Life is a beach

| June 30, 2016 | 0 Comments

Your handy travel guide to the top 10 beaches from the Blue Flag program, an ecological certification system that recognizes and promotes cleanliness, safety, environmental awareness and sustainability.

Initiated by the Foundation for Environmental Education and headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Blue Flag program is an ecological certification program that recognizes and promotes high standards of cleanliness, safety, environmental awareness and sustainability for the world’s beaches and marinas.
According to official statistics, 4,154 Blue Flags fly over beaches and marinas in 49 countries on the planet (www.blueflag.global). This fact alone makes it nearly impossible to pick the 10 best, but this list nonetheless attempts to recognize locations that offer something different to discerning travellers.

1. Rodas (Las Islas Cies), Spain

Playa de Rodas has been called the best beach in the world by tourists and travel experts. (Photo: © Jmubalde)

Playa de Rodas has been called the best beach in the world by tourists and travel experts. (Photo: © Jmubalde)

This crescent of sparkling white sand caressing the Atlantic Ocean shines far away from the more ostentatious resorts that have scoured Spain’s Mediterranean shorelines.
Little more than a kilometre long, Playa de Rodas is what geo-morphology calls a tombolo, or a sandspit. More romantic observers have also called it the best beach in the world, as did Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2007.
It is certainly hard to argue. La Playa de Rodas offers many, if not all of the things that attract tourists, environmentally conscious or otherwise.
First, it is relatively inaccessible, for it lies on Monteagudo, the northern island of the Cies Islands, an uninhabited trio of rocks off Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner. In fact, the beach links Monteagudo to the middle island, do Faro. The southern island of San Martino completes this trinity.
Second, Spanish authorities restrict access to just 2,200 visitors a day, a far cry from the hordes that hog the beaches along Spain’s Costa del Sol.
The low number of permitted visitors speaks to the special status of the islands. They have been part of Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park since 2002 and therefore enjoy strict protection from the various plights that have marred commercial beaches elsewhere in the world.
Visitors arrive by ferry, travel on foot and sleep in tents. A couple of basic restaurants constitute civilization during tourist season and only rugged cliffs tower over local beaches, of which Rodas is the prettiest.
Climatically, the Cies Islands vary between the tropics and the North Sea. Their waters shimmer with a turquoise hue, but temperatures can also make swimmers shiver and shriek. This diversity is also evident in other ways.
While the islands are uninhabited during the off-season, they boast a rich history of human settlement that reaches back millenniums. Bronze-age humans have left behind reminders of their existence. So have Celts, Romans and Christian monks.
More recent historic visitors include the Spanish Empire’s bête noire, Sir Francis Drake. El Draque, as Spaniards called the famed Elizabethan privateer, used the islands as a staging base for raids on nearby Vigo.
With its tropical aura and colourful history, it is therefore not surprising to learn that locals refer to the Cies Islands as the “Galician Caribbean.”
But, unlike the real Caribbean, they have managed to remain outside the clutches of modern tourism, a genuine haven at the world’s end.

2. Bora Bora, Polynesia

Bora Bora is called the “pearl of the Pacific.”  (Photo: © Hel080808 | Dreamstime.com)

Bora Bora is called the “pearl of the Pacific.” (Photo: © Hel080808 | Dreamstime.com)

Bora Bora — the Pearl of the Pacific, as the literature describes it — ranks among the most expensive tourism destinations. Part of the French overseas collectivity of French-Polynesia, Bora Bora lies roughly halfway between Australia and the South American continent, far away from any major centres of civilization.
This remote location alone has effectively rendered Bora Bora an exclusive economic zone for the rich and famous.
Perhaps fittingly, this member of the Society Islands archipelago has had a long history of attracting a continuum of celebrities, including the Kardashian clan, whose larger relevance in the course of human affairs continues to evade comprehension. This said, accounts of Bora Bora often frame it as the tropical paradise par excellence and for good reasons.
Its geographical distance has always rendered Bora Bora an object of desire among those who have sought to escape  modern civilization. This cadre of dreamers included legendary German filmmaker F.W. Murneau.
Bora Bora inspires the imagination. Seen from above, it is a delicate composite of shimmering coral reefs that ring shards of land made out of sand and basaltic rock, a reminder that Bora Bora was once a volcano.
It is now the home of 9,500 people and about half of them cling to the largest piece of land that time has left behind, its eponymous main island, a weathered jumble of folds, slopes and crevices covered in green vegetation and dominated by Mount Otemanu.
The water of Bora Bora’s famous lagoon blazes a turquoise blue, but this brightness masks its fragility in light of threats that loom just beyond the horizon. Regular flights connect Bora Bora with Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia, and the single channel through its coral reef is deep enough for cruise ships to anchor. (In a twist, one of the luxury cruise ship lines that regularly calls on Bora Bora bears the name of Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist painter, whose Polynesian motifs made him world-famous. Gauguin was notoriously short on money and likely could not have afforded to travel to modern-day Bora Bora).
All this is to say that Bora Bora has to pay considerable attention to the state of its aquatic environment. Not surprisingly, Bora Bora boasted nine Blue Flag beaches in 2014/2015, spread across the main island and the outlying motus (smaller island), including the island of Toopua, where Hilton Hotels maintains an exclusive resort, including a private island.
While it will take considerable resources to reach Bora Bora and its pristine beaches, they are also precious reminders of what once was.

3. Green Cay Beach, U.S. Virgin Islands

Green Cay Beach on the U.S. Virgin Islands is an oasis of thatched sun huts and hammocks.  (Photo: Tamarind Reef Resort & Spa and Green Cay Marina)

Green Cay Beach on the U.S. Virgin Islands is an oasis of thatched sun huts and hammocks. (Photo: Tamarind Reef Resort & Spa and Green Cay Marina)

If the three main islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands were siblings, St. John and St. Thomas might be sharing the same room, for they lie near each other, in close proximity to the British Virgin Islands. St. Croix, meanwhile, would enjoy separate quarters, for it lies 70 kilometres south of its American siblings and British cousins. Of course, they are not, but their respective geographies have nonetheless shaped them. As Murray Carpenter of The New York Times wrote in 2015 about St. Croix: “It’s a place apart, less touristy, more relaxed and quite a bit bigger than St. John and St. Thomas combined. Best of all, St. Croix still has a variety of large, diverse natural areas to explore.”
Credit belongs to the U.S. government. In what now appears as an astute amount of foresight, the U.S. started to protect parts of the island as far back as the 1940s. High points of these conservation efforts include the creation of the Buck Island Reef National Monument during the administration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and its expansion under the administration of Bill Clinton in 2001.
Located just off St. Croix, Buck Island and its coral reef system support a large variety of native flora and fauna, including several endangered and threatened species such as hawksbill turtles and brown pelicans. Popular with snorkellers from the around the world, the island is also visible from one of the finest beaches in perhaps the entire Caribbean – the Green Cay Beach at Tamarind Reef.
Thatched sun huts and hammocks held up by coconut trees await visitors to the beach, a broad strip of white sand, fringed by a rocky shoreline speckled with natural tidal pools. A small area at the eastern end of the beach serves as an entrance to the water for swimmers.
The beach offers something for people of every disposition. The gentle lapping of the water may invite daydreamers to indulge the silence. More active types might go snorkelling or kayaking.
St. Croix also offers a range of cultural attractions. They include the Christiansted National Historic Site that celebrates St. Croix’s colonial legacy as the former capital of the Danish West Indies. Their history ended in 1917 when the United States purchased St. Croix along with St. Thomas and St. John from Denmark. Perhaps the most famous person with ties to Denmark’s colonial past in the Caribbean was none other than Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the United States and currently the subject of a massively popular Broadway show. And if we are to believe current accounts, it might be easier to get a ticket to St. Croix than to Hamilton.

4. Grandes Playas, Spain

Grandes Playas is accessible, yet visitors can find their own spot along the sizable beach. (Photo: © Tamara Kulikova | Dreamstime.com)

Grandes Playas is accessible, yet visitors can find their own spot along the sizable beach. (Photo: © Tamara Kulikova | Dreamstime.com)

A sweeping, occasionally rough grandeur awaits visitors to the island of Fuerteventura and its Grandes Playas.
The second largest of the Spanish-owned Canary Islands, Fuerteventura lies 120 kilometres off the Moroccan coast. Its latitude of 28 degrees north places the island (along with the rest of the archipelago) in the sub-tropics. The Atlantic and prevailing wind patterns moderate the hot air masses coming off the Sahara Desert in Africa and give the island a warm, but moderate climate.
Since average monthly temperatures range between a maximum of just under 25C and a minimum of just under 17C, the Canaries are often described as the islands of eternal spring. This fact has made Fuerteventura a favourite among tourists and perhaps no location draws more praise than the island’s northeastern corner, where visitors will find the beach of Grandes Playas near the town of
Corralejo.
Grandes Playas is very accessible, yet visitors can easily escape to find their own secluded spot along a beach that is 3,450 metres long and 60 metres wide.
Better yet, it is one of many beaches that dot the nearby shoreline. Visitors can easily lose themselves on the beaches that lie just before the massive sand dunes of the Parque Natural de Corralejo.
While two hotels stand among the beaches south of Corralejo, they appear very lonely among the massive swath of sand that surrounds them, as if they were islands in the midst of an ocean themselves. The real ocean, meanwhile, shimmers in various shades of blue and white as the trade winds sometimes caress, sometimes whip water and sand. The area is ideal for windsurfing, as well as other water-related sports.
The nearby island of Lobos, an uninhabited volcanic rock just to the northeast of the various beaches, provides a visual point of reference and hints at the scenery that awaits — an amalgamation of ocean, sky, sand and volcanic ridges that rise and fall in sharp angles.
This intense environment is popular with hikers and they can get a better view of it by climbing the 300 metres up Montaña Roja (Red Mountain), a one-time volcano. Along the way, they will also have a chance to survey the island’s unique flora and fauna, which have earned it the status of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

5. Las Cuevas Bay, Trinidad and Tobago

An air of secrecy and seclusion pervades Las Cuevas Bay, as it loops around a dense mass of tropical trees, as boldly green as the water is blue. (Photo: © Maria Colthrust | Dreamstime.com)

An air of secrecy and seclusion pervades Las Cuevas Bay, as it loops around a dense mass of tropical trees, as boldly green as the water is blue. (Photo: © Maria Colthrust | Dreamstime.com)

It is hard not to think of Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, when pondering Las Cuevas Bay in Trinidad. An air of secrecy and seclusion pervades on this long, narrow beach, as it loops around a dense mass of tropical trees, as boldly green as the water is blue.
You can practically envision the Black Pearl setting anchor here, loaded with booty and pirates eager to enjoy the fruits of their ill-gotten gains. Of course, much has changed since the real-life inspirations behind Sparrow and his crew plied these waters during the height of Caribbean piracy in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.
Fashions, shall we say, have become less dramatic, and piracy, along with some other despicable social institutions, has disappeared from the Caribbean.
Today, tourism drives the economies of many Caribbean countries. Trinidad, however, is the exception. As The New York Times writes, “Trinidad is not piña colada territory.’’ In short, the often tacky, frequently garish paraphernalia of other Caribbean tourist traps are largely absent from Trinidad. Instead, it features “unspoiled beaches and waterfalls visited by locals,” according to the New York Times.
Las Cuevas Bay belongs to that category. Visitors can reach it from Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, by driving 50 minutes north on a mountainous road that will also take them past Maracas Bay, arguably the most popular destination for tourists to Trinidad, and “as close as Trinidad gets to a commercial beach,” the Times continues. That is to say that Las Cuevas Bay appeals to those who want to escape the crowds and get an immersive local experience. It offers great bathing and small caves along the beach offer even more privacy.
Word, it seems, is getting out. As Trinidad’s Daily Express reports, the beach “has, for the past few years, quietly gained popularity among the eco-crowd,” who come to see and learn more about the endangered marine turtles that nest in the area.

6. Playa Blanca, Costa Rica

Located along Costa Rica’s central Pacific Coast, a short drive away from the seaside of Jaco, Playa Blanca offers 500 metres of clean, white sand. (Photo: © Mary Katherine Wynn | Dreamstime.com)

Located along Costa Rica’s central Pacific Coast, a short drive away from the seaside of Jaco, Playa Blanca offers 500 metres of clean, white sand. (Photo: © Mary Katherine Wynn | Dreamstime.com)

By any measure, Costa Rica is a place of relative prosperity in a region rife with poverty, partly because the country values its natural environment.
With an estimated per-capita GDP of US$15,500 according to the CIA World Factbook, Costa Rica ranks second among Central American countries, behind Panama ($20,900) and ahead of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Their respective per-capita GDPs range between a half and a third of Costa Rica’s.
While Costa Rica has experienced income disparity in recent years, the country’s overall economic performance reflects a fairly diverse economy that relies on tourism as a source of foreign currency.
The country is especially popular among eco-tourists, who value its immense bio-diversity, a product of its tropical latitudes, volcanic geology and climatic influences, courtesy of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Conscious of this important clientele, Costa Rica’s government has pursued some of the most progressive conservation policies anywhere in the world. While Costa Rica recently distanced itself from its previous goal to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2021 — a goal critics considered unrealistic — the country’s environmental policies are nonetheless exemplary.
Its beaches reflect this spirit. In 2002, it adopted the Blue Flag program and Playa Blanca, in the state of Puntarenas, belongs to the trinity of beaches that received the highest marks this year. It, along with the beaches of Matapalo and El Madero, in the state of Guanacaste, received five out of five possible stars.
Located along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, a short drive away from the seaside of Jaco, Playa Blanca offers 500 metres of clean, white sand. A gentle surf allows visitors to pursue a variety of aquatic sports, including snorkelling. Perhaps its most attractive feature, though, is elusiveness. The road to it is not the smoothest, even by local standards, and the entrance to the beach is difficult to find. But once found, paradise awaits.

7. Budva and Ulcinj regiona, Montenegro

The beaches around Budva, such as the Queen of Montenegro, draw much attention. (Photo: © Moreno Novello | Dreamstime.com)

The beaches around Budva, such as the Queen of Montenegro, draw much attention. (Photo: © Moreno Novello | Dreamstime.com)

To borrow a phrase from Sunset Boulevard, Montenegro is ready for its close-up — once again.
When Montenegro was still part of the former Yugoslavia, its communist government invested significant resources into attracting foreign tourists to its Adriatic coast — with considerable success. According to The New York Times, Hollywood icons Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor all vacationed along Montenegro’s northern coast region, centred on the town of Budva.
Foreign tourists largely stayed away from the former Yugoslavia when the end of the Cold War unleashed several civil wars that ravaged the region during the last decade of the 20th Century. The eventual end of hostilities, followed by Montenegro’s peaceful separation from Serbia in 2006, has since revived tourism throughout the region and Montenegro stands to benefit from its many cultural and natural attractions.
They include picturesque towns whose religious and architectural traditions reach back millenniums, sparkling mountain lakes nestled among towering peaks, and of course, beaches of varying types.
Montenegro’s coastline is 294 kilometres long, yet it boasts 18 Blue Flag beaches, or more than six Blue Flag beaches per 100 kilometres of coastline.
The beaches around Budva, such as the Queen of Montenegro, draw most of the attention, but equally attractive are those around the southern coastal city of Ulcinj. Of the 18 Blue Flag beaches, six are in Budva and six in Ulcinj.
By all accounts, the Budva region appeals to more mainstream travellers, partly because the region features the islet of Sveti Stefan, once a fortified village, now an upscale resort connected to the mainland by an isthmus.
Budva also offers a vibrant nightlife that complements its many beaches. Ulcinj, meanwhile, perhaps appeals to more adventurous travellers, partly because of its proximity to Albania, another location off the beaten path that offers distinct travel experiences.
Regardless of personal preferences, both regions offer splendid beaches set against stunning mountain backdrops at affordable rates without the large crowds that characterize other shorelines in the region.
Word, however, is getting out. More than 1.5 million tourists visited Montenegro in 2014, up 1.7 percent from the previous year, and tourism generated 730 million euros. Overall, Montenegro’s ministry of tourism said the country’s annual income from tourism has tripled over the past 10 years. In other words, Montenegro is back in the minds of travellers looking for a different experience.

8. Pomorie, Bulgaria

Pomorie, a Bulgarian seaside town of 14,000, is rooted in antiquity, yet offers modern amenities at affordable prices. (Photo: Boby Dimitrov)

Pomorie, a Bulgarian seaside town of 14,000, is rooted in antiquity, yet offers modern amenities at affordable prices. (Photo: Boby Dimitrov)

Open views of the Black Sea await visitors to Pomorie, a Bulgarian seaside town of 14,000 that is rooted in antiquity, yet offers modern amenities at affordable prices.
Located about halfway up Bulgaria’s Black Sea shore on a peninsula, humans have lived around modern-day Pomorie since the Neolithic Period of 6,000 BC.
Countless empires have fallen and risen around Pomorie since then and all of them likely valued its strategic location, profitable salt mines and warm climate. Pomorie receives up to 11 hours of sunshine per day in the months of July and August, when average temperatures hit 29C, with water temperatures reaching 23C in August. Even during the month of October, the average daily temperature hovers around 20C, with the water three degrees colder.
Not surprisingly, wine grapes grow well in Pomorie, which has developed a reputation for producing fine wines.
Wellness seekers also know Pomorie for its therapeutic muds. In fact, they became so popular during the Roman era that Pomorie became the focus of a religious cult centred around three Nymphs, the  Anhialo Nymphs. (Anhialo was Pomorie’s name until 1934.) This trio of young girls were said to live in the hills that surround the city and protect its therapeutic muds. Whether they ever existed is a matter of speculation, but the therapeutic muds remain and continue to attract visitors.
So does Pomorie’s five-kilometre-long beach. While it directly abuts the city, it is clean and less crowded than many of the other beaches along the Bulgarian Riviera.
Famous Bulgarian resorts, such as Sunny Beach near Nessebar and Golden Sands near Varna (both north of Pomorie), might be more cosmopolitan, but travellers looking for a more relaxed, less boisterous experience that allows them to learn more about Bulgarians will likely find Pomorie more appealing.

9 . Ain Diab (near Casablanca), Morocco

Ain Diab entices with open views of the Mediterranean and its wide beaches. (Photo: Ain Diab)

Ain Diab entices with open views of the Mediterranean and its wide beaches. (Photo: Ain Diab)

This Mediterranean spot offers a rare combination — environmentally conscious travel near a bustling metropolis. Forever associated with a certain Hollywood movie, Casablanca appeals to cosmopolitan tastes thanks to its busy nightlife, culinary diversity and countless architectural attractions. Morocco’s largest city — with a population of 3.5 million — offers what the New York Times calls a “distinctive architectural cocktail” that mixes the modern with the ancient, Islamic with
western traditions in an occasionally rough, but thoroughly romantic manner.
Key highlights of this mix include Casablanca’s city centre, built during the French colonial period. Its buildings combine traditional Moorish motifs with Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Casablanca’s Cathedral, meanwhile, follows a neo-gothic tradition. Undeniably the most impressive building, though, is the Grand Mosque King Hasan II. Its minaret rises 210 metres into the air and it is large enough to hold 25,000 worshippers. Its exterior courtyard and squares can accommodate another 80,000.
Built over a period of seven years and at a cost of more than $500 million, the mosque opened in 1993 and ranks among the most important religious buildings anywhere in the world. But Casablanca’s natural setting is equally impressive and Ain Diab entices with open views of the Mediterranean and its wide beaches.

10. Various, Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic stands as the undisputed king of Caribbean tourism. (Photo: Dreamstime.com)

Dominican Republic stands as the undisputed king of Caribbean tourism. (Photo: Dreamstime.com)

Let us first acknowledge the prevailing cliché about tourism in the Dominican Republic. According to it, the tourism industry consists of semi-insular resorts that slavishly cater to the wishes and whims of middle-class Canadians and Americans looking for a little bit of adult fun under the Caribbean sun.
These complexes, the cliché goes, are nothing less than Cocoons of the Comfortable, where visitors can enjoy dishes, drinks and distractions that rarely depart from what might be available at home, the only substantial difference being the weather. Worse, few bother to venture beyond these fortresses of familiarity to experience a culturally diverse, naturally beautiful country and its friendly people.
As with all clichés, this one is not without basis. The all-inclusive nature of many resorts offers travellers good value and the island is accessible, as seven international airports serve carriers from around the world.
Overall, the Dominican Republic stands as the “undisputed king of Caribbean tourism,” as the region’s most visited country, according to Travel Weekly in 2014.
In 2014, nearly half of the five million people who visited the Dominican Republic were citizens of the United States and Canada, who respectively ranked first and second among foreign visitors. A total of  1.9 million visited from the United States and slightly more than 700,000 came from Canada.
But a look beyond these figures reveals that the Dominican Republic is more than just a boozy playground. With a shoreline of more than 1,600 kilometres, the Dominican Republic boasts 21 Blue Flag beaches, more than any other Caribbean nation. And while many of them are near the major resort sites, others offer more privacy.

Wolfgang Depner is a beach bum trapped inside the ivory tower, whose favourite Canadian song from the late ’70s is Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins.

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Category: Dispatches

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Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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