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Beaches: Hideaway or Hotspot?

Not all beaches are created equal.

While beach destinations of all kinds prove popular with visitors, some beckon selective travelers with their natural beauty and luxurious vibe. They transport and soothe us. These places have it all — clear waters hugging strands of soft sand, abundant marine life and plentiful diversions sprinkled into the mix. Sunny palm-tree filled days morph into starry evenings occupied with sampling the best seafood and local cuisine. 

From laid-back Sanibel Island to vibrant San Diego and the lush island of Hawaii, travelers can find upscale beach destinations without bringing their passports. And groups that are ready to venture farther will revel in the sun-soaked Mediterranean beaches of Valencia, Spain, and Nice, France, both complemented by unforgettable European culture and history.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Who knew a tropical paradise could be so easily accessible? Connecting Sanibel and Captiva Islands to Fort Myers, the Sanibel causeway stretches three miles over the Gulf of Mexico. Dubbed “the seashell capital of the world,” Sanibel catches the tides and currents just right along its 12 miles of shoreline, and walking its beaches gives ample opportunity to take home shells of all shapes and sizes. Besides its marvelous collection, the island’s Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum offers marine-biologist-led beach walks, lectures and special exhibitions.

Pedaling some of the 25 miles of bike and walking paths that crisscross Sanibel makes it easy to explore the island. For 130 years, the Sanibel Lighthouse has been part of the island’s culture. Coming or going, smaller groups can stop at the Lighthouse Café for breakfast or lunch. 

Fringed with mangrove trees, more than 60% of this barrier island is preserved for wildlife, including migratory birds. Groups can start at the  J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, with its notably artsy restrooms, before the guided 90-minute tram tour on a four-mile loop. Wildlife viewing is also possible by guided kayak tours on the Great Calusa Blueway, which spans 190 miles of red mangrove-lined waterways in the Fort Myers area.

“Groups can also take day trips out of McCarthy’s Marina on adjacent Captiva Island,” said Ray Sarracino, communications director for Visit Fort Myers. “Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa and Boca Grande are all very different. Groups can eat lunch on Cabbage Key at a small inn that you can only access by boat. Cayo Costa State Park is a natural paradise, and Boca Grande has an Old Florida vibe with several restaurants, the historic Gasparilla Island Lighthouse and a really beautiful beach.”

San Diego, California   

Stretching for 70 miles, the legendary coastline of San Diego beckons with myriad ways to enjoy surf and sand. Near downtown, Mission Bay Aquatic Park offers kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, water-skiing, kite surfing and everything in between for the novice and experienced enthusiast. Mission Bay Bike Path loops the water for 12 miles of easy pedaling; numerous bike rental shops can be found nearby. 

Always popular are San Diego Harbor dinner or wine sunset cruises and whale- or dolphin-watching trips that launch from Oceanside Harbor’s historic lighthouse. Guided kayak tours within the La Jolla Ecological Reserve explore natural sea caves, cliffs and marine life. Paddlers often glimpse harmless leopard sharks and dolphins. La Jolla Shores’ mile-long crescent beach is favored by beachgoers of all ages, and nearby Birch Aquarium displays more than 60 exhibits. From Point Loma, sportfishing trips catch sea bass, rockfish and barracuda. Not-to-be-missed, tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument offer a sure bet to see starfish and sea anemones in their natural habitat.

Spanning San Diego Bay, 200-foot-high San Diego-Coronado Bridge delivers groups to Coronado Beach. Touted as California’s safest swimming beach, it boasts the iconic Hotel del Coronado, featured in Marilyn Monroe’s 1958 film “Some Like it Hot.” The beach itself, literally sparkles because of the mica found in its sand, while abundant shopping and restaurants line Coronado’s Orange Avenue.

“Our many beaches offer a diversity of activities including sunbathing, kayaking and taking surfing classes,” said Edna Gutierrez, spokesperson for San Diego Tourism Authority. “Coronado Beach makes a great day trip because groups can stroll the beach and shop nearby. The sunsets are breathtaking, and the hotel itself is a wonder.”

Kona Coast, Hawaii    

The island of Hawaii’s breadth of outdoor adventure and its Kona coastline set it apart from other beach destinations. Black sand beaches, excellent snorkeling, volcanoes, zip lining and more can be experienced in this sandy paradise, which is twice as large as all the other Hawaiian Islands combined. 

Among its many and varied beaches, the white sands of Hapuna Beach consistently rank on international “top 10” lists of Hawaii’s best beaches due to good conditions for swimming, bodyboarding  and snorkeling. In bays and coves, such as Keauhou Bay, paddleboarding its crystal-clear waters delivers a bird’s-eye view of its underwater marvels. 

The Kona coast offers the best opportunity to encounter manta rays — the largest fish in the ocean with wingspans up to 20 feet or more. Nighttime snorkeling tours take people to specific sites where lights are used to attract these giants that feed off plankton and  put on quite a show as they glide and somersault through the water. 

The Kona side of the island is known for excellent snorkeling and diving. Breakfast and lunch snorkel cruisegoers might spot spinner dolphins escorting the boat, Hawaiian green sea turtles, endangered Hawaiian monk seals lazing in the waves and abundant fish. Between late November and early May, humpback whales can be spotted from land and sea.

“Our beaches are spectacular experiences within themselves,” said Ross Birch, executive director of Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “Although our island doesn’t have miles and miles of extended beaches, our beaches are secluded and highly rated compared to those around the world. We invite visitors to take the Pono Pledge prior to coming to our island because it outlines a mindful respect and safe interaction with our wildlife, nature and communities.”

Valencia, Spain

Situated in the heart of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, and a mere 95 minutes from Madrid via high-speed train, Valencia exudes Spanish culture and history. Here, ancient and modern, gothic and baroque architecture, palm trees and orange trees all seamlessly coexist. At the city’s La Malvarrosa beach, visitors can surf, windsurf, canoe or simply lounge. Groups can rent bikes and ride the boardwalk, which has been there since the early 1900s. Today, it’s bordered by hotels and restaurants, many of which serve paella.

“The fishermen of nearby Albufera Natural Park were the first to create paella, and groups can have a paella meal near the boardwalk and beach,” said Patricia Wood Winn, spokesperson for the Tourist Office of Spain. “Or they can go to La Barraca de Toni Montoliu and watch paella being made over a traditional wood fire. Many restaurants also serve it, including La Pepica, the restaurant made famous by Hemingway.”  

Just outside the city, Albufera Natural Park offers magical sunsets on Spain’s largest lagoon surrounded by paddy fields and woods. Year-round, but especially in winter, the park provides shelter for up to 300 species of birds including flamingos. Boat rides in a handcrafted “albuferenc” last approximately 40 minutes.

Not-to-be-missed, Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences boasts futuristic structures that include a planetarium, oceanarium and an interactive museum. The oceanarium is the largest aquarium in Europe, showcasing some 45,000 marine creatures from 500 different species and the world’s primary marine ecosystems. Also noteworthy, the Gothic-style Cathedral of Valencia houses the Holy Chalice. Documentation and archaeological studies have led experts and the Catholic Church to believe this Holy Grail is the one used by Jesus in the Last Supper.

Nice, France     

Touting some of the best beaches in France, Nice hugs the Mediterranean Sea under lapis-blue skies. The Promenade des Anglais’ sublime boardwalk lined with palm trees attracts water-lovers along the various beaches of this stunning bay. Understandably, Nice ranks as France’s No. 1 tourist destination just behind Paris.

The city was under Italian rule until 1860, so its architecture and culture are still closely intertwined with Italy. Strolling its famous flower market with its many vendors, visitors can sample the local pancake-like treat, socca. With 19 museums — from photography to art and archeology —  groups can pick and choose from the highest concentration of museums after Paris. The noteworthy Marc Chagall National Museum showcases 17 paintings depicting Old Testament themes, supplemented by additional galleries. Foodies will find authentic nicoise restaurants throughout the city that display certification in their window, indicating the cuisine is traditional and use local products.

Outside the city, day trips are devoted to small towns that hug cliffs above the sparkling sea. Picturesque Villefranche-sur-Mer, 15 minutes to the east, slopes down to the ocean. The peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is known as the playground of the wealthy. Here, rose-colored Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was built by one of Europe’s wealthiest women; an audio tour tells her story while visitors stroll art-filled rooms and gardens with panoramic Mediterranean views. 

Perched above the modern village of Eze, medieval Eze tucks shops and cafes into its winding cobblestone streets. Hiking upward, the Exotic Garden of Eze lies in the shadow of ancient fortress ruins high above the sea. The village’s Fragonard perfume factory offers a short tour, and its shop sells perfumes in sumptuous packaging.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.