6 Top Under-the-Radar Beach Destinations
Sometimes we Canadians dream of something faraway and exotic. But sometimes we long for our favourite spot in the southern U.S. or the Caribbean, a place we’re familiar with. Here’s a look at some of my favourite under-the-radar places to catch a little sun, with some insider tips on where to go and what to see.
EXOTIC BEACH DESTINATIONS Bora Bora:
There are few places in the world that conjured up such magical images; brilliant turquoise lagoons, creamy white surf and deep green, jungle-clad mountains rising sharply into a pale blue sky. I’m happy to say Bora Bora, one of the islands of Tahiti, is everything you've dreamed of. And probably more.
Definitely splurge on the overwater bungalows at the oh-so-posh Four Seasons Resort. Also be sure to take some hikes or walks on the island to meet with friendly locals. And don’t miss a snorkelling trip or a Tahitian hula show. TIP: If you can, arrive here in time to catch part of the annual canoe race called Hawaiki Nui Va’a, where teams of incredible athletes race across Tahiti’s waters in outrigger canoes, usually in the fall. It’s absolute pandemonium and might best be described as the Olympics, World Cup and Stanley Cup Playoffs mixed into the waters of the South Pacific. Luckily, without the playoff beards.
Watching the sun come up over the Moai statues at Tongariki is a surreal experience on Easter Island. Jim Byers Photo
This is one of the most isolated islands in the world, and the silence at times is almost palpable. The hiking is tremendous, and you can ride bikes for hours and hardly have to bother with a passing car. It’s more mountainous than I expected, and the main town of Hanga Roa is a funky, low-key gem. Splurge and spend a night or two at the Explora Lodge, where the food and wine is tremendous and the rooms just the right shade of rustic elegance. Of course, the main attraction on what locals call Rapa Nui are the many Moai statues strewn about; centuries-old carvings that no one quite fully understands but that help this place stand apart from just about every destination on the planet.
TIP: Don’t miss the quarry where many of the statues were carved. And don’t miss a chance to watch the sun come up behind the statues near the beach at Tongariki. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Lord Howe Island:
Lord Howe Island is a truly magnificent, quiet retreat off the coast of Australia. Jim Byers Photo
Only the most nerdy of my National Geographic reading friends have heard of this place; a tiny, tiny island stuck partway between Australia and New Zealand. It belongs to the state of New South Wales, but even most Aussies don’t know about the place or haven’t been there. You’ll find a towering set of cliffs at one end of the island that plunge straight down into a deep blue ocean; making the place look like a bigger, blockier version of Tahiti or the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
There also are fine beaches, tremendous hikes and a tiny airport where folks sit at picnic tables while they wait for the next plane to come in. It’s expensive to fly to, and flights can be iffy when the weather isn’t right. But you can find hostels or small inns without spending too much. TIP: If you can manage it, the Capella Lodge is a superb resort with views of the massive basalt cliffs and ocean waters that are simply sensational.
CLOSER-TO-HOME BEACH DESTINATIONS
Easily one of the prettiest cities in the United States. You’ll find similar weather to Los Angeles, but without the Hollywood attitude. Take the 50-cent tram up and down lovely State Street to check out the shops and restaurants, including Bouchon and Olio e Limone. The city’s public market displays great goods from the area, where you can grow darn near anything. You’ll find very good wineries right in town, which means you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving. Take a walk out Stearns Wharf and then hop on the small ferry (called Li’l Toot) and head over to the city’s pretty marina. High-end hotel options include the wonderful Four Seasons, on the beach just south of town. Budget-minded travellers can try the Harbor House or one of the many chain hotels catering to families.
TIP: Don’t miss the lovely Santa Barbara Mission built by Spanish missionaries in 1786. It’s one of the most stately missions in California, with stunning architecture and nice gardens.
The Ferris Wheel at Myrtle Beach has wonderful views of the coast. Jim Byers Photo
Most Canadians think of tacky tourist spots and golf when the words “Myrtle Beach” are uttered. Sure, you can find wax museums and flashing arcades with old-style baseball and bowling games (which I happen to love) and restaurants advertising Warm Beer and Lousy Food. But the city also boasts very good restaurants, including Aspen Grille. The city’s art museum is steps away from the beach and offers beautiful works, sometimes with local themes that feature black culture. Brookgreen Gardens, south of the city, is one of the prettiest and most complete gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. Golfers can test themselves at Tidewater Golf Club or check out the botanical delights and lovely clubhouse at Caledonia Golf and Fish Club. Alternately, you can try the Hawaiian Rumble mini-golf course, where they play an annual World Miniature Golf Championship called The Masters (no, I’m not kidding).
TIP: Take the short drive down to Murrells Inlet, where you’ll find a series of fun restaurants on a long stretch of wharf. Drunken Jack’s is casual and fun, while Wicked Tuna serves up serious sushi and other seafood in a more elegant atmosphere.
The tourism board says they have a beach for every day of the year, which may or may not be the case. I don’t know about that, but I found more than a few sensational stretches of sand during my visit a couple years ago. Valley Church is a marvellous beach with a fun, casual seaside bar called The Nest. Rent a car and explore on your own to take advantage of great views along the coast and to catch glimpses of local life, such as uniformed kids scampering to school or women carrying loads of bananas.
The views from Shirley Heights are some of the best in the Caribbean. You stand high on a hill and gaze down at lovely bays filled with gleaming white yachts and at lush, green mountains in the distance. They do a sunset party every Sunday night, with good food and local musicians. Sugar Ridge has lovely rooms and a terrific spa near but not on the water. You’ll find a fun fish and chips spot across the street called Shells, partly housed in a red, double decker bus from England. If you’re willing to break your piggy bank, try Hermitage Bay, which features truly amazing, treehouse-like units on a hillside above a fabulous beach. TIP: Look for the Fig Tree Gallery, located in a lush rainforest on pretty Fig Tree Drive, the village of Swetes. The art and retail offerings are delightful, and the gardens are a tropical delight.
You can email the author at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @jimbyerstravel. Jim also can be found on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1.