WE'RE TALKING SUN, SEA AND SANGRIA, RIGHT?
WE'RE TALKING SUN, SEA AND SANGRIA, RIGHT?
Yes and no. Separated from the Atlantic by the Strait of Gibraltar, from the Red Sea by the Suez Canal and from the Black Sea by the Sea of Marmara, the Med's generous proportions - it is almost 4,000km from end to end - incorporate the Adriatic, Aegean, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas. For beach lovers, though, the most vital statistic is that its coastline spools out over a whopping 46,000km, skirting around 20 countries. The promise of warm weather, good food and cheap flights means the Mediterranean has always been popular with holidaying Brits, particularly on the Spanish side. But while the Costas are still pulling in their share of beach bums, if you want to find quieter stretches of sand, it's as likely to be Pinot Grigio, retsina or even mint tea in your glass these days.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs all fought for control over this strategic body of water, and the modern countries that border the Mediterranean are just as competitive when it comes to promoting the charms of their coastlines.
To be reminded of ancient history while you top up your tan, start in Sicily. Directly below the remains of the ancient Greek city of Selinunte, on the island's south-west coast, is a beach lapped by perfect cobalt water. Nearby is the long sandy beach beneath the pretty but less dramatic archaeological site of Eraclea Minoa. A short walk from the ruins brings you out onto a quiet arc of sand that's ideal for swimming. The obvious gateway to Sicily is Palermo, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted; the easiest way to reach Selinunte is by renting a car (Palermo airport is well on the way to the site). If you'd rather arrange a package, try a specialist operator such as Italiatour (0870 733 3000; www.italiatour.co.uk).
Still more impressive on the ruin front is Patara, south-west of Antalya on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Here you get a wide, 20km sweep of beach backed by ruins that include a Roman amphitheatre and a triumphal arch swathed in sand. The presence of the remains - and nesting loggerhead turtles - means that heavy development has been banned. The huge crescent of soft, dark sand at Pamucak, on Turkey's Aegean coast, is another site that's close to ruins. Only a few kilometres west of Ephesus, it's a good place to cool off after a morning's exploration. Andante Travels runs specialist archaeology tours to Turkey (01722 713800; www.andantetravels.co.uk), but if the beach takes precedence over sightseeing, this is a great time to find cheap, last-minute deals to Turkey. The five main tour operators from the UK to all the leading Mediterranean destinations are Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson-holidays.com), MyTravel (0870 238 7777; www.uk.mytravel.com), First Choice (0870 750 0001; www.firstchoice.co.uk), Thomas Cook (0870 010 0437; www.thomascook.com) and Cosmos (0870 443 5285; www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk).
I JUST WANT TO FEEL THE SAND BETWEEN MY TOES
Corsica, the original destination for British package holiday-makers, has plenty of golden sand. The Rindara and Lozari beaches around Ile Rousse, a red granite islet off the north of the island, are traditional favourites with French sun-worshippers, while the Gulf of Valinco, on the island's south-west coast, boasts some of Corsica's prettiest beaches. Portigliolo is a huge arc of pure white sand, while Campomoro is more old-fashioned and boasts turquoise seas and boats bobbing past in the distance. You know you've arrived in this small fishing village when a whiff of pungent eucalyptus and oleander hits your nostrils. Corsica's most celebrated trio of beaches lie further south; Palombaggia, Santa Giulia and Rondinara all form such spookily perfect crescents that they look like they've washed straight off an Athena poster, though Rondinara can sometimes be spoiled with seaweed and tar.
GB Airways currently flies from Gatwick to Bastia, in the north of the island, on behalf of BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), while specialist package operators such as Holiday Options offer good deals on charter flights and accommodation (0870 420 8366; www.holidayoptions.co.uk).
Malta, which joined the European Union just three months ago, is another option if you're after maximum relaxation for minimum effort - the island's long-standing relationship with Britain means that everyone speaks English. Mellieha Bay and Golden Bay are both traditional bucket-and-spade destinations, as is the pink sand of Ramla Bay on neighbouring Gozo. For more suggestions there's a handy interactive map at www.visitmalta.com. The national carrier, Air Malta (0845 607 3710; www.airmalta.com), flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester. GB Airways flies from Gatwick on behalf of BA, while Excel Airways (0870 998 9898; www.excelairways.com) also has departures from Gatwick and Manchester.
WHAT ABOUT THE COSTAS?
Andalucia's Costa del Sol may be oversubscribed and boast sand that is greyish rather than golden, but there are plenty of other stretches of Spain's Mediterranean coast that are worth exploring.
For a start, the rugged coves and pine-covered hills of the Costa Brava, north of Barcelona, boast beaches with plenty of individual character. At diminutive Aiguablava, for example, development around its pretty bay has been limited to a couple of hotels. The equally picturesque Tamariu, with its pink sand and rocks, is unspoilt, while Sa Riera and Llafranc are busy and boat-filled. The latter was a favoured hang-out of Salvador Dali.
Ryanair flies from Bournemouth, Liverpool, Nottingham, Prestwick or Stansted to Girona. But there are also good package deals around - reports that many of the big operators have pulled out of the region are wrong, and they have good availability on the Costa Brava. Plenty of specialists offer short breaks to the area; for example, Inntravel (01653 617911; www.inntravel.co.uk) has deals focusing on this year's Dali centenary.
AND THE GREEK ISLANDS?
On the Aegean side, Koukounaires, on the island of Skiathos, is reputedly the best beach in Greece and its pine-ringed horseshoe of pale golden sand is certainly idyllic, although its lofty reputation means it can get crowded in summer. Alternatively, take a tip from the entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou and escape the crowds on the tiny island of Renia, 15 miles west of Mykonos. The island's small but beautifully formed beach was once used as a burial place for soldiers who died on nearby Delos but is now inhabited only by sheep. The beach is surrounded by brilliant blue-green water and sits in a natural bay edged with silky soft sand. The catch is that the only way to get there is to charter a fishing boat in Mykonos.
Further south, Santorini's wide black-sand beaches get famously hot, so you'll need to pack a mat if you intend to lie on them. The best are on the island's east coast and include pretty but busy Perissa and the sprawling Perivolos. Manganari on nearby Ios is another good, sandy place to recuperate after a night of partying.
Continuing south, Elafonisi beach at the far south-eastern tip of Crete is justifiably popular - a wide, and relatively wild, expanse of dune-backed white sand with a stretch of clear turquoise water separating it from a small islet. Meanwhile, over in the Ionian sea, one of the most dramatic beaches is the sleek pebble crescent of Porto Katsiki, on Lefkas, which is hugged by vast limestone cliffs. Specialist companies offering packages to Greece include Sunvil (020 8568 4499; www.sunvil.co.uk) and Filoxenia (01422 371796; www.escape-packages.com), though, again, the area is served by the main tour operators.
I WAS THINKING MORE OF THE BALEARICS
More than 1.2 million of us go to Mallorca every year. The largest of the Balearics has dozens of clean, well-managed beaches. You can reach Arenal within 10 minutes of landing at Palma airport, but with a bit more travelling the options improve dramatically. The east coast, studded with coves, is ideal for families, though the north coast has the most attractive beaches - in particular Port de Pollenca, which has a wide stretch of sand and fine views around the bay. All the big tour operators serve Mallorca; a smaller specialist, The Travel Club of Upminster (01708 225 000; www.travelclub.org.uk), has a range of interesting properties close to the island's better beaches.
By comparison, Ibiza's beaches are not so spectacular. For a quirky afternoon's sunbathing listening to jazz oozing from a solitary beach café, there's the teeny cove of Gracioneta just outside San Antonio. For a family day trip, there's strung-out Cala d'Hort in the west of the island, with its dramatic view onto the huge, offshore rock of Es Vedra. Or, if you want pristine pebbles underfoot, clear water to dip into and wooden-tabled fish restaurants a frisbee's throw from your sun lounger, Cala Carbo in the west is the perfect spot.
The neighbouring island of Formentera has such dramatically better beaches, however, that it's worth making the short ferry trip across from Ibiza for the day. Stand on Formentera's Es Arenals, for example, and a pristine sweep of soft, white sand and clear water runs as far as you can see in both directions. Airlines serving Ibiza from the UK include easyJet (0871-7500 100; www.easyjet.com), bmibaby (0870-264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) and GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).
The beaches on Menorca are wilder, more dramatic and much less developed - mainly because so many of them can only be reached either on foot or by boat. Two of the prettiest are Cala Mitjana, a little cove with clear green water and fine white sand, and Cala en Pilar, larger but equally picturesque and with an unusual reddish beach. Airlines serving Menorca from the UK include GB Airways and Monarch Scheduled (0870 040 5040; www.monarch-airlines.com).
I WANT OLD-FASHIONED GLAMOUR
Then hit the Cote d'Azur. The south of France is hard to beat for posing on the sand, especially in its glitzy heart, St Tropez. The best beaches are Tahiti, 4km south-east of the town, and the adjacent Pampelonne, which is backed by vineyards.
Nearby Cannes is equally good-looking but most of the sand is off-limits to those not staying in the Croisette's swish hotels. A better local spot is Paloma beach, near Cap Ferrat, just up the coast from Nice. A tiny beach with a real mix of people, it has a simple restaurant and lovely warm water to dip into. To get to the Cote d'Azur, Nice is the handiest airport. Carriers from the UK include easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com), bmibaby (0870-264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Globespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com).
Another good destination for beach bums who like to make an entrance is Chiaia di Luna on the Italian island of Ponza. From the island's main town, you descend into a large brick tunnel and then emerge, blinking, onto a sweep of cliff-backed beach full of glamorous Italian sunbathers. The best way to get there is to fly to Naples and then zip across the water with Snav (00 39 081 428 5555; www.snav.it) or Caremar (00 39 081 317 2999; www.siremar.it).
WHERE'S BEST FOR SWIMMING?
The coves around Sardinia's Costa Smeralda offer some of the best swimming in the Med, with warm Caribbean-style water and soft, white sand. The best known beach is probably the sweeping Liscia Ruja but it's easy to find quieter spots. If you want soft, bleached white sand, try Pevero. At Isola di Mortorio and Poltu li Cogghi, you clamber over smooth grey boulders to get into the water. Many of the best beaches aren't signposted, so just set off down the coast to find them. If you prefer to travel independently, GB Airways and Meridiana (020-7730 3454; www.meridiana.it) fly from Gatwick to Cagliari; Volare (0800 032 0992; www.volareweb.com) flies from Luton to Cagliari. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) operates from Stansted to Alghero. For packages, try Citalia (020-8686 5533; www.citalia.com).
Greece and France are the traditional destinations for naturists but Croatia's Dalmatian coast is the current hot spot for the FKK ( Freikorperkultur, or "Free Body Culture") brigade. For more specifics, the UK's biggest naturist holiday operator is Peng Travel (0845 345 8345; www.pengtravel.co.uk).
AND IF I WANT TO KEEP MY KIT ON IN CROATIA?
The zlatni rat ("golden cape") beach in Bol, on the island of Brac, is one of the most dramatic in this part of the Med, with a wooded shoreline and great sand (most in Croatia are pebble) - which also, unfortunately, means that it can get quite crowded. For packages try Hidden Croatia (020-7736 6066; www.hiddencroatia.com). This is also the UK reservations contact for Air Adriatic, which flies from Stansted to nearby Split ( www.airadriatic.com).
I DON'T MIND SHARING THE SAND
Then head to Rimini, across the water in Italy. As with other popular Italian beaches, the idea is to squeeze your beach towel in among the many others on to the sand (or pebbles) and spend the day in sociable fashion, splashing in the surf, throwing beach balls at the neighbours or picnicking en masse. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to nearby Forli airport from Stansted.
For the Amalfi coast, Naples is the best gateway; easyJet flies there from Stansted and Gatwick, while British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has services from Gatwick.
WHERE'S FURTHER FROM THE SUN-TANNING CROWDS?
North Africa. Libya has well over 1,000km of coastline and you'll probably have much of it to yourself. However, if you want to enjoy the dramatic scenery and such grandiose off-beach diversions as the Hadrianic baths at Leptis Magna you'll have to be willing to work with strict visa regulations, a tight dress code and a total ban on alcohol. The best approach is probably a guided tour. Operators include Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) and the Adventure Company (0870 794 1009; www.adventurecompany.co.uk). Tunisia's sandy beaches are much more accessible, but you're likely to have a fair number of fellow sun-worshippers to contend with.
WHERE'S THE BEST BEACH TO TOAST THE SUNSET?
If you've got champagne tastes - and a budget to match - head to Club 55 on Pampelonne beach, St Tropez (00 33 494 555 555). Named after the year in which Roger Vadim made And God Created Woman, which put Brigitte Bardot and St Tropez on the map, this is chic and definitely not cheap. If you're more at the other end of the scale, try Ses Salines, on Ibiza. Sit and listen to chill-out music as the sky blazes at one of a collection of bars set along this vast beach in the south of the island.Reuse content