SAND SHOE SHUFFLE

What do you wear on your feet at the beach? Our panel with sand between their toes test holiday footwear

Most people claim to like beaches, associating them with holidays and relaxation. But sea, sand and sun offer challenges to skin and clothing alike. Footwear fares worst, especially if it's made of leather. Synthetic shoes and sandals survive better, but pose their own drawbacks in terms of looks and comfort. Another factor is price. You can buy flip-flops for pounds 1, but you'll feel every stone. So what should you buy if you're planning a weekend by the seaside, or a beach holiday abroad?

THE TEST

We went in search of something durable for our test, a shoe that was suitable for all terrains and weather. Though our aim initially was to find six products that were each suitable for men, women and children, this was soon abandoned. Men, we found, do not wear elasticated plimsolls any more than little boys wear flip-flops decorated with beads and glitter. Our main criteria were comfort, cost and resistance to rough treatment.

THE PANEL

Our testers were Justin Silk, outdoor enthusiast; Lyndsay Scott, traveller; Beth and David Jones (aged six and five); and, to comment on health and comfort, chiropodist Uche N'Kabu.

***M&S CANVAS DECK SHOE

Lace-ups, pounds 15 for women, pounds 10 for children; men's slip-ons, pounds 16

These nostalgic canvas shoes reminded our testers of school plimsolls, and were generally admired for style ("not too clumpy, so you can wear them with jeans or dresses" - Lyndsay Scott). They have padded insoles and a leather collar to prevent rubbing, unlike cheaper versions.

David and Beth Jones liked them, but only for a specific purpose: "crabbing on the rocks". It didn't matter when they got wet, because "they dried out quickly". Uche N'Kabu said they were cute, but not supportive enough for long walks. They should definitely be worn with socks - a verdict Justin Silk soon confirmed when his elasticated slip-on dug into his bare skin. This seemed a basic design fault. "Surely the point is to wear them with bare feet?" he complained. What he did like was that they stood up to a thorough machine-wash.

****CLARKS DESERT BOOT

Children pounds 34.99; adults pounds 39.99

This was the wild card in our test, and it fared surprisingly well. Testing our range of beach footwear on British beaches in the chill winds of May, our panel found Clarks classic Desert Boots - designed for walking on sand, after all - perfect protection against the cold, as well as hard pebbles, wet shale and slippery rocks.

Uche N'Kabu voted these her favourites for a holiday in variable weather, since the treated suede uppers, while not waterproof, resist stains from salt water and keep the sun off your feet. The rubber soles are much more flexible than regular boots ("great for walking, too" - Justin Silk) and the style, with convenient minimal lacing for small fingers, appeared to suit both David and Beth Jones. They gave these the ultimate accolade - "very grown up."

Lyndsay Scott wore hers with socks and khaki shorts, and found the outfit "very fetching". If you took these and the Reef Brazils on holiday, you would be covered for all occasions, the panel decided.

****RACING GREEN ESPADRILLE

Available in adult sizes only, pounds 8

Having quickly established that most people need one size bigger than normal in these canvas espadrilles (as Uche N'Kabu predicted, the crocheted toe cap prevents big toes penetrating whole length of the shoe), our adult testers were enthusiastic about them. "Of course the heel gets trodden down," said Lyndsay Scott, "but that's how you're meant to wear them - it's fashionable." There was a general acknowledgement that the canvas upper is soft and comfortable, letting hot feet breathe, while the rope sole is a wonderfully simple, cheap way to absorb sweat. Espadrilles are "one season" footwear ("they rot," said Lyndsay Scott), but the price and attractive bright summer colours made this seem fine. But beware aching arches; once the heels are trodden down, you carry the shoe at every step.

****POCAHONTAS FLIPFLOP

Children's sizes only, pounds 8.95

These bejewelled jellies, made in a flipflop style with glittery spangling soles and an image of the popular Disney character Pocahontas on the toe strap, prompted a big clap of delight from Beth Jones. Declaring them "the most beautiful sandals ever made", she was not easily dissuaded from wearing them all the time - in particular, at school. Sadly, there is no masculine equivalent for boys. Mrs Jones pointed out, however, that children don't usually wear flip-flops because they run around so much. These ones, though, seemed to encourage Beth to behave "like a little princess". Surprisingly, Uche N'Kabu waved their impracticalities aside, saying they were inexpensive, strongly made and had fairytale qualities that parents ought to indulge.

*****REEF BRAZIL

Stompers for children, pounds 14.95; Smoothly for adults, pounds 24.95.

These Californian, all-terrain "convertibles" (transformed from flip- flop to sandal by the attachment of a Velcro strap) were invented by a couple of Chilean surf bums, and are available from watersports outlets and retailers of trendy men's clothing. They proved to be our panel's all-round favourites.

Justin Silk has worn Reef Brazils for years, and vouches for their absolute comfort and suitability for "summer hikes, beach use, and even climbing over rocks" - though "sand does get under the Velcro". The straps keep the sandals on in the water where they "stop the sharp stones hurting your feet" (Beth), or come off to allow for more aeration - essential on beaches in South Africa, apparently, where Lyndsay Scott has worn them in savage temperatures and found them "indestructible".

Uche N'Kabu praised the possibility of adjusting the toe straps so that even people with shallow feet would find them secure. Torn between these and the Desert Boots, she said she would pack these for a holiday in warm climes.

Beth Jones liked her "Velcro shoes" and wore them on and off the beach; her brother put his away, saying unfathomably that he "would like them when I'm older."

***BIRKENSTOCK

Tobago model for adults, pounds 25.95; Barbados for children, pounds 13.95.

Made from a patented synthetic material called "Birko-Flor", these shoes (available both as sandals and flip-flops) were chosen for their health- promoting and water- repellent properties. They have textured soles like the non-slip surface surrounding some swimming pools, moulded into shallow peaks and troughs to mimic the shape of your foot and with a pronounced lip on all edges to prevent sliding.

Lyndsay Scott liked the crunchy feeling of the soles, and David and Beth appreciated the nice, comfy fleece on the inside of the sandals' synthetic straps. They were so enamoured of the Barbados's jazzy looks that they refused to try them out in the sea, fearing "they might float away". They felt confident enough to wear them in the bath, however.

Only Justin Silk, supplied with a "dreary black" pair of Tobagos, complained they were "sandals with no sense of humour" which "felt like flippers". Uche N'Kabu pointed out that water would accumulate in the heel cup when the Birkenstocks got wet, which could cause fissuring of dry heel skin. The position of the straps makes big feet look even bigger. But these were minor criticisms, she felt, when "these are the closest you can get to walking barefoot."

STOCKISTS

Birkenstock 0800 132194; Reef Brazil 01243 673666; Pocahontas from Disney Stores nationwide, or call 01923 220022; Marks & Spencer, stores nationwide; Racing Green, Regent Street, London W1 or mail order 0345 331177; Clarks Desert Boots, stores nationwide. !

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