While I love the feel of warm sand between my toes and the sound of the sea washing over me, a beach alone isn't enough. My shores have to be fringed with interesting shops, iconic landmarks, and be within easy reach of places that are oozing with character.
Although I love the perfect sun-soaked beach where I can unfurl my towel and lose myself in the murmuring music of the waves and the pages of a good book, I need that proximity to lots of other interesting places I can explore when the time is right to turn a page of my own holiday story.
The Algarve, Portugal
A highlight of the Algarve, for me, are the golden rock formations rising out of the bluest of seas at Ponta da Piedade. These magnificent limestone pillars and arches have been sculpted by the crashing winter seas and they give this coast, just two miles south of Lagos, a distinctive beauty. This wild headland is more cultivated for tourists than it first appears. Boardwalks and steps weave along the cliff tops and down into the hidden sandy grottos, allowing you to take in the views along the coast, or by looking up from below, dwarfed by the towering cliffs.
With a coast as spectacular as this, a boat tour to view the rock formations and secret beaches from a totally different perspective is a must. The locals who work the boats welcome you aboard with a genuine warmth you'll find everywhere on the Algarve, while drifting around the rocky arches and outcrops transports you to a surreal watery world; one you will always remember. A bonus is the delightful café and restaurant by the car park at the cliffs where you can get your breath back over a tasty lunch and refreshing drink.
You don't need to work as hard to enjoy the delights of the intimate Praia de Carvoeiro in the Lagoa region. This small beach is sheltered between two rocky headlands and surrounded by pretty fisherman's cottages, many of which have been transformed into classy little restaurants and lively bars, ideal retreats from the heat of the midday sun. The sands are picture-perfect golden and the sea here isn't tidal, so great for families. It is also a really short stroll from some of the best holiday shopping you'll find anywhere. Carvoeiro's tree-lined boulevards afford a cooling shade while you meander the elegant boutiques and select your fine dining venue for the evening.
There are so many beaches to choose from on the Algarve. For example, Alvor Beach is the longest stretch of sand with a boardwalk taking strollers through the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve with ease, while Praia de Benagil benefits from being close to the iconic Benagil Caves. Being every bit as stunning as its sister beaches, it is buzzing with boat trips taking tourists into the caves, and returning with the thrill of the boats being driven at speed from the sea straight up, high onto the sands - it felt very James Bond!
Being a city girl, I don't like to be too far away from the buzzing hub of civilisation, even on holiday. Málaga, the capital of the Costa del Sol, boasts as many as 20 beaches within easy reach of its city parameter. Playa de La Malagueta, a manmade crescent of yellow sand, is just a 10-minute walk from the lively Promenade of Pablo Ruiz Picasso, which will take you past a host of restaurants, bars, shops and other activities, where you can sample a little Malagueño culture and cuisine as you go.
The 3,000-year-old city port is still evolving today and the Paseo del Muelle Dos, opened in 2011, is a snazzy shopping wonderland and home to Jose Carlos Garcia's restaurant, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the city. If this is too pricey for your holiday budget, there are lots of other eateries to suit all tastes and purses. So much in this beautiful city is free, and the Palmeral de las Sorpresas, or Palm Garden of Surprises is a stunning waterfront promenade with children's playgrounds and activities, endless gardens housing 420 palm trees and 7,400 tropical plants, water features and more. This sleek new addition to the city's attractions is very different from the ancient favourites, such as the Moorish Alcazaba and Gibralfaro Castle with its neighbouring Roman Theatre, but there are few better places to while away the hours as the sun shines or sets.
Just over an hour's drive or bus journey from Málaga is Estepona. This exquisitely pretty town nestles behind a stunning beach with its 2.5 miles of wide sands snaking from the port, past the town and beyond. You will find some of the best fresh fish dishes served in the elegant restaurants and traditional chiringuitos along Estepona's promenade. Often passed over for its glitzier neighbours, you will have a lot more room to spread out on the beaches here, even on the town's main beach, Playa Rada, which backs onto the promenade. The Old Quarter here isn't just a step back in time, it is an explosion of invigorating colour, where the bright white walls of the houses are the perfect canvas for the profusion of coloured planters and cascading blooms which adorn the tiny lanes. The town's plazas are also completely charming places in which to take some time out to enjoy a tasty Spanish tapas treat sitting on a terrace fringed by orange trees.
It was a yearning to visit Spinalonga, an island off Elounda in northeastern Crete, that kicked off one of my best holidays ever. Victoria Hislop's novel, The Island, tells a fictional story of a leper who was sent out to Spinalonga - Europe's last active leper colony from 1903 to 1957. The lepers have gone but I was moved to be following in their footsteps through the houses, shopping street and church - all there, as described in the book. The ferry over to the island takes about 15 minutes from Elounda and costs around €10. The beaches on Elounda are pretty shingle suntraps and not overly populated. Elounda is a busy little town, complete with a picturesque clock tower and some spectacular seafront eateries.
You can't help but love the way multi-generational families come out to dine together, and how the smallest, noisiest members of the group are made so very welcome by the waiters, waitresses and maître d's. I don't think I have ever visited a more child-friendly destination; it was wonderful to see everyone so happy and relaxed as they dined out together.
Crete is a great place for waterborne exploration. If it is a fabulous, sizzling beach you want, then head for the beautiful seafront town of Ierapetra in southeastern Crete - it is an easy place to drive around - and hop on a ferry to Chrissi Island. Just 25 minutes later you will be in an island paradise of just 17 square miles of the best sand and sea you'll see anywhere. The only shade is beneath the grassy parasols by the sun loungers, so take some light cotton cover up clothes, as well as your sun screen. Thankfully, there are small beach shacks selling cooling drinks and snacks. Don't forget that a dip in the azure waters here is a wonderfully refreshing experience.
Back in your rental car, a drive up, and down into the forgotten rural world of the Lassithi Plateau proves a memorable adventure. The area is famed for windmills and Dikteon Andron, the cave where Zeus was born and for which you will need sturdy shoes to tackle the slippery steps. The real pleasure is to take your lunch under the shade of the vines at a tiny café - that serves as the village shop, bar, and community centre - with the local farmers. Communicating largely by using mime, you can spend a couple of fun hours 'talking' with the laid-back and lovely people who live here, grow the food you are eating, brew the wine you are drinking and are openly amused by your fascination with their ancient tractors and farming tools! Did I mention the truly breathtaking views? They come as standard in this destination.
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