Shhh ... the best beaches are this way

There are still plenty of places to escape the crowds around Europe's coasts. Ian McCurrach suggests some alternative hotspots
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The Independent Travel
1 Costa da Caparica, Portugal

Visiting Lisbon? For some beach action head for the vast expanse of unspoilt golden sand that stretches along the Costa da Caparica, south of the capital. Backed by windswept dunes, the seemingly endless beach attracts all types of Lisboetas; the northern end is favoured by families, the southern is a gay and nudist haven. Follow the picturesque tree-lined lagoon, the Lago de Albufeira, to Praia do Meco, where the coarse-grained sand is pummelled by 6ft-high Atlantic breakers. There are many excellent beach cafés and restaurants here, serving great seafood and snacks. Further south is Sezimbra, a former fishing village with cruises, guided walks and scuba diving. At nearby Setubal are two important nature reserves, the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado and the Parque Natural da Arrabida. Activities include surfing, dolphin-watching, mountain-biking and hiking.

1 Costa da Caparica, Portugal

Visiting Lisbon? For some beach action head for the vast expanse of unspoilt golden sand that stretches along the Costa da Caparica, south of the capital. Backed by windswept dunes, the seemingly endless beach attracts all types of Lisboetas; the northern end is favoured by families, the southern is a gay and nudist haven. Follow the picturesque tree-lined lagoon, the Lago de Albufeira, to Praia do Meco, where the coarse-grained sand is pummelled by 6ft-high Atlantic breakers. There are many excellent beach cafés and restaurants here, serving great seafood and snacks. Further south is Sezimbra, a former fishing village with cruises, guided walks and scuba diving. At nearby Setubal are two important nature reserves, the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado and the Parque Natural da Arrabida. Activities include surfing, dolphin-watching, mountain-biking and hiking.

Portugala (020-8444 1857; www.fportugala.com) offers seven nights' b&b at the historical Pousada Setubal from £565 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow to Lisbon and car hire with unlimited mileage. Contact The Portuguese National Tourist Office (0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com).

2 Les Iles d'Hyères, France

They may be only a short distance from the glitz and glamour of the Riviera but the idyllic Iles d'Hyères seem like they're a million miles away. The islands, in Hyères bay, off the coast of the Giens peninsula, were owned by the monks of Lerins until 1160. Today, the two main islands, Porquerolles and Ile de Port Cros, are privately owned and have been turned into national parks. Expect superb sandy beaches, coves, crystalline creeks, cliffs and lush vegetation. On Porquerolles there are excellent botanical trails as well as good hiking and cycle routes. On Ile de Port Cros there are no cars and no smoking and there's only one tiny village. Don't miss the underwater trail that highlights marine life for swimmers and divers.

Le Mas du Langoustier (00 33 4 94 58 30 09; www.langoustier.com) on Porquerolles is famous for its gourmet cuisine and offers half-board from £116 per person per night, based on two sharing. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from London Gatwick to Toulon from £69. Hertz (0870 848 4848; www.hertz.co.uk), offers one-week's car rental with unlimited mileage in Toulon from £125. Take the ferry between Porquerolles and La Tour Fondue, Hyères (00 33 4 94 58 21 81). Further information from Maison de la France (09068 244 123, calls charged at 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

3 Halki, Greece

Instead of the razzmatazz of Rhodes, why not try the peaceful island of Halki, a few miles west of its noisy neighbour. With just one small fishing village (Emborio), a couple of roads, a handful of cars and a population of 250 people, seclusion is guaranteed. The island's fishing community still goes about its traditional way of life and walnut-skinned old men can be found in the harbourside kafenion (the Greek equivalent of pubs). There are about half a dozen tavernas where you can tuck into freshly caught fish, which is about as lively as the nightlife gets here. Of the beaches, the best is Pondamos, a 10-minute walk from Emborio.

Olympic Holidays (0870 429 4242; www.olympicholidays.com) offers a seven-night self-catering break at the Roulla Studios from £265 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Rhodes and transfers. Further information from the Greek National Tourist Office (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).

4 Gotland, Sweden

Out in the Baltic Sea, about 100 miles south-east of Stockholm, the island of Gotland is a great destination for summer sun. Along with 50 miles of coastline, wonderful scenery, remote beauty spots and unpolluted air, it also offers kayaking, cycling and hiking. Tofta is one of the island's most popular beaches, a long stretch of sand on the west coast, just south of the capital, Visby. Families tend to stake their claims on the northern stretch while youngsters party on the southern section. Visby is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. Ljugarn, on the east coast, was the summer hub for the Stockholm elite in the early 1900s and today is the nearest thing Gotland has to a resort. On one end of the beach is the town, with its popular restaurants and cafés, on the other is Vitvar, one of the island's most picturesque fishing villages.

Scantours (020-7839 2927; www.scantoursuk.com) offers a five-night, six-day break from £835 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow, two nights' b&b in Stockholm, bus and ferry transfers to Gotland, three nights' b&b accommodation in Visby and car hire with unlimited mileage. Further information from the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council (020-7108 6168; www.visit-sweden.com).

5 Brac, Croatia

Forget Caribbean-style sands, Croatian beaches are where it's at this summer. Most of the tiny white-stone beaches are in small coves and the lack of sand keeps the sea clear - the late Jacques Cousteau declared that Croatia is bounded by "one of the cleanest seas on earth", and it is a great place for swimming and snorkelling. Most visitors to Brac whiz off to Zlatni Rat beach in Bol but the cognoscenti seek out the little fishing village of Postira, just a couple of miles from where the ferry lands at Supetar. The Bol-bound people pass by this beautiful village of stonemasons, fishermen and winemakers. The lively waterfront has a couple of cafés and a handful of good restaurants serving fresh seafood. Hole up at the boutique-style Hotel Pastura - zinc, stainless steel, cobalt-blue lighting and billowing muslin drapes - soak up the rays on its small private beach built on the rocks.

Holiday Options (0870 4208372; www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offers a seven-night half-board break at the Hotel Pastura in Postira from £495 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and transfers. Further information from the Croatian National Tourist Office (020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr).

6 Salina, Lipari Islands

Unlike some of the other Mediterranean islands, Salina, the second largest and the greenest in the Aeolian archipelago, has not been spoiled by tourism. Salina's citizens are determined to keep the island exactly as it is. There are only three small villages, the rest of the island being parkland, punctuated by two towering volcanic peaks. The chic place to stay is the Hotel Signum, the cast and crew of Il Postino stayed here while shooting the award-winning film. Or you could try the new Capofaro Malvasia & Resort (00 39 090 984 4330; www.capofaro.it), which offers b&b in a double room from €95 (£64) per person, based on two sharing. You could be mistaken for thinking you are in the South Pacific, such is the vegetation; oleander, jasmine, lemon trees, bougainvillea, palms and pine grow in abundance. Local dishes feature home-grown sweet capers along with freshly caught seafood such as swordfish.

The Magic of Italy (0870 546 2442; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk) offers a seven-night b&b break at the Hotel Signum from £875, including return flights and transfers. Further information from the Italian Tourist Board (00 80000 482542; www.enit.it).

7 Lake Maggiore, Switzerland

When is a beach not by the sea? When it's the exclusive palm-fringed lakeside strip of sand at Hotel Eden Roc, one of Switzerland's two private beaches, on the shore of Lake Maggiore. The area enjoys a balmy Mediterranean microclimate, yet is off the beaten track. The nearby fishing village of Ascona is only two minutes away and is the Swiss St Tropez if you are in need of nightly entertainment. The Alpine views from the hotel are stunning and guests can sail out to the botanical gardens dotted around the lake on the hotel's yacht. The hotel has three restaurants, a well-equipped health club and spa, and offers a range of activities, from watersports to wine tasting.

Hotel Eden Roc (00 41 91 785 71 71; www.edenroc.ch) offers b&b in a double room from £154 per room per night, based on two sharing. Darwin Airline (00 800 1771 7777; www.darwinairline.com) offers flights from London City to Lugano from £74 return. The hotel can arrange private transfers. Further information from the Switzerland Travel Centre (00 800 100 20030; www.MySwitzerland.com).

8 Madeira, Portugal

It may not have sand, but the sub-tropical island of Madeira has plenty of pebbly beaches to explore. Once the preserve of the blue-rinse brigade, the "Floating Garden of the Atlantic" is reinventing itself and attracting younger visitors. The pioneers of this trend are two new boutique hotels in the Design Hotels portfolio - Choupana Hills Resort & Spa, high above the capital Funchal, and Estalgem Da Ponta do Sol, on the cliffs by the village of Ponta do Sol. Families are being lured to the island courtesy of the latest venture from Four Winds Holidays, the team behind family-friendly hotel Woolley Grange in the UK. It has just started running child-friendly facilities at the elegant Jardins do Lago near Funchal.

Four Winds Holidays (01285 648510; www.fourwindsresorts.com) offers a seven-night b&b holiday at Jardins do Lago for the price of six during June, from £815 per adult and £295 per child sharing (children under two go free), including return flights and transfers. Destination Portugal (01993 773269; www.destination-portugal.co.uk) offers seven-nights' b&b at the five-star Choupana Hills Resort & Spa from £771 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and transfers. Further information from the Portuguese National Tourist Office (0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com).

9 Parnu, Estonia

The seaside town of Parnu is the summer capital of Estonia, thanks to its miles of white sandy beaches both in the town itself and at resorts along the coast. June is the ideal time to visit, just as the hot weather is kicking in. Jaaniohtu (Midsummer's Eve) and Jaanipaev (St John's Day), the most important festivals in the Estonian calendar after Christmas, are celebrated on 23 and 24 June. Best of all, Estonia's traditional tourist population of Scandinavians don't tend to visit at this time, so there is plenty of room in this picturesque, popular and well-maintained resort for other visitors.

Baltic Holidays (0870 757 9233; www.balticholidays.com) offers a seven-night coast and city b&b break from £579 per person, including return flights to Tallinn, four nights at the Ammende Villa in Parnu, three nights at the Hotel Maestro in Tallinn and private transfers. Further information from The Estonian National Tourist Office ( www.visitestonia.com).

10 Costa de la Luz, Spain

Spain's best-kept secret is found on the south-west Atlantic coast, though budget flights to nearby Jerez are quickly putting it on the map. Think endless beaches backed by dunes stretching from Tarifa to the Portuguese border and you are halfway there. Don't expect any high rises, just fishing villages, beachside cafes and bars and plenty of breezy but sunny weather. One of the best beaches is El Palmar, a 10-minute drive from the white hill town of Vejer de la Frontera. Further along, both Los Caños de Meca and Zahara de los Atunes are also stunners.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Jerez from £67 in June. Hertz (0870 848 4848; www.hertz.co.uk) offers one week's car rental including unlimited mileage in Jerez from £105. For a stylish stopover, stay at Dar Cilla (00 34 653 467 025; www.darcilla.com) in Tarifa, which offers doubles in the Moorish part of town from €90 (£64) per room per night. Further information from the Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info).

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