Pirates! Shipwrecks! Robin Hood! Nudists! These beaches aren't your typical sleepy stretches of surf and sand—each one is not only beautiful but also a mini history lesson, with an amazing back story you've never heard!
These days, it seems like everybody has their own list of the world's "most beautiful" beaches. The sheer quantity of sand and sea on this planet makes that an easy list to compile. But after a while, one coastline starts to look like the next. (See: sugary strands, azure water, the gentle sway of palm trees, et al). In fact, it starts to sound—dare we say it—downright mundane. With that in mind, we set out to find destinations with legacies. To pass our test, a beach not only had to have the kind of story you would want to share with your friends, but it also had to be the kind of place where you would want to lay your towel. That's why you'll find places like Malmok Beach in Aruba (site of the largest deliberate shipwreck in the Caribbean) and not the D-day beaches of Normandy, which, while deserving of a visit for its historical value, don't rank high on a sunbather's list. Without further ado—ten places where you can soak up a little culture with those rays.
1. OCRACOKE ISLAND, NORTH CAROLINA
Discover the island where one of the world's most famous pirates was captured.
In the 1700s, this island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina sat in middle of a busy thruway for large trade vessels carrying goods from all over the world. Naturally, with all this booty to be had, the place was swarming with pirates, too. Legendary pirate Edward Teach—a.k.a. Blackbeard—moored at Ocracoke before accepting a pardon and promising to quit the plundering life. But within weeks, he was back at it, so the Virginia governor gave the order for Blackbeard's capture and in 1718, he was finally apprehended on Ocracoke.
Today: Ocracoke has 16 miles of coastline, with pristine beaches ideal for fishing, shell gathering, swimming (some have lifeguards on duty), and lazing about.
Getting There: Unlike other Outer Bank islands, which are connected by bridges, Ocracoke is only accessible by ferry, private plane, or boat. A free 40-minute ferry transfer is available year-round from Hatteras; the ferry that leaves from Swan Quarter requires reservations and takes a little over two and a half hours. ocracokevillage.com.
2. MALMOK BEACH, ARUBA
Site of one of the largest (and most deliberate) shipwrecks in the Caribbean.
In the early years of World War II, the German freighter Antilla—which carried supplies to the submarines patrolling the waters off the coast of Venezuela—was allowed to dock in Aruba. Though Aruba was initially a neutral zone, the island joined the Allies once Germany invaded Holland in 1940 (Aruba was a member of the Dutch Antilles at the time). The Antilla was ordered to surrender. The captain agreed to yield the next morning, but when the police arrived, there was no ship. Turns out the captain had sunk it himself, just off of Malmok Beach, so it wouldn't fall into Allied hands. Today, the 400-foot Antilla is one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean and is home to diverse marine life including giant ruby sponges, coral formations, lobsters, and a variety of tropical fish.
Today: Thanks to the Antilla, Malmok Beach attracts both history buffs and snorkelers and divers, who love exploring the ship's remains in the clear waters. Because the ship sits in only 60 feet of water, divers enjoy a lot of "tank time" at the wreck, though it's so large that you'll need several dives to explore it all. If you're not into diving, take the steps down to Boca Catalina, a secluded bay that's great for swimming.
Getting There: Malmok Beach sits near the northwestern tip of Aruba, on the Caribbean Sea.
3. BELLS BEACH, AUSTRALIA
Home to the world's longest-running surfing competition.
Tempted by its great breaks, local surfers were flocking to this sandy strip along Australia's southern coast as early as 1949, even though access at that time was not so easy. About a decade later, an enterprising young man by the name of Joe took matters into his own hands. He paid 30 pounds ($60) to hire a bulldozer and clear a road from the cliff to the beach. He recouped the costs by charging fellow surfers a pound to use his road and this famous surf spot was officially born. The first Bells Beach Surf Classic—now called the Rip Curl Pro Surf & Music Festival—took place here in 1961.
Today: Currently the longest-running surfing competition in the world, the Rip Curl festival happens here every Easter. Still among the top break spots in the world (and not recommended for novice surfers), Bells Beach was featured in the classic surfing film The Endless Summer and was the setting for the finale of Point Break.
Getting There: Bells Beach is located on Great Ocean Road, about 67 miles southwest of Melbourne. Nearby towns include Torquay and Jan Juc.
4. WINEGLASS BAY, AUSTRALIA
One of the darkest whaling histories in the world.
Located in Tasmania, this beach often shows up on "world's most beautiful" lists, but its past is not so picture-perfect. In the 1820s, whalers descended on the bay, sparking conflict with the native Pydairrerme aboriginal tribe. From their shore bases, the whalers would set off in small boats to chase and harpoon whales. Once they caught one, they'd tow the carcass back to shore, where they'd butcher it and boil the blubber down for oil. (The oil was sent back to England to be used for lighting, and the whalebones for ladies' corsets.) Whenever the whalers were working, all that whale blood would stain the bay dark red—earning it the name Wineglass Bay. Whaling only lasted about 20 years on the peninsula.
Today: Wineglass Bay is part of Freycinet National Park, which takes up most of the Freycinet peninsula on Tasmania's breathtaking east coast. The park is popular for sea kayaking, boating, rock climbing, and bush walking, while the beach attracts travelers from around the world.
Getting There: Wineglass Bay is about two and a half hours by car from the airports at Hobart and Launceston, both of which are serviced by flights from Sydney and Melbourne.
5. CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE, MASSACHUSETTS
America's first oceanfront national park.
This beautiful part of the Massachusetts coast stretches 40 miles from Chatham to Provincetown. Back in the early 1900s, the area was mainly made up of private land and was a favorite with the Kennedy clan, who spent their summers on the Cape. When John F. Kennedy landed in the Senate, he sponsored legislation to make the area a protected national park. In 1961, when he was president, he was able to officially establish the Cape Cod National Seashore, making it the country's first-ever oceanfront national park.
Today: More than 4 million visitors a year enjoy the Seashore's pristine lighthouses, wild cranberry bogs, waterways, biking trails, and six swimming beaches; the latter include Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and quiet Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, which is framed by an 85-foot sand cliff.
Getting There: The National Seashore is just under a two-hour drive from Boston. Most of the national park stops are found along Route 6 between Eastham and Provincetown. nps.gov/caco.
6. WRECK BEACH, VANCOUVER, CANADA
Canada's first legal clothing-optional beach.
Though Vancouver's Pacific Spirit Regional Park features several sandy spots, including Acadia Beach and Tower Beach, the most legendary is the four-mile-long Wreck Beach, Canada's first legal clothing-optional beach and one of the biggest of its kind in the world. Set 542 steps below the park's Trail 6, the secluded area became popular with naturists in the 1960s and '70s. In 1977, the Wreck Beach Preservation Society was formed to help protect this unique haven; over the years, they've successfully rallied against encroaching construction, environmental threats, and privacy and "morality" issues to keep the place fun and—true to their mission—family-friendly.
Today: During the summer, as many as 14,000 weekend visitors may drop by Wreck Beach for some fun in the sun—and not always in the buff. Sticking to the motto of "Nude isn't lewd, but gawking is rude," the dedicated regulars are happy to have sunbathers who choose to stay clothed, but they do take privacy, respect, and courtesy seriously. (Read: no photos.) There are unofficial gay and couples areas, and a Vendors Row where you can pick up everything from sarongs to gourmet eats. Just one word to the wise: Beware the unlicensed hawkers peddling homemade baked goods and not-so-legal substances.
Getting There: Wreck Beach is on the western-most point of Vancouver, near the University of British Columbia campus. The C20 TransLink bus will take you to the Trail 6 sign at the intersection of Northwest Marine Drive and University Boulevard. From there, it's 542 wooden steps down to the beach. wreckbeach.org
7. BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND
The birth of the modern seaside resort.
In England, the concept of the modern "seaside resort" became fashionable in the 1700s as doctors began touting the health benefits of ocean water and the coastal climate. At the time, beach visitors would disrobe in "bathing machines"—small changing rooms on wheels that would get pulled into the water by horses, making it easy for the ill or elderly to step directly into the sea. In Victorian times, women—including Queen Victoria herself—used bathing machines to help protect their modesty, but as the popularity of sunbathing grew in the 1900s, these movable shacks were ditched in favor of stationary huts or tents—typically rentable by the hour, day, or week—that served as a bather's private beach-side base. Bournemouth built the U.K.'s first municipal beach huts in 1909.
Today: Nearly 2,000 beach huts of all shapes and sizes now line the five-and-a-half-mile promenade of popular Bournemouth Beach. About 70 percent are privately owned and the city council operates the rest. Huts typically come equipped with deck chairs, curtains, and a small gas stovetop. From about $50 per day, bournemouthbeachhuts.co.uk.
Getting There: Bournemouth is set on England's picturesque south coast, a little over a 90-minute train ride from London's Waterloo Station. bournemouth.co.uk.
8. ROBIN HOOD'S BAY, ENGLAND
Known for a smuggler network so extensive it included the clergy.
There's evidence of a settlement here as far back as 3,000 years ago, but this village on England's Yorkshire Coast is most famous for being a smuggler's haven in the 1700s. Protected by marshy moorland on three sides, the bay served as an epicenter for the tax-free smuggling of contraband like tea, silk, gin, and tobacco traveling via ship from places like France and the Netherlands. So big was the operation that it's said that fishermen, farmers, the gentry, and even the clergy were involved. During struggles between the smugglers and tax men, bay wives would pour boiling water out of the windows of the houses onto law enforcement. There were so many secret passages that a smuggled bale of silk could supposedly travel from the bottom to the top of the village without leaving the houses.
Today: Popular for its family-friendly beaches, rock pools, and surrounding national parks, this charming village offers plenty of pubs, tearooms, and cafes for post-beach dining. Fossil hunters may also luck out by finding a souvenir or two along the marshes.
Getting There: Regular train service runs from London to York; change there for a train to Scarborough, from where bus service is available to the bay. Ferries also run daily from Rotterdam to Hull, one hour away. robin-hoods-bay.co.uk.
9. CAPRI, ITALY
Where the ancients partied.
When the ancient Romans went on vacation, they went all out, embarking on grand tours of important sites—including Greece and Egypt—that could last up to five years. The journeys would often start close to home, with a first stop at the seaside resorts along the Bay of Naples. For several hundred years, Rome's super rich would vacation in Baiae, a fashionable town with medicinal hot springs, beautiful villas (including those of Julius Caesar and Nero), and hedonistic parties.
Today: Though Baiae was deserted by 1500 (its ruins now lie under the Bay of Naples), a modern-day equivalent would be Capri, the see-and-be-seen island in the bay. Still a playground for the jet set, Capri's beaches are mainly rocky, but popular nonetheless. The lovely beach at Bagni di Tiberio, near the island's fishing district, was once the site of Emperor Tiberius's seaside palace.
Getting There: There is regular ferry and hydrofoil service between Naples and Capri; the ride is between 40 to 80 minutes. capri.net.
10. ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS
One of the first beach destinations for cruiser ships.
Though ocean liners were transporting travelers and cargo across the Atlantic since the mid-1800s, it wasn't until 1900 that a ship was built for leisure cruises as we know them today. The luxury ship Prinzessin Victoria Luise was constructed for the Hamburg America Line and included 120 first-class staterooms, a gym, and even a darkroom for amateur photographers. On January 26, 1901, the ship departed New York for its first official cruise, which included a stop on St. Thomas. It continued to sail though the Caribbean and Mediterranean for nearly five years, until it accidentally ran ashore in Jamaica in 1906.
Today: St. Thomas is one of the busiest cruise-ship ports in the world; in high season, up to 10 ships a day might dock at its various terminals. Aside from duty-free shopping, visiting the beaches is one of the top activities for cruisers, and popular choices include Magens Bay on the north side and Lindbergh Bay's Emerald Beach on the south. To experience a bit of what those original cruise passengers did, though, head to the pristine beach on car-less Water Island.
Getting There: Water Island is about half a mile from St. Thomas and linked by regular ferry service from Crown Bay Marina, a short walk from the Crown Bay cruise-ship dock. visitusvi.com.