A blazing sun, waves lapping the shore - can you get much further from the rat race? Nick Hanna picks the world's top beaches

Whether it's driven by the need for vitamin D or the desire for a tan, the beach holiday shows no sign of decreasing in popularity in the 21st century - despite what we are told about the dangers of sunbathing. "Idyllic escape", "perfect paradise" or "total indulgence" are just some of the phrases deployed by brochure writers to tempt us, and the idea of relaxation and freedom conjured up by the feeling of hot sand between your toes and flinging yourself into warm waves exerts a powerful hold on the collective psyche.

Whether it's driven by the need for vitamin D or the desire for a tan, the beach holiday shows no sign of decreasing in popularity in the 21st century - despite what we are told about the dangers of sunbathing. "Idyllic escape", "perfect paradise" or "total indulgence" are just some of the phrases deployed by brochure writers to tempt us, and the idea of relaxation and freedom conjured up by the feeling of hot sand between your toes and flinging yourself into warm waves exerts a powerful hold on the collective psyche.

Beaches have always signified pleasure - except for those who have to work on (or from) them, of course - and there seems to be no stopping the creation of even more sybaritic resorts in tropical locations. At the same time, there are hundreds of wonderful beaches where you can find a little bamboo hut costing just a few pounds a night and live out your own Robinson Crusoe fantasies. The choice is yours.

Despite recent events, Sri Lanka has increased in popularity since the signing of a ceasefire in 2003 between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, putting it back on the tourist map. This enchanting island is ripe for exploration, with wildlife parks, ancient temples and elephant sanctuaries just some of the attractions inland. The beaches to the north of the capital, Colombo, tend to be cater for mainstream tourists, while most of those to the south are geared up more for backpackers. Check the monsoons, which are different for each coast, and the Foreign Office travel advice.

The gorgeous islands of the Maldives have gone from strength to strength recently, and will no doubt continue to do so as word spreads of the wonderful spa resorts and helpful staff. The food has improved hugely, too. Whereas previously pile-'em-high buffets were the staple of many resorts, now sushi or Asia/Pacific fusion cuisine is more likely to be on the menu. The powder-sand beaches and reefs of the Maldivian atolls have also become much easier to reach thanks to new services from top-notch Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Qatar Airways, as well as Air Lanka.

Further to the south, the Seychelles have some of the world's most beautiful beaches. Like the Maldives, the islands have been invaded by designer chic - Paul McCartney and Heather Mills spent their honeymoon last year at the refurbished Frégate Island resort - and standards of service have improved greatly as laws regulating the use of overseas staff have been relaxed. Frégate is just one island which has moved upmarket, along with both Denis Island and Desroches, while the Asian spa group Banyan Tree has opened a property on the main island, Mahe. The exclusive one-resort/one-island hotels come with a hefty price tag, though, and you are pretty much stuck on the island. Mahé and Praslin are better choices if you want to explore away from the beach.

Mozambique is now reaping the benefit of a peace dividend, with tourists trickling back as its protracted civil war fades from memory. It is a beautiful country with a 2,500km-long coastline, which has some of the finest beaches and best diving in Africa. Game parks are slowly being rehabilitated and you can be sure that we will be hearing a lot more about Mozambique over the next year or so.

Neighbouring South Africa is already much further down that road and no self-respecting beach bum can hold his head up unless he's lounged around on one of the hippest urban beaches in the world, Camps Bay in Cape Town. Set in a stunning location, the beach is lined with cosmopolitan cafés, fantastic restaurants, chic bars and colourful market stalls. A perennial favourite, whether you're staying for a few days before setting off to drive the famous Garden Route or relaxing on an après-safari break.

In the Far East, Thailand seems almost unstoppable, becoming more and more popular as a beach destination. The wonderful food and relaxed culture are just two of the attributes that continue to attract beach-goers in their millions. Independent travellers abandoned Phuket to mainstream tourism years ago, and now the same could be said for former backpacker destinations such as Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi (the latter now almost overwhelmed since it was used as the location for the cult movie The Beach). But there are still plenty of fabulous beaches to go round, with lesser-visited islands now opening up, including Ko Chang (near the Cambodian border), Koh Tao (to the north of Koh Samui) and Koh Lanta Yai, Koh Jum and Koh Bubu (all near the Malaysian border in the Andaman Sea).

The island of Penang has long been one of Malaysia's top beach destinations, although discerning visitors have noted for many years that the beaches of Batu Ferringhi are just too close to the port of Penang for anyone to feel safe swimming in the sea (in case you swallowed any). The same cannot be said for the waters around the island of Langkawi, further to the north, which has pristine sandy beaches, first-rate restaurants, and moderately priced hotels. New, twice-weekly direct flights on Malaysian Airlines from Heathrow to Langkawi started in October, so we are likely to be hearing a lot more about the joys of Malaysian seafood on the beach in 2004.

Travel to the Philippines hasn't been easy since the national carrier, Philippines Airlines, stopped direct flights to Europe when it went bankrupt. But those travellers who do manage to get there will find islands such as Boracay have some of the best beaches in the world. Boracay's pristine, vanilla-coloured sands look practically edible as they slope off into the sea on White Beach, while behind the beach a sand track is lined with as cosmopolitan a selection of bars, restaurants and cafés as you could wish to find anywhere. Windsurfing, golf, diving and sailing cute little boats (with names such as Wind Song and Love Song) explain part of Boracay's enduring appeal.

The world's largest archipelago, Indonesia, is an immensely rewarding and culturally rich destination, although, unfortunately, still on the Foreign Office list of "do not visit" countries. Independent travellers still insist on visiting, though, particularly Bali, despite the bombing. But beaches are not really the main point here (unless you are a surfer), and if you are looking for unspoilt sands you would be better heading to the tiny Gili islands off the north-west coast of Lombok, Bali's neighbour. Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air are laid-back little coral islands with great snorkelling and none of the hassle of Kuta, Bali's main resort.

Australia has more great beaches than you can shake a boomerang at and is as famous for its city beaches (such as Manly and Bondi in Sydney) as the major beach resorts (which include Surfer's Paradise) on the Queensland coast. However, the trendiest spot for a beach break if you are on a trip Down Under in 2004 is Byron Bay, 800km north of Sydney and 175km south of Brisbane. This laid-back "alternative" beach resort is full of dreadlocked surfies, greenies, musicians, artists and spiritual healers and has an annual writer's festival as well as a blues and roots festival. Beach, rainforest and local culture are in perfect harmony in this hedonistic heaven.

In the Caribbean, some of the best hotels have undergone a revamp as they attempt to fight off competition from designer chic in the Indian Ocean. The Crane on Barbados, for example, one of the island's oldest beach hotels, has been refurbished so that suites include their own plunge pools, spa baths, four-poster beds and internet facilities. Long-established properties such as Jamaica Inn in Jamaica have added spa facilities, and the famously indulgent Cap Juluca hotel in Anguilla now includes a total "mind, body, spirit" package. New properties include the swanky Carlisle Bay on Antigua and a fabulous new Four Seasons Hotel on Great Exuma in the Bahamas.

Top Ten Exotic beaches

1 Ahungalla Sri Lanka

A stunner. Five kilometres of bliss bordered by a coco-palm plantation. Go beachcombing or swimming. Contact Manos Holidays (08707 530 530; www.manos.co.uk).

2 Benguerra Island Mozambique

A great beach island with amazing sand dunes to explore. Contact The Africa Travel Centre (0845 450 1535; www.africatravel.co.uk).

3 Anse Volbert Praslin, Seychelles

Three kilometres of sandy pleasure sloping into dazzling blue seas. Contact Barefoot Traveller (020-8741 4319; www.barefoot-traveller.com).

4 Chaweng Beach Ko Samui, Thailand

A beautiful beach on a classic Thai island. Contact Kuoni (01306 740500; www.kuoni.co.uk).

5 Mnemba Island Zanzibar

This small island is fringed by the softest, white-coral sand beach and has gorgeous reefs teeming with fish just off shore. Contact Carrier (01625 547092; www.carrier).

6 Hanamaulu Beach Kauai, Hawaii

A million miles from the tackiness of Waikiki Beach, this a lovely place on one of the loveliest Hawaiian islands. Contact Thomson Worldwide (0870 160 7430; www.thomsonworldwide.co.uk).

7 Grand Anse Grenada

The island's most famous beach, Grand Anse, is lapped by crystal waters and perfumed with the smell of spices. Heaven. Contact British Airways Holidays (0870 443 4439; www.baholidays.co.uk).

8 Negril Jamaica

Seven miles of sybaritic indulgence, where rastas, reggae and Red Stripe rule. Brash and busy - the ultimate Jamaica experience. Contact Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson.co.uk).

9 Crane Beach Barbados

This pink-sand beach, cooled by gentle trade winds, is the best on Barbados. Contact Exsus Travel (020-7292 5050; www.exsus.com).

10 Grace Bay Turks and Caicos

Twelve miles of powder-soft sand with fabulous cays to explore. Contact Hayes & Jarvis (0870 898 9890; www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk).