 visitors per day. Which is altogether better for everyone.
Stay at: Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort
Culebra, Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico: terrific restaurants, fascinating history, top nightlife and Paradise lies just a drive and a ferry ride to the east, in the little-known Spanish Virgin Islands. You’re aiming for Culebra, a 45-minute ferry ride from Fajardo. Life is slow here. Cops patrol on horseback. Shops display signs like “Sometimes open. Otherwise closed.” A pig roast can bring the entire island to a halt, and did I mention the beaches? Ay caramba! Playas Flamenco, Resaca and Brava on the north shore are three sublime steps to heaven and if you arrange for Captain Luis to take you there, the offshore islet of Culebrita offers the apotheosis of deserted beach perfection in Playa Tortuga.
Stay at: Caribe Hilton Resort, San Juan
Two beaches, Cape Town, South Africa
As soon as summer arrives in Cape Town the glitzy strips of Camps Bay, Clifton and Llandudno are turned into wall-to-wall carpets of sunbathers. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking for one of the best things to do in Cape Town you need to head north or south for a secret beach. Head an hour up the R27 to the West Coast National Park and the Atlantic-battered magnificence of 16 Mile Beach, last resting place of the huge Pantelis A Lemos, wrecked here in 1978. Alternatively, drive an hour south from Cape Town to gorgeous Diaz Beach. With its crisp white sands and 600ft cliffs, it’s as romantic a spot as you’ll find on the Cape and accessible after a 20-minute descent from the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Bring a picnic and stay the day, but don’t go swimming. Even the sharks are careful in the treacherous seas of the Cape.
Stay at: Hilton Cape Town City Centre
Ham Tin beach, Hong Kong, China
It’s hard, I know, to believe that not far beyond the concrete, neon and steel of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island there could be unspoiled sands and clear blue seas. Fabulous Cheung Sha beach on Lantau Island is just 45 minutes from Central (get the ferry from pier 6 to Mui Wo on Lantau, then the N35 bus) but you can do better if you fancy a challenge. You’re off to Ham Tin beach, a local secret as discreetly famous for its tropical perfection as its reputation as a former smuggling spot. There’s an old church, a snack bar, a public toilet and that’s it. Getting there involves taking the MTR’s purple line to Hang Hau and leaving the station by exit B (very important) from where you take green minibus 101 to Sai Kung. From here most people hike for 90 minutes to the beach, but it’s way too hot for that nonsense. Head to the Sai Kung pier and grab a water taxi to drop you right on the sands. Don’t forget to book the return journey.
Stay at: The Conrad, Hong Kong
Lazarus Island, Singapore
When Singapore creates a beach, it does it properly. First, identify a site with unobstructed sea views. Next, import thousands of tons of bone-white sand from Indonesia, then check every grain for sandfly eggs. Finally, run a massive promotional campaign to attract the hordes. They did all of the above on Lazarus Island, except the last bit, thus creating (maybe deliberately) one of the top things to do in Singapore that many people just stumble across. There are no facilities or shops here, so come prepared with a picnic, plenty of water and a novelty inflatable, and avoid Sundays, when it’s packed with locals. To get here, take the MRT to Marina Bay, leave by exit B and take bus 402 two stops to Marina South Pier. From here it’s a return boat trip to St John’s Island and a short walk across the causeway to Lazarus. It’s worth it.
Stay at: The Hilton Singapore