The twenty best beaches in the UK

Where's best for a bracing clifftop walk? The perfect place for crabbing with the kids? And where might you see Wills and Harry hanging out? Ian McCurrach presents the expert's guide to our most sensational shores

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The Independent Online

Breathtaking cliffs:  Rhossili Beach, South Wales

Situated on the tip of the Gower Peninsula with commanding views across the Bristol Channel and towards Pembrokeshire, Rhossili has spectacular cliffs, burial cairns and mysterious shipwrecks visible at low tide, so there is plenty for the family to see here. There is also plenty to do on the three-mile-long sandy beach that is popular with fisherman, surfers and bathers. The clifftop walks from the National Trust visitor centre to the old coastguard lookout combine activity with marvellous views out to Worms Head. There are plenty of places to eat in the nearby village of Rhossili with views of the beach stretching out into the distance.

How to get there: on the B4247 via the A4118 from Swansea. Further information: The National Trust (01792 390707; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

 

All the fun of the fair: Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire

Along with miles of award-winning beaches, Blackpool has more than 125 rides and shows. The most popular with families is Beaver Creek Children's Theme Park, which provides a safe atmosphere for families. For a white knuckle ride, head for the Pepsi Max Big One. To get away from the centre, head south to Boulevard Beach. Expect breathtaking kite displays and traditional Punch and Judy shows. Deckchairs and donkey rides are available (but don't expect a ride on a Friday – it's the donkeys' day off).

How to get there: off the M55 at J4, follow signs for Promenade. Further Information: Blackpool Tourist Information Centre on Promenade or Visitor Centre (01253 478222; www.visitblackpool.com).

 

In the swim: West Wittering, Sussex

When it comes to award-winning Blue Flag clean beaches, West Wittering and East Head are hard to beat. This stunning sandy beach is totally unspoiled and even during the height of summer when it is crowded, there is an air of peace and quiet. There are abundant flora and fauna to satisfy even the most ardent of nature lovers and there are also large areas designated for barbecues, picnics and games. The gently shelving shore makes for safe, warm bathing and the area has become increasingly popular with kite and wind surfers.

How to get there: turn south at the junction of the A286 with the A27 and follow signs. Further information: West Wittering Beach Tourist Information (01243 514143; www.westwitteringbeach.co.uk).

 

Dunes for dudes: Holkham, Norfolk

The setting for the final scene in the movie Shakespeare in Love, when Gwyneth Paltrow walked across its sands, Holkham is wonderfully romantic, isolated and perfect for sunbathing, picnicking or horse-riding along the shore. Backed by a fringe of pine trees, the beach has breathtaking dunes that form part of England's largest nature reserve. After exploring the dunes, hole up for the night at the award-winning Victoria Hotel (01328 711008), which is only a short walk away.

How to get there: take the B1105 from Fakenham and follow signs. Further information: East of England Tourism (01284 727470; www.visiteastofengland.com).

 

Super surfing: Croyde Bay, Devon

One of the most celebrated surf beaches in the South West, the steep, dramatic waves make this ideal for surfing. There is a surf school and a well-stocked surf shop on the beach and for real thrill-seekers, the Extreme Academy sports school is open throughout the summer offering exciting activities. For those who prefer a slower pace, there is always the inviting beach bar where you can sit back and delight in the magnificent surroundings.

How to get there: take the A361, Barnstaple to Ilfracombe, then the B3231 at Braunton and follow signs. Further information: Ilfracombe Tourist Information Centre (01271 863001).

 

Foodie destination: Torquay, Devon

Torquay and the English Riviera are back. Out go cream teas and kiss-me-quick hats, in come Michelin-stared restaurants and boutique hotels. It's not gone totally chi-chi, mind you; you can still stay in Fawlty Towers-style guesthouses, but Torquay has tidied up its act. Known for its clean white villas and palm-lined promenades, Torquay now boasts two Michelin star restaurants. The Elephant (01803 200044) is a stylish bar-restaurant on the harbourside and Orestone Manor (01803 328098) is a contemporary country-house hotel on the rural outskirts. Another new place to eat with rooms is The English House (01803 328760).

How to get there: take the A380 and follow signs. Further information: The English Riviera (0870 707 0010; www.theenglishriviera.co.uk).

 

Wonderful walking: Holywell Bay, Cornwall

A stone's throw from the popular resort of Newquay, Holywell Bay is the largest bay on the National Trust's stretch of coast to the north-east of St Ives that is renowned for its great walks and surf beaches. The beach is at its best during low tide, when a 70-year-old shipwreck can be seen rising out of the offshore waters. Surfboard hire is also available. Convenient access points and link paths enable visitors to devise a variety of easy routes for wonderful walks around the cliffs.

How to get there: south west on the A3075 from Newquay and follow signs from Cubert.

Further information: The National Trust (01841 540540; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

 

Carry on camping: Three Cliffs Bay, South Wales

Three Cliffs Bay and Caravan Site is known for its spectacular views over the Gower Peninsula. The secluded beach is accessible from the site, although the route down is quite steep and not for vertigo sufferers. The camp site remains quiet even during the height of summer thanks to the fact that the car park isn't that close to the site. But don't let that put you off – the setting is absolutely superb.

How to get there: take the A4118 and follow the signs. Further information: Three Bays Caravan and Camping Site (01792 371218; www.threecliffsbay.com).

 

Gone fishing: Dungeness Beach, Kent

This atmospheric and windswept beach is a great base for trying your hand at a spot of fishing. There was a time when every angler could expect to catch at least a 20 pounder, but due to depletion of stocks, those days are sadly gone. Still, looking on the bright side, most anglers can at least land something reasonably impressive. Bass fishing is also good here in late summer and early autumn, as is flatfish angling, with large numbers of sole, plaice, flounder and dab to be had.

How to get there: take the M2 to Canterbury and follow signs. Further information: Discover Folkestone (01303 258594; www.discoverfolkestone.co.uk).

 

Naked truth: Studland Beach, Dorset

Fine beaches stretch continuously for three miles from South Haven Point to the chalk cliffs of Handfast Point and Old Harry Rocks, and include Shell Bay and a large designated naturist area for those who like to bare all. The heathland behind the beach is a National Nature Reserve, sheltering many rare birds and other forms of wildlife. There are several footpaths, two nature trails and bird hides at Little Sea. There are also plenty of places to stop for lunch or a snack, and designated family barbecue areas for when hunger does eventually arrive.

How to get there: on the B3351, just west of Wareham on the A351. Further information: The National Trust (01929 450259; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

 

Safe swimming: West Kirby, Wirral

Unbeatable for safe bathing, this genuinely unique rural beach has crystal-clear water and masses to do. The views across the Dee towards Snowdonia provide a terrific backdrop to the swimming, and when you've had your fill, try your hand at some sand-sculpting. West Kirby beach is found between Hoylake Beach (a magnet for sand yachters and paragliders) and West Kirby's 52-acre tidal lake (a national watersports venue). It is also the set-off point for Hilbre Island wildlife sanctuary, a paradise for birdwatchers.

How to get there: take the A540 and follow signs. Further information: Birkenhead Tourist Information Centre (0151 647 6780 www.wirral.gov.uk).

 

Rocking rockpools: West Bay, Kent

West Bay and Westgate-on-Sea are connecting sandy beaches with plenty of surrounding rocks for crabbing and discovering what the tide has left behind. The rockpools provide safe family fun for kids as well as the not-so-young-at-heart. Hours of delight are to be had mucking about exploring the crevices and natural inlets. There are also plenty of excellent coastal walks on the nearby cliffs and for those in need of refreshment, there is a café at the end of the beach with superb sea views.

How to get there: take the A299 and follow signs. Further information: Tourism Thanet (01843 292019; www.tourism.thanet.gov.uk).

 

Walk on the wild side: Portstewart Strand, Northern Ireland

Situated between the popular seaside resort of Portstewart and the mouth of the River Bann, the magnificent beach and extensive white dunes of Portstewart Strand stretch for two miles and are a magnet for bathers. The beach is home to rare birds, insects, butterflies and exotic orchids. Fragrant herb-rich grassland has also established itself on the most stable areas behind the beach. There are excellent family facilities, including a children's play area.

How to get there: off the A2, north west of Coleraine. Further information: The National Trust (028 7083 6396; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

 

Sandcastles in the air: Barafundle, Pembrokeshire

If it wasn't for the weather, you could easily believe you were on a beautiful, unspoilt beach in the Caribbean. Voted Britain's most beautiful beach by The Good Holiday Guide for its superlative sands, sea quality, beautiful location and natural environment, this Welsh beauty spot was also selected as the best beach for kids because "the sand is perfect for building sandcastles". Its shoreline is shallow and safe for bathing and the adjacent area, the National Trust's Stackpole Estate, offers breathtaking scenery and walking opportunities. Take a picnic lunch for a great day out.

How to get there: off the B439 between Pembroke and Castlemartin. Further information: The National Trust (01646 661359; www.nationaltrust.org.uk).

 

Spot the celebrity: Rock, Cornwall

Often referred to as Chelsea-on-Sea, Rock is definitely one of the beaches to see and be seen on. The picturesque town and beach is across the Camel estuary from the fishing port of Padstow and boasts a village shop stocked with a superb selection of fine wines and cheeses, giving a clue to the popularity with bright, young city types, and others, including Princes William and Harry. Rock is reputed to be the home of more millionaires than anywhere else in Cornwall. Make sure you pack your rugby shirts and deck shoes to blend in. And dine at one of the only two Michelin-starred restaurants in Cornwall, The Black Pig.

How to get there: take the B3314 towards Wadebridge and follow signs. Further information: Wadebridge Tourist Information (01208 813725; www.wadebridgelive.com).

 

Family fun: Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

With its miles of golden sand, Weston-super-Mare is the perfect representation of the quintessential English seaside town. The resort is an ideal location for fun-packed entertainment: attractions include a historic pier, miniature railway, sea-life centre, amusement arcades, land train and the famous Weston Donkeys. The Victorian-style promenade is wide and flat and there's always a good selection of seafront events throughout the year.

How to get there: off the A370 via Junction 21 off the M5. Further information: Weston-super-Mare Tourist Information Centre (01934 888 800).

 

Coolest ice-cream: Allonby, Cumbria

The five-mile-long crescent-shaped bay at Allonby is a gently sloping sand and shingle beach, which makes it a great place for a safe, if somewhat bracing, swim. You can also pitch up with a football or a Frisbee for an afternoon of fun. The famous local ice-cream, Twentyman's, is a must-have – the banana and toffee is especially good on a hot day.

How to get there: head for Penrith, Junction 4 of the M6, then the A66 to Cockermouth, the A594 to Maryport and the B5300 coastal route. Further information: Silloth-on-Solway Tourist Information Centre (016973 31944; www.gocumbria.co.uk).

 

Adrenalin rush: Hunstanton, Norfolk

The resort provides a vast playground to enjoy a variety of sports, including sailing, water-skiing, windsurfing and kite-surfing. Hunstanton also offers some of the best wind conditions in the country for these popular adrenalin sports, so perhaps it's not surprising that it has hosted events including the World Water Ski Racing Championships in the past.

How to get there: take the A149 coastal road and follow signs. Further information: Hunstanton Tourist Information Centre (01485 532610; www.visitwestnorfolk.com).

 

Enthralling views: Scarista, Western Isles

The view from the beach at Scarista is truly amazing. Situated on South Harris, Scarista is vast, providing an excellent area for all kinds of activities including bucket and spading, crabbing and paddling, not to mention exciting sports such as kite-buggying or windsurfing. A wonderful walk can be had where you may stumble upon some of the sealife – but make sure that you keep a look out for the large groups of various jellyfish that get washed ashore at certain times of year. The waters around the Hebrides are the cleanest in the UK.

How to get there: on the A859, 20 miles south of Tarbert. Further Information: Western Isles Tourist Board (01851 703088; www.visitthehebrides.com).

 

Sensational snorkelling: Great Bay, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly

Great Bay is the most perfect beach in the Scillys. A 20-minute walk from the quay along this narrow island takes you across coastal paths flanked by bright yellow gorse and foxgloves, before dropping down to a double crescent of white sand and turquoise sea. Make sure you bring your mask and snorkel to view the kelp forests and colourful wrasse just off the shore. More often than not, it'll only be you and a couple of seals frolicking in the waters for company. And certainly there are no hot-dog stands or amusement arcades here. The only way to reach it is on foot as there are no cars on this island getaway.

How to get there: on foot from Lower Town or Higher Town quay as there are no cars on the island. Further information: Isles of Scilly Tourist Information Centre (01720 422536; www.simplyscilly.co.uk).

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