Privacy, tranquility and simplicity characterize these European seaside destinations. You can stay clear of the crowds, the trinket shops and the night clubbers, but still enjoy local life and culture.
To be at the beach is to revel in simplicity: there is sand, sun, and water; anything else is extraneous. The coasts of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic are fringed with an almost overwhelming array of beaches – from tiny coves tucked between dramatic limestone cliffs, to long stretches of powdery sand, strewn here and there with nature’s flotsam. However, many of the most obvious treasures on Europe’s coastlines have unfortunately been spoilt by concrete tower blocks and the accompanying hordes of tourists. If your idea of the ideal beach is a hidden one with hardly anyone on it, read below to discover our destination experts’ top picks for European beaches that combine natural seafronts with just enough infrastructure – found usually in laid-back, traditional seaside towns and villages – to ensure a truly relaxing holiday.
1. Palagruza, Dalmatia, Croatia
Rising from the deep blue Adriatic, the remote rocky islet of Palagruza lies halfway between Croatia and Italy. Measuring just 4,590ft by 985ft, Palagruza’s arid slopes support scanty Mediterranean vegetation, and on its highest point (295ft), the lighthouse, dating from 1875, affords magnificent views over an apparently endless seascape. Through the centuries, many passers-by (who used the island as a reference point when navigating the open sea) were drawn to its glorious isolation. Archaeologists have unearthed fragments of painted ceramic vases and jewellery, dating from the 6th-2nd centuries BC, possibly intended as votive offerings, that were left by the ancient Greeks. Today Palagruza is uninhabited, but for the lighthouse keeper. Its two pristine pebble beaches, Stara Vlaka and Veli Zal, give onto shallow turquoise-blue waters, in total solitude. No one will bother you here.
Stay in Palagruza lighthouse, which has two basic but comfortable self-catering apartments. A four-bed apartment for one week is from £422. On request, local fishermen will deliver freshly caught seafood, but you’ll still need to bring a week’s supply of groceries.
2. Mljet, Dalmatia, Croatia
A green refuge from Dubrovnik’s summer crowds, this undeveloped island offers dense pinewoods and two interconnected saltwater lakes. Contained within Mljet National Park, the emerald-green lakes are perfect for swimming (and normally a few degrees warmer than the open sea) and you can rent kayaks, too. Alternatively, hire a bike and cycle the 7.5-mile perimeter of the Big Lake, hike up to Montokuc (830ft) for fantastic views, and visit the 12th-century Benedictine monastery on an islet on the “Big Lake”. As most visitors to Mljet come on organised day trips from Dubrovnik, once the last excursion boat has left, tranquility reigns. Just a few yachters stay overnight, putting down anchor in sheltered bays, then hopping ashore to eat the local specialty: lobster. French deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau was especially fond of Mljet – you can investigate underwater caves and wrecks with the local aquatic scuba diving club. Stay in Hotel Odisej, the only hotel on the island, offers basic but comfortable three-star accommodation, plus a small spa. Double rooms from £55 per night in June.
3. Anamur-Iskele, Turkey
Relax on this 7.5 mile long coarse sand beach,book-ended by a medieval castle and a Roman city. The benefits of Iskele, the seaside resort companion to the town of Anamur, a mile and half inland, are obvious: there are no all-inclusive complexes, few high rise hotels, little in the way of water sports and even less nightlife. These factors alone mean few foreigners visit. Laid-back Iskele is not empty, however, as its welcoming mix of mainly small, family hotels and pensions just minutes from the gorgeous beach and smattering of simple restaurants make it a haven for Turks. In summer, families head down here from Ankara and other inland cities to laze in the shallows, sunbathe, read, eat, drink and mind their offspring. Stay here and you really do mix with the locals – and pay Turkish, not tourist, prices. Iskele is relaxed, and attracts locals, not thousands of tourists. Stay in the Yan Hotel, a small family-run place with great sea views just a hop away from the beach. Doubles from £33, including breakfast.
4. Koufonisia, Greece
Head to Koufoniss for the sort of sand, sea and sun that recalls the long-forgotten Greece of the Sixties – it’s where Athenians in search of an unpretentious and reasonably priced beach break go. Hidden away between the larger Cycladic islands of Naxos and Amorgos, Koufonisia is made up of two tiny islets, Ano Koufonisi (Upper Koufonisi) and Kato Koufonisi (Lower Koufonisi), which are separated by a 655ft sea channel. While Kato Koufonisi remains uninhabited, Ano Koufonisi, with its whitewashed Cycladic cottages, has a buzzing little community of 366. Locals live mainly from fishing – it is claimed that there are more boats than residents – there are no real roads and hardly any cars, so everyone either walks or cycles. Even the larger island can be circled in a day on the flat coastal path, with little for company other than the endless sea views, and maybe a few goats. On the lovely long beach of Pori, where the sand is satin white and the sea a dazzling turquoise. Facilities come in the form of a beach bar serving cold drinks and snacks – but not much else.
Chora, the harbour town on Ano Koufonissi, is a traditional Greek fishing port with impossibly blue water Photo: AP
Stay in Above the port, Koufonisi’s windmill dates from 1830 and was in use until 1956. Since 2006, it has been available for rent as an apartment sleeping four. It is beautifully furnished with local antiques, and has a private sea-view terrace. From €150 (£119) per night for four people.
5. Paleochora, south-west Crete, Greece
Giving onto the Libyan Sea, on Crete’s southern coast, Paleochora (48 miles south of Hania) is an easygoing seaside village, popular with Greeks in search of an unpretentious summer retreat. Everything is local and family-run: low-key B&Bs, informal tavernas and cafés, plus a much-loved therino (open-air summer cinema). The main beach, Pachia Ammos, is a half-mile curving swathe of sand, dotted with umbrellas and sun-beds, with a naturist area at the far end. Beyond the village are more secluded bathing spots, some nudist-friendly. Peaceful Gialiskari (2.5 miles east) is a pebble beach that was popular with hippies in the Seventies, while Grammeno (three miles west) is a sand-and-pebble beach backed by a grove of cedar trees. There are excursion boats from Paleohora to Elafonissi, and a coastal ferry to Agia Roumeli and Sougia, or you can hike up a rocky gorge to the village of Anydri (three miles) for lunch at an old-fashioned taverna.
Stay in Manto Studios, a welcoming family-run B&B near the main beach (two-person studio, with breakfast, £39 in June).
6. Viveiro, Galicia, Spain
Most of Spain’s best beaches are on the northern coast. Using the small town of Viveiro (population: 16,000) as a base, you could go to a different one every day of your holiday, driving for less than an hour, too. The ideal spot for friends and family to descend upon en masse in the summer months, this is hometown Spain, a far cry from the country’s glitzier resorts. Area beach is a tantalisingly long strip of sand a few miles from Viveiro town and the harbour in Celeiro. Area is totally unspoilt and backed by low dunes with a cluster of vines growing on them. There are two hotels set back from the beach, a couple of dozen houses, a youth hostel and that’s about it.
Most of Spain’s best beaches are on the north coast
Stay in the stylish Ego hotel – most of the 45 rooms have sea views, some with terraces and all with floor-to-ceiling windows. The hotel’s restaurant, Nito, with a smart terrace, is one of the best in the region. Doubles from £71, including breakfast.
7. Cíes Islands, Spain
Known to locals as the “Galician Caribbean” or the “Galician Seychelles”, thanks to its sparkling white-sand beaches, Cíes is an archipelago of three islands in Galicia, north-west Spain. Stretching for more than half a mile between Monteagudo and the Faro islands, Rodas is the longest beach on the archipelago and by far the nicest. Since 2002, the Cíes have been part of the Galician Atlantic Islands National Park, which means that the land and the surrounding sea are highly protected – 86 per cent of the park is underwater. Visitors are limited to 2,200 a day; there are no hotels – only a campsite – and just a couple of basic restaurants. There are not even bikes, let alone cars.
Ría de Vigo, one of the deep inlets of the Galician coast Photo: Alamy
Stay in Pazo los Escudos, a five-star traditional Galician mansion right by the beach, just outside the town centre. It has a spa and outdoor pool, and its 54 rooms are divided between the main building and a stylish new section. Superior rooms have large balconies with views across the Ría de Vigo (doubles from £133, including breakfast).
8. Comporta, Tróia, Portugal
While Portugal is spoilt for beaches in every hue of gold, the white sands which stretch along the coastline by Comporta, 90 minutes south of Lisbon, offer an unrivalled paradise. It’s long been a well-guarded secret by those – from Princess Caroline of Hanover to Christian Louboutin – who summer here in breezy villas. The arrival of Sublime, a sleek, boutique hotel, last year means now there is the perfect bolt hole from which to enjoy it. On Comporta beach, the colours are reminiscent of the Indian Ocean – turquoise waters wash up onto the deserted, sun-bleached sands. You can ride over the dunes through the emerald paddy fields which dot this area – the rice bowl of Portugal – or treat yourself to the freshest of sea bass or sea bream at Comporta Café, which sits on the beach with unblemished views of the diaphanous waters as far as the eye can see.
Stay at Sublime has doubles from £136.
9. San Pantaleo, near the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia
Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda evokes visions of five-star luxury, with every whim catered to, yet paradoxically its famous beaches are mostly primitive affairs, often with the minimum of facilities. If regimented ranks of sunloungers aren’t your thing, the best tip for winkling out the top spots for a bit of beach therapy is to take the smallest road running alongside the coast in order to search out any dirt path running off it seawards. At the end of the track, you’ve a good chance of finding your own beach of beaches. True, not all are so secluded; some are better known and even signposted, such as the trio Romazzino, Spiaggia del Principe and Capriccioli, around three miles south of Porto Cervo, each with white powdery sand, clear water, a scattering of granite boulders and a decent bar. Some of the most seductive accommodation lies inland, for example the Locanda Sant’Andrea, where sybaritic comforts and friendly but efficient service come at a reasonable rate. Located in the mountain village of San Pantaleo, couched among granite peaks, the small hotel is equipped with a shady pool, the ideal venue for relaxing with a glass of vermentino and comparing tans. Stay at Double rooms at Locanda Sant’Andrea from £102.
10. Notre Dame, Porquerolles, France
The island of Porquerolles, off the Giens peninsula south of the Provençal town of Hyères, recalls the way the French Riviera was before it started playing to the crowds. Car-free and little-developed beyond the port-village, Porquerolles devotes itself to vines and olives, scrub and forest and the contention that nature is OK. To the south are cliffs and creeks, to the north fine sand beaches. And the finest of all, because furthest from the village, is Notre Dame. A 40-minute walk, or 20-minute hire-bike ride, puts it beyond the range of many, so the great sweep of sand may be underpopulated, even in August. The slope behind is smokily scented with eucalyptus, pine and herbs. There’s no commerce – not even one building. The sand is between white and gold, depending on the light; the sea so clear that one can see every twiddle of the toes. This is the Med beach of your dreams.
Stay at the village at the three-star Villa Sainte-Anne, half-board doubles from £125.
Written by: Anthony Peregrine, Robert Andrews, Mary Lussiana, Annie Bennett, Jane Foster, Terry Richardson