The World's Best Beaches

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A man overlooks Anse Source d'Argent on La Digue in the Seychelles. Bob Krist/Corbis

When summer comes, many flat and largely unvisited stretches of sand all over the world fill up. Some people love those crowds; for them, the beach is like a nightclub—but with swimming and few clothes. Others—and that includes me—prefer a little more space. Whatever your preference, the beach is the ultimate place for doing absolutely nothing. You can just lie in the sun, reassured and guilt-free in the knowledge that that's pretty much the whole point of being there. So if you need a wonderful spot to do little more than listen to the waves and maybe read a book, here is a selection of some of the best bits of sandy coastline in the world.

Harbour Island, Bahamas

A long, deep beach runs for the entire 3 miles of Harbour Island's eastern shore on the Atlantic Ocean. The locals call it North Beach, but internationally it is known as Pink Sands, because of the sand's luminous salmon color, the result of centuries of powdered coral deposits from offshore reefs. Add the clear turquoise of the ocean, and you have a scene that is idyllic. It is frequented by international celebrities, including Uma Thurman, Harrison Ford, Diane von Fürstenberg, Mick Jagger and Robert De Niro. But it's also loved by honeymoon couples and ordinary travelers seeking beauty in isolation.

Whitehaven, Whitsunday Island, Australia

With a 16,000-mile coastline (the sixth longest in the world) and a comparatively small population of just under 24 million, Australia has countless candidates for the best uncrowded beach award. But Whitehaven Beach, a 4-mile stretch along Whitsunday Island off the coast of central Queensland, is mind-blowingly lovely. Backed by tropical forest and lapped by warm water, the beach's brilliant white sand is almost 100 percent pure silica—which does not retain heat, and so remains comfortable to walk on barefoot at any time of day. Camping is the only way to stay: Watching the day-cruiser crowds head back to the mainland is a pleasure exceeded only by the joy of waking up after a night under canvas and having the beach all to yourself.

Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

Not all great beaches are isolated and difficult to reach. In Rio, the sand starts just yards from residential and commercial streets. Cleaner, safer and less crowded than Copacabana Beach, Ipanema—which stretches for just over a mile—has the most sophisticated visitors of the city's 22 beaches. (It runs alongside one of Rio's more affluent neighborhoods.) Beachgoers currently favor Posto 5, the area at the bottom of Rua Vinicius de Moraes (the lifeguard posts demarcate each stretch of beach). This is the local beach for the Hotel Fasano, designed by Philippe Starck and the sister hotel to the family-owned Fasano in Sao Paulo.

Anguilla

The small island of Anguilla has one of the Caribbean's most beautiful collections of beaches, with over 12 miles of clean, soft, deserted sands in secluded coves, broad bays and under coral cliffs. Barnes Beach is one of the most alluring stretches to sink your toes and is a wonderful spot for watching the Caribbean sunset. Still, with 32 others on the island, it's a tough call. The great, glorious Mead's Bay has been named No. 1 on the island by TripAdvisor. Shoal Bay East has the best mix of beach bars and restaurants, while Shoal Bay West is one of the quietest stretches of sand. Little Bay has the best snorkeling, Upper Shoal Bay the whitest sand, and Rendezvous, with its two and a half miles of unbroken sand, is the best for walking.

Horseshoe Bay, Bermuda

With pale coral sand that never gets too hot, chilly water (this is the Atlantic, after all) and rocks and coves to explore, Horseshoe Bay is the most popular beach in Bermuda. Thankfully, it's also large enough to absorb the crowds, even when cruise ship passengers have arrived from the harbor. At the café, you can rent chairs and snorkels, buy lunch or order a rum swizzle; and when you leave, plenty of taxis are available to save you the slog up the hill. But Horseshoe Bay is at its most alluring in the early morning, when—apart from the odd guest from the 590-room Fairmont Southampton hotel coming down for a run—it's still empty.

Long Beach, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

By 10 a.m., the first motorboat taxis are arriving on little Phi Phi Leh, off the larger island of Koh Phi Phi, and by 11 a.m. Maya Beach, in the famous cliff-wrapped cove, is densely lined with taxis, all drawn up on the sand. Anyone who wants to see the setting for The Beach, the movie version of the Alex Garland novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in peace has to be there well before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., when the selfie-snapping hordes have left. In the meantime, the great soft sweep of Long Beach—a 15-minute longboat ride from Koh Phi Phi's village Ton Sai, in turn reached by a 90-minute ferry ride from Phuket or Krabi—is the place to hang out. Not quite Garland's empty Eden, it has beach restaurants set up in the shade of the jungle vegetation and salas where you can get an hour's massage for about $3. But close.

75 Mile Beach, Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia

A massive sandbar created by sand drifting off the mainland, this is the world's largest sand island—75 miles long and 15 miles wide. The island lies south of the Great Barrier Reef's southernmost coral bay. Home to the only rain forest in the world growing on sand—abundant plant life thrives on the island because of nutrient-rich fungi naturally present in the sand—the island also features more than 100 freshwater lakes, mangrove swamps and sand dunes. Only about 200 people live on the island, but it's also home to dingoes, swamp wallabies, gliders, phascogales, bandicoots, potoroos, flying foxes and 350 bird species. It has some the best fishing in Australia and in the right season you can experience up-close viewing of humpback whales. The big thrill, though, is renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle and letting rip on 75 Mile Beach.

Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Little La Digue has the most beautiful beaches in the whole of the Seychelles, but Anse Source d'Argent might be the best of them all. Huge granite boulders with lush vegetation growing between them provide useful shade on this little curve of soft, white sand. From there, step into a shallow, warm, gin-clear ocean that under a cloudless sky is a dazzling turquoise color. Wade out for the best views, and you won't be knee deep in the water before brightly colored tropical fish are darting around your legs. Anse Source d'Argent is at its best early in the day—by 11 a.m. the beach can sometimes fill up with others who have made the 15-minute cycling trip from the jetty—or in the late afternoon.

Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa's coastline runs for more than 1,700 miles, much of it splendid white sand beaches. There are more pristine, more beautiful and less populated beaches in the country than Camps Bay. But it deserves a spot on the list because of its accessibility and its setting—located just a few miles from Cape Town city center, the backdrop is a dramatic mountain range known as the Twelve Apostles. On weekends, the beach is often crowded. Carousing locals pack the restaurants and wine bars that run along the main Camps Bay road. OK, so maybe it's not the quiet stretch of coastline that many burned-out vacationers are seeking—but sometimes, even for those of us who love empty sands, the beach is for partying.

The World's Best Beaches