In 1419, when Portuguese seafarers happened on an uninhabited island in the North Atlantic, around 500 miles off the African coast, they were awed by the dense covering of greenery. Even today, after 600 years of human encroachment, their amazement is easy to understand. The variety of flora is astounding: groves of local mahogany, bushy stands of indigenous lily of the valley, and a laurel forest, the largest surviving relic of the vegetation that covered much of southern Europe at least 15 million years ago. Those first men who arrived on the island called it Madeira—the Portuguese word for wood.
But those 15th-century sailors were perhaps indifferent to what struck me most forcibly when I first visited this summer: the insistent presence of the ocean. Madeira—the largest island in an archipelago of the same name—is so steep that even inland, when I walked through a vineyard or dined on a hillside, bright water framed the view.
In the capital city, Funchal, on the southern coast, hotels and restaurants take full advantage of a vista that never gets boring. But at ground level, strolling along sidewalks decorated with traditional cream-and-black mosaics, I was still distracted by gaps between buildings that offered shifting glints of blue. The Atlantic affects the climate, the wildlife, and the food. Those sailors, I thought, should have called their discovery mar—the sea.
My interest in this place pre-dates my realization that it was a place. My father used to sing a sly English music-hall ditty, “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” so when I grew older, it was the wine I wanted to try. Still, it turns out that there is no better location than Madeira in which to drink Madeira. The wine and the place are as intertwined as their common name suggests.
Every boat trip, swim, and breathtaking mountaintop walk, as I inhaled salt and admired the azure tint of the waves, reminded me that the Atlantic has shaped this wine’s existence. And the wine, the principal export of Madeira for more than 400 years, has profoundly changed its homeland’s destiny. As our hiking guide, Otilia “Tilly” Câmara, put it, “Madeira was born from the sea.”
We were high in the hills at the time: Câmara was leading us on a glorious hike along one of the levadas, the man-made irrigation channels that direct water from the forested mountains in the north and west to the dry southern slopes. It was so peaceful, walking alongside this small, orderly stream, framed by walnut, apple, and pear trees. We passed an older woman in a headscarf, who carried a pail of leaves to use as mulch, and felt terribly remote until we realized the closest village was just two minutes’ walk away.
For centuries, right up until the advent of air travel, almost everyone stopped in Madeira. Columbus briefly lived on the island. Captain Cook paused for supplies, sailed on to Rio de Janeiro and Tierra del Fuego, and wound up planting a British flag in eastern Australia. On the way to America and the West Indies, traders and explorers bought barrels of Madeira wine and discovered that it doesn’t just survive an ocean voyage: it improves. The acidity endures, the nutty, caramel flavors deepen. In an era when wine that traveled usually arrived as vinegar, this was incredible. And Madeirans grew rich on their wine’s resilience.
At Blandy’s Wine Lodge, part of a 16th-century Franciscan monastery that takes up an entire block near the Funchal waterfront, my husband, Craig, and I walked through beamed rooms, their wood dark with age, where the wine matures in barrels so old that Blandy’s employs four in-house coopers to handle the ongoing repairs. Past a small museum and a stately row of giant wooden vats, we arrived at a tasting room.
“We have nearly four million liters of Madeira wine aging here,” explained Chris Blandy, CEO of his family’s business. He casually opened a 2002 Sercial, made from one of the five Madeira grape varieties. It wasn’t sweet, although there were toffee and stewed-apple flavors, as well as a lemony acidity. It also wasn’t old. Unlike other wines, Madeira lasts almost indefinitely. There are surviving Madeiras—rich, bittersweet, utterly drinkable—that were made around the time John Blandy arrived from England to found the winery that still bears his name. And that was in 1811.
Perhaps I was sentimental, but the whole of Madeira seemed to have a versatility, a willingness to consider different ways of doing things, that might be a legacy of the inhabitants’ historic reliance on visitors. There were the venerable and modern styles of wine; hotels like Quinta da Casa Branca built in repurposed quintas, or manor houses, and ultra-contemporary resorts like Les Suites at the Cliff Bay.
At Casa de Pasto das Eiras, an unprepossessing shed in the hills east of Funchal, I tried espetadas, skewers of tender beef grilled on an open fire, then hung on metal hooks at each plate. This was quite the contrast with the modern dishes at Kampo, a seriously hip Funchal restaurant with an open kitchen and a poured-concrete bar. We ate sophisticated versions of Portuguese specialties such as a savory bola de Berlim doughnut, which is usually sweet but is here filled with chorizo and mushroom and topped with powdered sugar.
From the city, we glided by cable car into the hills, above terraces of the tiny, sweet local bananas, above flights of precipitous stairs leading to whitewashed, orange-roofed houses, whose residents must have excellent thigh muscles from all that climbing. At Pátio das Babosas, an airy hilltop restaurant, we stopped for lunch—grilled local tuna with milho frito, cubes of cornmeal fried with herbs; lapas, chewy, tasty limpets served in their frill-edged shells with butter, garlic, and a cascade of lemon—and gazed out over the slopes. It was distinctly cooler up there: clouds cluster around these mountains, then condense into rain that is channeled elsewhere via the levadas.
It was in these hills that the rich built their summer homes. One such residence is Monte Palace Madeira, an imposing estate constructed for an 18th-century consul and now home to over 750,000 square feet of botanical gardens filled with native and imported plants. Gorgeously decorated Portuguese tiles, some 500 years old, seem to be pasted, rather disconcertingly, to the foliage.
We skittered down paths lined with tangled greenery and giant ferns; what looked like fat, half-buried palm trees were actually cycads, the world’s most ancient seed-plant family, which first appears in the fossil record around 280 million years ago. In front of that grand building, a stepped cascade drew the eye down to a fish-filled lake and on to the distant ocean.
A cable car seemed like a luxury when it came time to descend to the sunny lowlands by way of an only-in-Madeira sledge car. Two men wearing straw boaters and thick-soled shoes ushered Craig and me into an upholstered wicker basket. Why the thick soles? I wondered, as each attendant grabbed a rope attached to our conveyance and ran ahead down a sharply sloping road that had been worn glass-smooth from previous journeys. As we picked up speed, the two jumped on the back like old-fashioned footmen, and I got my answer: those shoes were our only brakes.
There was no dedicated path: cars had to stop for us, but there were few. The basket—originally used to transport goods downhill—swiveled this way and that, breath-catchingly close to the roadside ditch. It was as exhilarating as a fairground ride, and a lot more immediate. I don’t mind admitting that I hollered.
Recovery was swift. We padded through the beautiful grounds of our hotel, Quinta da Casa Branca. The gardens were amazing: Australian macadamia trees, cinnamon trees from Sri Lanka with their perfumed bark, the purple blossoms of the wonderfully named silver-leafed princess flower. On the broad stone terrace, as the setting sun briefly grazed the mountaintops, we sat down to herb-crusted lamb with local couscous.
We sipped not the famous, fortified Madeiran wine but a deep-pink rosé, made from Tinta Negra Mole and Aragonez grapes, which, as we would see firsthand the following day at winery Quinta do Barbusano, grow on abrupt hills overlooked by a lonely belfry—a church with no church—and cooled by the ever-present sea.
The island was startlingly lovely: so green and sheer it resembled a vertical garden, trees alternating with terraces of bananas or vines. As we drove around the island, the sun would shut off every so often as the car ducked into a tunnel.
“We are like a Swiss cheese, full of holes!” our driver said cheerily.
The sky varied from cerulean to deep gray, depending on where we were, but the steep inclines and bright-purple African lilies that lined the roads like cheering crowds ensured that, even when it was cloudy, the scenery was never dull. One morning, atop Pico do Arieiro, the island’s third-highest peak, we watched the sun break through a glowing white haze just below us. The early start and short, cold walk in the dark, draped in blankets and clutching a thermos of coffee, were more than worth it to have the mountain seemingly to ourselves.
How those tunnels through the hills, built around 30 years ago, transformed the island! Journeys that would once have taken forever are now swift: little more than an hour to cross nearly the whole of Madeira’s 35-mile length, from eastern Machico to tiny Paúl do Mar in the west, where you can sometimes see the legendary green flash, a rare ray of emerald that appears on the horizon just before the sun sets.
Though travel time was minimal, those short commutes gave us a crucial window to sightsee and revive our appetites between meals. Which was vital when lunch at the hilltop Quinta do Barbusano was espetadas prepared by owner Tito Brazão and dinner was multiple courses at Galáxia Skyfood on the 16th floor of the Savoy Palace, a gleaming hotel that opened in 2019. The food played skillfully with Madeiran tradition. The panelo, a traditional banquet of stewed pork and sweet potatoes, had been reinvented as a taco; dessert was a banana poached in rum and accessorized, cheekily, with a communion wafer.
In the interim, we walked Funchal—past Mercado dos Lavradores, a buzzing Art Deco market, to the ocher São Tiago fortress, with a stop at a newly restored chapel dedicated by fishermen to their patron saint, Pedro Gonçalves Telmo. Did he protect his worshippers? I hope so. In the 16th century, they covered the ceiling in paintings to honor him.
This humble building was a stark contrast to the imposing Funchal Cathedral, built from dark-red volcanic rock that had been dragged down the coast from Cabo Girão, the island’s highest sea cliff. It’s a stunning profusion of tile, marble, paint, and gold leaf; not an inch of its interior is undecorated. Begun in the 1490s, it radiates the wealth and pride of an island that was the greatest sugar producer in the world—at least until the Portuguese realized that the cane used to produce their “white gold” would grow much better in their newest colonial outpost, Brazil. This economic disaster forced Madeira to refocus on wine, leaving just enough sugarcane to make agricultural rum, the basis of a weapons-grade drink called poncha.
The best places to brave this concoction are the tiny drinking dens that crowd the narrow streets of Câmara de Lobos, a fishing village. In Bar Number Two, there’s barely room to stand at the counter, but it’s worth doing to see owner Elmano Reis pound rum with sugarcane honey and juice from giant local lemons, the muscle in his forearm jumping in rhythm as he thumped and twirled the mexilhote, or wooden baton. His measures would have quenched the thirst of a desert wanderer, if this had been water—which, at 100 proof, it certainly wasn’t. The taste was dangerously pleasant. “We drink this in winter when we have a cold,” my guide, Célia Mendonça, said. Certainly honey and lemon is a universal remedy, but I wondered whether this potion cured sufferers or finished them off entirely.
Drinks in hand, we edged out the back door into dazzling sunshine. Patrons of neighboring bars relaxed at tables and fishing boats bobbed in front of us. No wonder that when Winston Churchill visited the island, he went there to paint. He stayed at Reid’s Palace, an enormous pink hotel on a cliff, designed with its most magnificent side facing the sea. Now managed by Belmond, the property was built in 1891 to bedazzle the wealthy foreigners who, until the 1960s, all arrived by ship—and were then carried to the hotel in hammocks.
This service has long since been discontinued, but Reid’s, with its grand pianos and chandeliers, its cream tea on the elegant checkered balcony looking out through lush tropical gardens toward the water, is still a bastion of historic gentility. Churchill must surely have felt at home; George Bernard Shaw, being Irish, possibly less so, although he did take tango lessons. (“Shaw Admits Learning the Tango at Madeira, but Has Neither Time nor Youth for It Now” ran a New York Times headline in 1926.)
We took a look at the other end of the rum-making process, too, at Engenhos do Norte, the only producer still using steam power to press and distill the sugarcane, in a vast shed full of copper containers and 19th-century machinery. The metal was all painted bright blue, the same color as the dye used to mark the patterns on the material in another traditional island industry, embroidery. Perhaps it was a coincidence. Or perhaps, Madeirans working indoors, whether on gargantuan machines or on delicate stitching in the Bordal embroidery workshop, crave a reminder that the sea is just outside.
“Hello gorgeous!” whispered Margarida Sousa, as the first dolphin glided alongside our motorboat. We had already marveled at a glossy dark arc that Sousa, who studied marine biology, informed us was the back of a Bryde’s whale, probably around 40 feet long. Tracking the animals is forbidden, so two people on separate cliffs scanned the water and called to inform the skipper where to head. “If the phone rings a lot, it’s a good sign!” she explained.
The phone rang a lot. When the dolphins flanked us, we slid into the water, dangling from ropes to minimize splashing. I dipped my head into a quiet turquoise world where the beaked inhabitants seemed to smile encouragingly, their eyes outlined in black, Cleopatra-style. A mother nuzzled her baby; their playmates, black and white with a patch of yellow, dipped and rose. We wore masks but no snorkels, and I was so absorbed that remembering to breathe became a nuisance.
After reluctantly returning to shore, we spent the afternoon at Fajã dos Padres, an organic farm with a simple waterside restaurant below the towering Cabo Girão. We took comfort in a lovely lunch—black scabbard fish, a local specialty; lapas harvested on the rocks outside; and vegetables from owner Catarina Vilhena Correia’s garden. We had already tried one highly unusual product of this place: a deliciously citrusy 1993 Frasqueira, a single-vintage Madeira that must be aged for at least 20 years. This version was made from an ancient variety of the Malvasia grape, thought lost until a vine was spotted on Correia’s property.
The next day we drove to Porto Moniz, on the island’s northwestern tip, where torrents of seawater poured thrillingly into pools hollowed out of the black volcanic rock. The water was cool but the view spectacular, cliffs rearing on each side, moss spilling over them like lava flow—and, of course, the ocean just beyond.
It flows through all my memories of this trip, from the walks to the extraordinary wine that wouldn’t exist without it. That wine was all I took home with me, which at least means that, anytime I like, I can pour a glass of chilled Madeira, a drink as fond of travel as I am and even more shaped by it, and briefly be transported, via those distinctive flavors, back to that sunny island and its sustaining sea.
Making the Most of Madeira
Where to Stay
Where to Eat and Drink
Bar Number Two: Grab a glass of poncha at Câmara de Lobos’s most charming drinking den.
Fajã dos Padres: This organic farm in Quinta Grande has excellent local food and wine. Entrées $13–$47.
Galáxia Skyfood: At this restaurant in the Savoy Palace Hotel, disco-lite décor belies a sophisticated menu. Entrées $19–$49.
Kampo: Find surprising, seasonal fare at Madeira’s most innovative restaurant. Entrées $16–$55.
Pátio das Babosas: Visit this mountainside spot for stellar seafood and views of Funchal. 16 Largo das Babosas; 351-291-143-530; entrées $8–$24.
What to Do
Blandy’s Wine Lodge: On the Funchal waterfront, Blandy’s is one of the isle’s most storied Madeira houses.
Bordal: A look at this Funchal factory’s intricate embroidery, a Madeira tradition, is not to bemissed.
Engenhos do Norte: This rum distillery is a last vestige of Madeira’s once dominant sugarcane industry.
How to Book
Tempo VIP: Deep connections across the island make this company the one to call for tour bookings.
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline The Big Blue.
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Whether your beach vacation involves clamming, flying kites, or just sitting on your bum in the sun, we’ve found the best beach destinations in the U.S. for you.
TravelAwaits readers voted in our Best of Travel Awards to help us determine everything from the friendliest small towns to the best national parks. Our readers have spoken. Here are the best beaches to visit in the U.S.
Winner: Siesta Key Beach
It’s not surprising that one of the best beaches in Florida according to U.S. News & World Report received the most votes for best beach in our Best of Travel Awards. Siesta Key is a barrier island, situated on the west coast of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. Minutes from Sarasota and Bradenton, this gorgeous eight-mile-long island getaway offers pristine beaches, plentiful outdoor attractions, great dining options, and fun for the entire family.
Finalist: Black’s Beach
San Diego, California
This hidden gem is tucked beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in La Jolla. Known as “the jewel” of San Diego, La Jolla is one of the seven most romantic Southern California destinations for mature couples. Black’s Beach fits right in because this secluded spot is clothing-optional. In addition to birthday suits, Black’s Beach offers stunning coastline scenery and sexy surfers who are drawn to its infamous surf break. Ho Chi Minh Trail, which leads down to the sand, can be quite treacherous, so be sure to wear proper shoes and be prepared for the challenge.
Finalist: Hilton Head Island Beach
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Located along the coast in the southern portion of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island is a couple of hours away from Charleston and only 35 miles from Savannah, Georgia. Covering 69 square miles, its 12 miles of uninterrupted beachfront are expansive, with soft sand and warm water.
Spend the day fishing, dolphin-watching, kayaking, surfing, sailing, or waterskiing. You may even run into a mermaid (thanks to the Mermaid of Hilton Head boat tours and mermaid experiences, that is)! Bike to the beach and around the island’s 60-plus miles of paved trails.
In no particular order, here are the rest of our reader’s top picks for the best beaches in the U.S.
Anna Maria Island Public Beach
Anna Maria Island, Florida
A Gulf-side slice of serendipity, this barrier island is about 45 minutes outside of Sarasota. Resisting corporate development has preserved this quaint beach town’s idyllic feel of old Florida. In addition to stunning white-sand beaches, Anna Maria Island is famous for its beachside horseback riding.
Double Bluff Beach
Freeland’s largest waterfront park, Double Bluff Beach is located on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. In addition to 24,354 feet of sandy beach, it features a picnic area, an off-leash dog area, and restrooms. Wide at the access point, the beach narrows to the west, where it gets rockier with cobbles and large boulders.
The eponymous bluffs are actually on private property, but you want to steer clear either way as landslides along the cliffs are common. Beachcomb, swim, clam, watch kiteboarders (when it’s windy), and take in stunning views of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Mountains in the distance.
Gulf Shores Public Beach
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Alabama’s Gulf Coast area features 32 miles of pristine, soft, white beaches near Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Unlike other waterfront Spring Break destinations, this beach is family-friendly. In case you need more reasons to visit Gulf Shores, the local food scene is to die for, and there are tons of outdoor activities. It’s also a great place for camping in an RV.
Lincoln City Beach
Lincoln City, Oregon
This charming small town offers seven miles of soft, sandy beach, which is more than any other Oregon coastal town can boast. This and the rest of the state’s 363 miles of coastline are all public. Lincoln City Beach may not be warm enough for a swim, but there’s plenty of other stuff to do. Whale watching, seeing the sun set, surfing, flying a kite, and roasting marshmallows over a bonfire are all popular activities. Search for agates, shells, and Japanese fishing floats on the beach and discover sea creatures amongst the tide pools. Lincoln City Beach also hosts several annual events, including not one but two kite festivals!
Walton County, Florida
Idyllic sugar sand beaches are just one of the reasons to make Rosemary Beach, Florida your next getaway. Like many Floridian beaches, the luxuriously soft sand is made up of quartz. Explore the rare coastal dune lakes at nearby Deer Lake State Park and you’ll find the rosemary plants for which the area is named.
For those who are not the biggest fans of the wild, wild Southeast, this Gulf Coast locale has been called the “least Florida place in Florida.” The narrow streets and paths of South Walton are meant to be experienced on two feet or two wheels. It’s a great place to rent a house and bike to the beach.
St. Pete Beach
St. Pete Beach, Florida
Set on a barrier island just west of St. Petersburg, this aptly named Florida resort city is known for its beaches, from Treasurer Island to Tierra Verde. Sun-worshippers flock to St. Pete Beach, which sees an average of 361 days of sunshine per year. What’s that big pink hotel? Why, that’s the 1928 landmark Don CeSar resort.
St. John, US Virgin Islands
Snorkelers are drawn to St. John Island’s most famous beach for its self-guided Underwater Snorkeling Trail. In addition to exploring the coral reefs offshore, Trunk Bay is popular for its breathtaking views above water, which make it one of the most photographed beaches in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The quarter-mile of white sand is actually part of Virgin Islands National Park, which was donated by a Rockefeller over half a century ago. Make a weekend getaway of this tropical paradise — no passport required!
Wildwood Crest Beach
Wildwood Crest, New Jersey
With five miles of wide, clean, safe (and free) beaches, The Wildwoods offers everything you could ask for from the Jersey Shore. Relax or walk on the beach or play volleyball or frisbee. Kids will go crazy for the seaside amusement park’s 100+ rides and attractions.
Asilomar State Beach
Pacific Grove, California
If you ever find yourself in Steinbeck country, stop by Asilomar along Monterey Peninsula’s scenic 17-Mile Drive. This narrow one-mile strip of sandy beach and rocky coves is located in Pacific Grove near Point Pinos Lighthouse.
Take a scenic oceanside walk along the cliffs and sandy stretches of Asilomar Coast Trail. The path winds its way through grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers. Keep your eyes open for the plentiful deer that feed on the plant life and the seals and sea lions that rest on the rocks in the water. Extend your walk by exploring the quarter-mile boardwalk through Asilomar Dunes Natural Preserve, a 25-acre restored sand dune ecosystem. Dogs are permitted in this area as long as they are leashed.
Coast Guard Beach
Not to be confused with Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, Massachusetts, Coast Guard Beach in Truro is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. This oceanside beach is the perfect spot for those who enjoy a good stroll. You can walk for miles along the beautiful shoreline hemmed in by dunes and surf. Since Coast Guard Beach is on the ocean, the surf can be rough, but if you love bodysurfing or playing on your boogie board, this is a great beach to visit. Parking is very limited, so arrive early — or consider biking to the beach.
Hanauma Bay State Park
Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
Located about 10 miles east of Waikiki Beach, Hanauma Bay has always been a must-see location for both tourists and locals in Honolulu. Formed within a volcanic cone, this Oahu gem is home to some of the bluest waters in the world.
Hanauma Bay’s pristine marine ecosystem offers some of the best snorkeling in the world. Marine life has grown and flourished here, and the coral reefs have had time undisturbed by human activity since it was closed to tourists during the pandemic. The first Marine Life Conservation District in the state is home to hundreds of tropical fish (about a quarter of which are exclusive to Hawaiian waters) as well as sea turtles and monk seals. Be sure to reserve a ticket, as only a few hundred visitors are allowed entry a day.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Hatteras Island, North Carolina
One of the best places to buy a vacation home, Cape Hatteras is a barrier island tucked in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore near Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks. Not only was it the first U.S. national seashore, but it’s also one of the six most incredible beaches in national parks. The 70-mile stretch of beach has a diverse range of wildlife, including seals, birds, and sea turtles.
Visit the Bodie Island Light Station and set up camp at one of the four campgrounds within the park. Take the ferry over to the quaint, laid-back fishing village of Ocracoke Island to take advantage of its exotic, remote, and pristine beaches.
The Great Lakes surround both of Michigan’s peninsulas, and Michigan has the most freshwater coastline of any state in the United States. It is only second to Alaska in the total miles of shoreline. No matter where you are in Michigan, one of the Great Lakes is within 85 miles. Add to that more than 11,000 inland lakes, and you’re never more than six miles from a body of water. That means Michigan has a lot of beaches to choose from.
The best time to visit Michigan’s shores is during summer, when the weather is warm. If you plan to go swimming, it takes significantly warmer weather for the Great Lakes’ water to heat up.
Choosing just nine beaches in Michigan is especially difficult because we have so many. I selected a variety throughout the state, both on the Great Lakes and inland lakes. No matter if you’re looking for a secluded niche or a party atmosphere, you’ll find just the beach you’re looking for in Michigan.
1. Munising: Sand Point Beach
Located four miles northeast of Munising, on Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline, Sand Point Beach features white sand and crystal-clear water. The beach is largely undeveloped, so you’ll find the beach relatively uncrowded. We enjoy watching the beautiful Great Lakes sunsets at Sand Point Beach.
Pro Tip: If you want to view the entire Pictured Rocks National Shoreline, the Pictured Rocks Cruises departing from the Michigan City Dock in Munising are a great way to do that. It’s 32 miles round trip, and the cruise that includes Spray Falls takes just over two hours.
2. Petoskey: Petoskey State Park
Situated on the north end of Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, Petoskey State Park sits on 303 acres and offers one mile of beautiful beach that’s a mix of sand and stones. My family of rockhounds has found this to be one of Michigan’s best places to search for the Petoskey stone, the Michigan state stone. Petoskey stones are fossilized coral that predates humans by millions of years. If you aren’t up for the hunt, local gift shops feature the stone smoothed and polished.
Pro Tip: Wet Petoskey stones are easier to spot than dry ones, so take along a spray water bottle to spot the rocks more easily.
3. Charlevoix: Lake Charlevoix Beaches
Charlevoix, located between Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, features beaches on both the great lake an inland lake. The water on Lake Charlevoix is warmer than the water in Lake Michigan, so you may prefer to try either Ferry Beach or Depot Beach on Lake Charlevoix.
Ferry Beach is a sandy beach with a swimming area. Add to your water play with stand-up paddle boarding rentals and a boat launch for those who enjoy boating. This beach features a picnic pavilion, concessions, and restrooms.
Depot Beach, named for the historic train depot on the property, is a reminder of a bygone era when visitors arrived by train. The park has a sandy beach with a covered pavilion, picnic areas, and grills. The park also offers a playground, volleyball net, and restrooms.
Pro Tip: If you prefer upscale hotels over camping, the newly redesigned Hotel Earl in downtown Charlevoix makes the perfect place to rest your head after a day at the beach. Many of the original features designed by the hotel’s namesake and original architect, Earl Young, are still in place, including the stunning stone fireplace. These authentic details add to the original charm of this luxury boutique hotel.
4. Ludington: Stearns Park Beach And Ludington State Park Beach
Centrally located within walking distance of downtown, publications consistently rate Stearns Park Beach as one of the top beaches in Michigan. Stearns Park Beach features a half-mile of sugar-sand beach along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. This free city beach offers many amenities, like water sport rentals, sand volleyball courts, a bathhouse, food concessions, picnic tables, and grills. Adjacent to the beach, you’ll find a mini-golf course, shuffleboard courts, and a skate park. Another fun thing to do here is exploring the walkable pier to see the Ludington North Breakwater Light, a historic lighthouse voted one of the top 10 lighthouses in the United States.
It was just too difficult to choose which beach was the best in Ludington, so I didn’t. Ludington State Park Beach is a bit calmer than Stearns. While you’ll need to drive to this beach if you’re staying downtown, Ludington State Park Beach has seven miles of Lake Michigan coastline fringed by grassy dunes. If you prefer a more spacious beach with a restroom and concessions nearby, you’ll want to check out the expansive Lake Michigan beach area past the state park check-in booth.
Pro Tip: On the fourth Thursday of the summer months, take a blanket to Stearns Park Beach and hang out for an evening of free entertainment. Sunset Beach Bonfires offers music, bonfires, and sunsets.
5. Mears: Silver Lake Sand Dunes
With 2,000 acres of dunes that include a 450-acre scramble area, Silver Lake Dunes offers the best dune off-roading in Michigan. You can take your own off-road vehicle (ORV) with the proper permits or rent a dune buggy or ORV for a day on the dunes. If you’re a bit hesitant about cruising the dunes by driving yourself, try a 40-minute tour with Mac Wood’s Dune Rides so that you can sit back and enjoy the ride.
Pro Tip: Silver Lake Sand Dunes open season is April 1 through October 31. Open season is when ORVs are allowed on the dunes.
6. Grand Haven: Grand Haven City Beach
Grand Haven City Beach sits between Grand Haven State Park beach and a beachside restaurant called The Noto’s at the Bilmar. This sandy beach along Lake Michigan has limited free parking and no entrance fee. It’s an excellent beach for dog owners who want to walk Rover.
Grand Haven sponsors an annual Sand Sculpture Contest at Grand Haven City Beach. For 40 years, this event has offered locals and tourists opportunities to create everything from sophisticated sandcastles to slippery swimmers and sharks. But rest assured, you won’t find any sharks in the Great Lakes.
Pro Tip: Memorial Day through Labor Day, dogs are welcome on a leash before 11:00 a.m. and after 5:00 p.m. The rest of the year, they’re allowed on a leash anytime.
7. Holland: Holland State Park Beach
Located on the Lake Michigan coastline, Holland State Park features sugar-sand beaches perfect for building detailed sandcastles. Be sure to finish the day at the beach by watching the flaming orange-yellow sunset over Lake Michigan.
Holland State Park includes lots of Great Lakes nautical fun. The lighthouse, affectionately known as Big Red, is Michigan’s most photographed lighthouse. Sometimes during the summer, you can take a tour of Big Red. If you want to add Great Lakes fishing to your vacation fun, the beach boat launches make that possible too.
Pro Tip: Visitors to Michigan state parks need a Recreation Passport; you can buy one at the park for a fee. This passport will get you into more than 100 Michigan state parks.
8. Saugatuck: Oval Beach
Located on Opal Drive off Perryman Street, Oval Beach, ranked as one of the top 25 beaches globally, features soft silvery sands. MTV rated this Lake Michigan beach as one of the top five beaches in the nation, so it should be on your bucket list. Oval Beach offers many amenities, such as restrooms, a concession stand, grills and picnic tables, and playgrounds.
For those who enjoy an active lifestyle, one way to reach Oval Beach is via Mount Baldhead. First, start in Saugatuck and cross the Kalamazoo River by a historic hand-pulled ferry. Then climb the 302 wooden steps to the top of Mount Baldy, where you can see the towns of Douglas and Saugatuck. Finally, descend to the beach with grassy sand. Entering in this manner solves any issues with parking capacity or fees.
Pro Tip: Be aware that the parking lot may reach capacity during the summer months, and you may need to wait for parking. You can also hike, bike, or walk in, which will save you the parking fee (around $6).
9. St. Joseph: Silver Beach
Located at the St. Joseph River entrance, Silver Beach County Park features a wide beach on Lake Michigan. Of the park’s 2,450 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, they have about 1,600 feet for a public swimming area. The star attraction at Silver Beach is the carousel, with its two chariots and 48 unique figures. Choose your favorite figure and ride with the music under 1,000 twinkle lights. Explore some of the local shops or take a walk on the pier.
Sitting about 200 yards off Lake Michigan’s beach, Silver Beach Pizza in St. Joseph offers pizza fashioned from dough that’s made from scratch daily. Favorite pizzas include the Carousel, a nod to the carousel over the tracks, and the Garlic Greek. Your grandkids will adore that the train stops at the adjoining train station.
Silver Beach is in a country park, not a Michigan State Park. The Michigan State Park Recreation Passport will not provide admission to Silver Beach; you will need to pay the associated county park fees.
Pro Tip: Don’t confuse Silver Lake State Park and Silver Beach, as they are at opposite ends of the state. Silver Lake State Park is in Mears, to the north, while Silver Beach is in St. Joseph, to the south.
The Jersey Shore is a rite of passage for most New Yorkers. You may scoff at it or try to avoid it altogether, but you will eventually find your perfect little slice of local beach paradise, and continually be drawn back to it each season. As this summertime season approaches—and as we continue to stay safe, smart, and socially-distanced in this transitional, limbo-like period of a possibly post-pandemic world—consider bookmarking our pick of the best beaches in New Jersey for your next seaside dip and splash.
One thing to remember: For the most part, beaches in New Jersey charge for individual admission or charge admission by vehicle. Similar to last season, due to COVID-19 capacity rules, many Garden State beach towns will be selling badges only in advance, so check each beach town’s website for more info. (You can also download the Viply app, which a good majority of beaches are using for mobile admission.)
Lastly, beaches marked with an asterisk (*) are accessible via New Jersey Transit train stops on the North Jersey Coast Line, oftentimes within walking distances to the sand or short Uber/Lyft rides.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLARUSSO:MONMOUTH COUNTY
1. SEA BRIGHT, NJ
Those looking for a quick escape from the city should pack their beach towel and put a pin on the map for Sea Bright, one of NJ’s most pleasant beaches in northern Monmouth County. “It’s also famous as the town where Tony Soprano temporarily purchased a beach house for Carmela in The Sopranos,” R.C. Staab, author of 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die, reminds us. Similar to Sandy Hook, another beach on this list, vehicle-less folks can easily take a Seastreak ferry to Highlands, then transfer to a quick Uber ride—a nice way to also save time when traffic is rough in high season. Beaches are sandy, and have playgrounds for the littles, plus a bunch of outdoor showers to clean off afterwards. There’s no busy commercial boardwalk in Sea Bright, but travelers to town certainly won’t feel isolated either, with plenty of restaurants, bars, shops and convenience stores on the main drag of Ocean Ave (Route 36), located just steps from the beach.
Pro Tip: Especially during busy high season holiday weekends, Sea Bright’s coveted parking can fill up quickly, so get there early to snag your place in one of the cheaper spots, which can be secured via the mPay2Park app. Otherwise, you might risk paying upwards of $30 or more for parking in a private lot.
Where to stay:
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images
2. CAPE MAY, NJ
A too-adorable-for-words town filled with charming architecture is part of the allure of many visitors here, and Cape May’s beaches can’t be beat, either. Hugging the entire length of the town, you’ll never be bored of all the walkable options, but that shouldn’t stop you from setting out and exploring points further, either. In fact, two of Cape May’s most interesting beaches, Sunset Beach and Higbee Beach, are a short car or bike ride from town. Jazz festivals, the Lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park and humpback whale watching cruises are reasons to book a longer stay and make this a week-long summer vacay, as many families from the Tri-State area do.
Where to stay:
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLARUSSO:MONMOUTH COUNTY
3. AVON-BY-THE-SEA, NJ*
Slightly more under-the-radar, Avon-by-the-Sea is a small Monmouth County town home to eclectic shops and chef-driven restaurants, as well as a pavilion with dining and beach amenities. Visitors here step off the blocks filled with well-kept beaches to grab shade under a very Instagrammable pergola, which has benches positioned to face the sea. Other charms include spotting the Little Free Library boxes filled with books, and all the cute beach bungalows and larger Victorian-influenced homes.
New for this season, Avon-by-the-Sea is welcoming its first apothecary, Seed Apothecary, a sister business to the town’s first and only vegan restaurant, Seed to Sprout. Seed Apothecary will offer shoppers everything from organic teas, honeys, tinctures, immune boosters, herbs, skin care products, hair tonics, shaving products and more. Yup, we’ll be there.
Where to stay:
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLARUSSO:MONMOUTH COUNTY
5. ASBURY PARK, NJ*
A draw for many LGBTQIA+ folks, Asbury Park’s beaches are nice enough, but you really come here for the scene of it all, which can be quite different in vibe depending on where you decide to plop down. Expect either lively and packed with people and music (read: near the Convention Hall) or more chill and relaxed (read: North Beach, north of the Convention Hall). The Ocean Avenue boardwalk bustles from end to end, with quality restaurants, a hip live music and entertainment scene—some outdoor and indoor happenings are already a go depending on your current comfort level—plus events at the historic Convention Hall & Paramount Theater, and much, much more. For accommodations, the trendy Asbury Ocean Club Hotel is just steps from everything, and has posh, contemporary rooms and a prime roof deck pool which overlooks the sparkling Atlantic Ocean.
Where to stay:
Courtesy of Pua Hana Tiki Boat Tours
6. OCEAN CITY, NJ
Eight miles of coastline, superior sand and lots of room to spread out, the beaches of Ocean City, NJ paired with the town’s quaint charms and family-forward atmosphere make it a popular place to land a summer rental. Zander Buteux, Growth Lead at VacationRenter, a platform designed to help travelers find the perfect rental faster and easier, tells us there are 83 rentals in this small city, many at affordable prices and just steps from the sand.
Starting in May, rides on Pau Hana Tiki Boat Tours will commence in the resort town, and if you just clicked that link, you know you should probably book before it fills up. Offering guests a two-hour, Caribbean-inspired experience on a floating tiki-style boat—complete with barstool seating, a thatched straw roof, and open-air and therefore COVID-safer layout—our crystal ball tells us Pau Hana rides will be all over your IG feed this season.
Where to stay:
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLARUSSO:MONMOUTH COUNTY
7. LONG BRANCH, NJ*
At roughly an hour from New York—sans traffic—Long Branch wins points for being one of the closest beaches in New Jersey. Expect clean, soft sand beaches that are family-friendly, and even some Euro flair. The beautiful French restaurant Avenue and its beach club and bar give a certain stretch of the sand here a French Riviera feel, and after a day curled up with the breeze and a good book, you can explore Pier Village, which is filled with shops, eateries, a specialty food market and more. Just steps away, the oceanfront pool and rooms at the nearby Wave Resort are arguably one of the Shore’s most sophisticated places to hang your (beach) hat.
Where to stay:
VIEW press /Getty Images
9. SANDY HOOK (HIGHLANDS, NJ)
The funky, eclectic town of Highlands, NJ greets visitors before passing over the Route 36 bridge and into Sandy Hook, a beach area so major that it is protected by the National Park Service. You’ll quickly see why—a pure little slice of seashore heaven, this strip of land and its beaches curve like a spine toward New York’s lower bay. In fact, from certain vantage points and on a clear day, you can see the Manhattan skyline, a surprising backdrop as you dig your toes into the sand.
Another clear advantage of choosing Sandy Hook, beyond its natural beauty, for a beach day: You don’t need a car to get there. City dwellers can take a Seastreak ferry from E. 35th St. and get dropped off and walk or bike to the beach (As of press time, a round trip is $50 and there is no charge for bikes, either).
Pro tip: “Sandy Hook has a maximum number of parking spaces, when all are filled, the park closes to new traffic until there are enough spaces to reopen,” their website warns late risers.
Where to stay:
© 2011 Dorann Weber/Getty Images
10. PT. PLEASANT BEACH, NJ*
Sometimes, it’s all in a name, and that is especially accurate of the beaches in this northern Ocean County town, roughly an 80-minute ride from Times Square when traffic isn’t, well, too bad. What we love most about Point Pleasant are the clean, wide, sandy beaches and Jenkinson’s Boardwalk. It’s arguably one of the Garden State’s best-known and has just as much fun for families as it does adults without kids—imagine a place where mini golf, carnival rides and games, an aquarium, restaurants, and lots of live entertainment and places to party all meet.
Where to stay:
Brent Guiliano/EyeEm/Getty Images
12. BELMAR, NJ*
Belmar has always been a popular beach with both New Yorkers and Northern NJ residents (sometimes playfully—or maybe not—referred to as “Bennies”). The wide, sandy beaches here really do appeal to everyone, whether you’re in the mood to play music and indulge in some party vibes (while social distancing, of course), or are watching over your young ones as they build sandcastles. A dedicated fishing pier on the bridge between Belmar and neighboring Avon is another draw, as is the diverse, downtown district hosting breweries, cafes and restaurants, clothing stores, record shops and more.
Where to stay:
13. THE WILDWOODS, NJ
You’ve most certainly heard of The Wildwoods, popular vacation rental towns in New Jersey, which also happen to be the site of one of the largest kite festivals in North America. Comprising the City of Wildwood, The Borough of Wildwood Crest and the City of North Wildwood, the towns are colloquially known by Jersey folk simply as Wildwood. But regardless of what you call it, the gorgeous, super wide beaches (basically made for social distancing) are popular because they’re free—yes, you read that right—a fact that keeps families coming back season after season.
And since no family is truly complete without their pet(s), and many are increasingly traveling with a furry friend these days, it’s worth noting how pet-friendly Wildwood is for visitors. “Wildwood has designated a section of their beach as dog friendly, and dogs on leash are welcome all day, every day. There’s even an off-leash area to burn off a little energy and socialize with other canines,” says Amy Burket, who runs GoPetFriendly.com, a website dedicated to pet friendly travel. “This dog beach is also impossible to miss, because it’s marked with one of the largest fire hydrants you’ll ever see,” she adds.
Where to stay:
PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL COLARUSSO:MONMOUTH COUNTY
14. SPRING LAKE, NJ*
Boasting some of the cleanest, most manicured beaches in all of New Jersey, Spring Lake is known for its quiet, relaxed expanses of sand generally frequented by families and couples seeking R&R. The adorable town at its backdrop looks straight out of a movie set, with a charming park, a downtown filled with shops, and picture-perfect, historic homes—not to mention straight-up mansions. This one could give the Hampton’s a run for its money any day and is a great Jersey alternative if you’re seeking a posh-er beach and beach town experience.
Where to stay:
Robert D. Barnes/Getty Images
15. STONE HARBOR, NJ
Some of New Jersey’s clearest water and cleanest, soft sand beaches are found in this Cape May County favorite. Gentle rolling sand dunes and white-and-red painted, old-timey lifeboats add to allure of Stone Harbor’s beaches, which are as popular with Philadelphians as they are Tri-State families. In our experience, most discover this town once, then continually return—due in part to its chillaxed, small town charm and just-the-right-amount of off-beach activities. Check out the well-rated Wetlands Institute, a nature center, or simply enjoy a pleasant stretch of Stone Harbor’s shopping and noshes at the many walkable eateries and restaurants situated at the center of the town’s two main in/out arteries, 96th St. and 3rd Ave.
Where to stay:
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It should come as no secret that Rhode Island has some of the best beaches in the USA — it is nicknamed the Ocean State, after all! With more than 40 miles of stunning coastline, the state (which is actually not an island, by the way!) is absolutely filled with salt water gems. But the best part?
Despite its incredibly gorgeous scenery and authentic local vibe, Rhode Island has remained relatively out of the limelight, with many visitors often choosing the classic shores of the Cape or the glitzier sands of the Hamptons for their beach vacations instead.
That means that the state has managed to maintain a distinctly “Little Rhody” energy, one that will surely satisfy your inner beach bum — and leave you feeling like you stumbled upon the country’s best-kept travel secret at the same time.
The only question is: Which beach should you go to first? For the smallest state in the US, Rhode Island has an overwhelming number of options to choose from. Some are best for surfers, others for sunset seekers, and still others for those who want nothing more than a cold, dripping ice cream cone after they’ve taken their last dip. Read on for the best places to enjoy the ocean in the Ocean State.
Editor’s note: during COVID-19 there may be additional travel restrictions. Check the latest guidance in Rhode Island before planning a trip, and always follow local government health advice. All events are subject to change.
Best beach for après beach fans:
Watch Hill Beach, Westerly
Make no mistake: Watch Hill Beach is an incredible stretch of coastline. The sand is wide and soft, the crowd is fun, and the waves are mild — all perfect qualities for pure relaxation. But the thing about Watch Hill is that it’s not just about the beach — it’s about the town itself. This is one of those towns that people think of when they think of charming New England, filled with white picket fences and cute seaside shops with shell mobiles hanging in the windows, and old-school restaurants that serve your food through a sliding screen door (be sure to get some ice cream at St. Clair Annex, which has been open since 1887). Watch Hill is so quaint and picturesque, it even captured the heart of Taylor Swift, who bought a house there back in 2013 that remains the most expensive private home in Rhode Island today.
Your move? Get to Watch Hill early (the beach parking lot fills up pretty quickly), spend the morning and early afternoon getting your saltwater fix, then head out for a golden hour stroll through town followed by a round of sunset cocktails at the Olympia Tea Room.
Best beach for nature lovers:
Goosewing Beach, Little Compton
As part of Goosewing Beach Preserve — a 75-acre historic landmark filled with unspoiled ponds, dunes, and the beach — Goosewing Beach is one of the most treasured eco-friendly spots in Rhode Island. Getting there requires a bit of effort, as there isn’t a direct entrance, but that’s part of its appeal. Visitors must park in the parking lot for South Shore Beach, a rocky beach that tends to get quite crowded, and walk to the end of South Shore (about ten minutes or so) before crossing a small stream that leads to Goosewing. The payoff is worth it: Goosewing feels more remote than South Shore, with wider, softer stretches of sand and heaps of beachgrass that sway in the wind.
The beach preserve is also home to two rare seabirds, the piping plover and the least tern. Those who want to learn even more about the surrounding wildlife can head over to the beach’s Benjamin Family Environmental Center for a guided nature walk.
Best beach for surfers:
Narragansett Town Beach, Narragansett
In-the-know surfers usually get to Narragansett Town Beach early in the morning, so they can enjoy the water before the crowds arrive. And there are definitely crowds: This beach is one of the most popular in all of New England, let alone Rhode Island. The waves here can get pretty tall, up to four feet on a good day, which is perfect for people who want to learn the sport themselves. Two local surf shops, Narragansett Surf & Skate and Warm Winds, even offer lessons and rentals.
That said, if you’re not a surfer, this is still a great spot for a solid beach day. The surfers tend to stick to the south end of the beach anyway, leaving the rest of the area to families and beach bums. The beach is located right next to the heart of town, too, so it’s easy to pop out and grab a bite and a drink. There are a variety of beachy burger and seafood joints, and the rooftop at The Coast Guard House is an especially popular spot for golden-hour cocktails. The beach pavilion even has changing rooms and bathrooms, so you can get out of your wet bathing suit to transition into evening mode.
Best beach for adventurers:
Mohegan Bluffs, Block Island
Admittedly, this is not the best spot for classically trained beach bums who want nothing more than soft sand, clear water, and a spot to put their cooler. But for any ocean lovers with a wild side, those who may appreciate a bit more of a rugged vibe, this one’s for you. Mohegan Bluffs is a patch of sea cliffs that sits on the southern tip of Block Island, which is only accessible by ferry (visitors depart from either Point Judith, RI or New London, CT). At about 150 feet tall, the tall clay cliffs are just past the Southeast Lighthouse and are reminiscent of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. The view from the top is stunning — you can even see Long Island (specifically, Montauk in the Hamptons) across the Atlantic.
But all views aside, the beach that sits at the base of the bluffs is one of Rhode Island’s most scenic as well. To get there, just take the 141-step staircase that leads to the bottom (and try not to think about the fact that you’ll have to walk back up on the return trip). The sand is a bit rocky, but it’s great for no-frills chilling, as most people don’t want to drag a bunch of beach gear down those steps — so sitting on a towel with a book and a beer is definitely the move. And be sure to snap some photos while you’re down there; the sea cliffs make quite the stunning backdrop!
Best beach for families:
Misquamicut Beach, Westerly
When trying to find a good beach for kids, there are a lot of factors to consider: Is the water calm? Are there good bathrooms? Are there lifeguards? Are there other things to do in the area? Misquamicut State Beach checks all of those boxes, making it a perennial family favorite in Rhode Island. There are bathrooms, changing areas, food stands, and a big pavilion, not to mention plenty of shaded areas for sunburned kiddos who need to take a break. Plus, the beach itself is gorgeous, with three miles of wide sand and fairly calm water.
For those who want to take a break from the shore, nearby Atlantic Beach Park offers all sorts of kid-friendly entertainment, from a carousel to an arcade to a snack bar. Finish it off with a bite and a beer at the park’s Windjammer Surf Bar, which also hosts live music on the patio most nights and even a kids’ movie night on the beach on Tuesdays.
Best beach for fun seekers:
Easton (First) Beach, Newport
The area around Newport (including Middletown, right next door) has three main beaches that are colloquially referred to as First, Second, and Third Beach. All of them are great, but First Beach has the most to offer in terms of other activities that are not the beach. While Second and Third Beach are both pretty chill — Second Beach is located by the Norman Bird Sanctuary; Third Beach has virtually zero waves — First Beach is packed with activities, from summer carnivals and concerts, a skateboard park, and more. There’s even a boardwalk and a vintage carousel. And if you don’t want to BYOG (bring your own gear), rentals are available for beach chairs, umbrellas, and boogie boards.
There are also lots of great activities nearby for those who get bored of the sunbathing life. First Beach sits right by the entrance of the famous Newport Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile walk along the cliffs with views of the crashing waves on one side and Newport’s famous mansions on the other. Visitors can also check out the nearby Save the Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium to learn about Rhode Island’s native ocean life. (Note: It’s temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but check the website before you go to see if it’s back open.)
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Phuket, Thailand (CNN) — Pre-pandemic, Phuket’s Patong Beach was not a place you’d go for peace and quiet.
On any given day during high season, this popular Thai beach town would be filled with tourists from all around the world. Jet skis, longtails and speed boats roared through its bright blue waters. Some pulled parasails, their colorful puffs of nylon kites moving through the skies, keeping harnessed bodies afloat.
Massive cruise ships could sometimes be seen anchored offshore.
In the evenings, the streets adjacent to Patong’s beach were packed with travelers till long after the sun slipped into the Andaman Sea horizon, the air filled with the shouts of taxi drivers, massage staff and restaurant workers, all in pursuit of the next customer.
With few international tourists, Patong’s businesses have been forced to close.
These days, Patong is unrecognizable. Its beach — a long, clean strip of beige sand — is free of crowds.
Nearby, the majority of businesses are shuttered, some with “For Rent” signs. Door handles are wrapped in chains and padlocks, while closed hotels have put up rope fences blocking the driveways to their entrances.
Even American chain outlets like McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks are shut.
Further south, similar scenes await visitors to the once popular beaches of Kata and Karon.
“The areas of Phuket island that have been hit the hardest are most definitely Patong, Karon and Kata beaches,” says Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association. “These three enclaves were 95% reliant on international tourism. And it dried up.”
For the few who decided to stick it out, life has been incredibly difficult.
“It’s very bad for us,” says Su Sutam, manager of Lobster & Prawn Restaurant on Kata Beach.
“Not many people come. We have only Thai people but not so many. In one day, only one or two tables. Normally we are full downstairs and upstairs.”
He says staff are only getting paid half of their regular salaries until international tourists return.
Phuket’s Kata Beach sits empty as the island awaits the return of international travelers.
“It costs approximately between 20,000 and 30,000 Thai baht a month to feed one elephant,” says general manager Vincent Gerards.
With a dozen animals on hand, that’s about $7,500-8,000 each month. Prior to the pandemic, most of that money came from the many visitors that would pay to experience the sanctuary and observe the elephants for a full day.
“Around 85% of the population of Phuket relies on tourism in some form or another, whether they’re working in hotels or taxi drivers, fisherman — it’s all connected and we’re very dependent on international tourists,” says Gerards.
“So Covid obviously had a huge impact when we talk about elephant tourism in particular. More than 150 elephants living in Phuket have left the island since the beginning of Covid-19 because the camps had to temporarily or permanently close, and those elephants were then moved back to their owners who often live in other provinces.”
Government launches reopening plan
Thailand has fared incredibly well compared to other countries, reporting just over 30,000 cases and 95 deaths since the start of the pandemic. It shut its borders to international travelers in late March 2020 as Covid-19 began to spread, imposing strict quarantine measures on those who did arrive.
Most residents affected by the absence of tourists CNN spoke with say they are pinning their hopes on a new plan that would allow vaccinated international travelers visiting Phuket to skip the 7- to 14-day quarantine measures now in place.
“We hope for vaccines,” says restaurant manager Sutam. “If vaccine is okay we hope customers will come back.”
On March 20, 2020, international tourists continued to visit the beaches of Phuket, just days before the island locked down.
Mladen Antonio/AFP/Getty Images
“Phuket will be the first destination to lift quarantine requirements for vaccinated foreign tourists under the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ program,” says a TAT statement. “However, they will be restricted to travel activities within designated areas in Phuket for seven days and will then be allowed to visit other Thai destinations.”
CNN reached out to several government officials for further specifics on the reopening plan, as well as the status of vaccination efforts but as of publication time had yet to receive a response.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary has 12 retired work elephants.
Nonetheless, for Phuket’s tourism players, the possibility that international tourists will return in just a few months is sparking cautious optimism.
“There is a glimmer of hope and a shining light at the end of our very dark, long tunnel,” says Phuket Hotels Association president Lark, noting that quarantine restrictions are what’s preventing the island from recovering.
“The fear factor here is quite high. There’s a lot of people in Thailand who don’t want foreigners coming in here carrying the virus. So the secret is to get the local community vaccinated to a level where we feel safe enough with the presence of antibodies in people’s systems to welcome back tourists without that fear.”
Lark, who has lived on Phuket for more than 30 years, notes that it will take a long time before tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels, but at least there should be enough business to sustain the employment of those who need it most.
“Fifty percent of the staff who work in the hotels in Phuket don’t come from Phuket,” he says. “They come from Krabi, or Trang, or other provinces around Thailand in the north/northeast. They relied on their salaries and service charges to support their moms and dads back home.”
For now, Phuket relies on domestic tourists
In the meantime, domestic tourism is keeping some businesses afloat — but just barely.
“It has literally been the oxygen that has enabled almost all of the tourism-related businesses on Phuket to continue to breathe and survive.” says Lark, who points to the Bangkok residents that have been flying down on the weekends and government holidays.
“But it’s unsustainable. Phuket’s tourism can’t survive at 6% to 8% occupancy. These hotels were designed to run at 30% to 40% occupancy to break even. So it’s helped stem the tide of outgoing grief, but it’s by no means sustainable, sadly.”
Performers put on a fire show for guests of the InterContinental Phuket Resort.
Rooms in big-brand luxury hotels that once cost upwards of $300 a night are now going for a fraction of the cost, though this has made it challenging for mid-priced hotels to compete.
Members of the island’s expat communities and local residents are also helping to keep restaurants and bars open, with areas such as Bang Tao Beach, near the large Laguna resort and residential community, still busy.
On a recent Sunday at the InterContinental Phuket Resort on Kamala Beach, the property was filled with guests enjoying the pool and beach bar — many of them local residents taking advantage of the Sunday brunch special. In the evening, a fire show on the beach had a full audience of spectators.
One of Phuket’s newest resorts, it opened in December 2019 but was only open for a few months before Covid-19 forced the island into lockdown.
Bjorn Courage, general manager, says the InterContinental Phuket opened in July of 2020 following the initial shutdown and adapted their strategy to appeal to both domestic travelers as well as local residents.
“This is a tough time,” he says. “Phuket does need international tourists, so at some point we do need to open up. I think everybody has been very creative to try to make the most of the situation that we are in at the moment. But we managed to find a way.
“We’re supporting the local community, and we were working closely with local government and central government to get ready, in order to re-open Phuket, and to re-open Thailand, and to be ready to welcome visitors from overseas.”
The streets of Phuket’s Patong, Karon and Kata neighborhoods are filled with closed businesses.
Far from the beaches, Phuket’s historic Old Town has been able to tap into the local markets as well.
Famed for its Sino-Portuguese heritage buildings, many of which have been converted into shops, cafes and bars, it’s a popular destination for island residents as well as Thai tourists. During a recent visit to its Sunday Walking Street Market, the area was filled with visitors — all wearing masks as per local regulations.
But the pandemic has forced some businesses in that area to change the way they operate. Property manager Vorakorn Suwannate is owner of Neighborgood x Origami Café on nearby Phangnga Road.
She says the lack of tourists prompted her to move her cafe — which was originally in a hotel — into a new space.
“We have to think about the local market,” she says. “There so many things to adjust. In the past we were familiar with serving in-house guests. After the Covid situation we had to adjust ourselves and promote the product that matches with the local people. It’s a hard job.
“In my opinion the vaccinations are the best solution to make things normal. If we got the vaccine for residents and international tourists I think situation will improve faster.”
Ekkapan, a street food vendor at Patong Beach, says most of his current customers are Thais.
Ekkapan, a street food vendor at Patong Beach, specializes in dishes from Thailand’s northeast Isaan region. He says the demographics of his customer base have shifted but — in spite of being in an area so reliant on international tourists — profits haven’t dipped.
“Before Covid my customers were 80% foreign tourists,” he tells CNN. “But now we are serving mostly Thai people. Same money but we have to work harder. Foreigners liked to order grilled dishes, which were easy to make. Thais prefer things like som tom (papaya salad) and larb (a spicy minced meat dish) which take longer.”
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary has also had to adapt its programs to cater to the domestic market — shortening the time length of its programs and lowering prices while also creating remote online opportunities to connect with their many followers from abroad. It’s helping to put food in the elephants’ mouths, but what they really need is for international tourists to come back as soon as possible.
With the pandemic tossing out an endless supply of curveballs over the last year, a lot can happen between now and July. But Gerrards is hopeful.
“It’s great to finally see that light at the end of the tunnel and to have a pretty clear plan of what’s going to happen,” he says.
“We’re ready to welcome tourists again.”
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