World's Best Secret Beaches


Holger Mette

The world is full of hidden beaches, but discovering them before the masses do can be challenging. So shhh ... we're letting the cat out of bag on a few of our favorite global destinations for relatively untracked sand and surf. And while that's not to say you'll have the shore all to yourself, it's a good bet you'll be among mostly locals — and a handful of intrepid travelers savvy enough to put these gems on their beach-hopping agendas. 

Muriwai Beach, New Zealand
For most tourists arriving in Auckland, Piha Beach is the logical destination for a first glimpse of New Zealand's pristine North Island coastline.

But for an even keener local look at the Kiwi surf lifestyle, make the half-hour drive west of Auckland to Muriwai Beach. Its oceanfront is beautifully rugged, with black-sand beaches, pounding surf and rocky headlands where you can forage for New Zealand's famed green lip mussels at low tide.

Surfers love Maori Bay — just around the headland from the main beach — for its consistent beach break, and the horseshoe stretch of sand here is sheltered in a cove, making it a good place to toss down a towel for the day. A rocky outcropping between the bay and the beach is home to New Zealand's largest onshore colony of gannet seabirds.

Tip: Kiwis get kudos for their great coffee, and latte lovers will adore the espresso drink called a "flat white." The weekend breakfast scene at Sand Dunz Beach Cafe, located near the main beach parking lot, sees locals mingling with city dwellers visiting from Auckland. Try the eggs Benedict and ask about the local photography on display.

Fraser Island, Australia
Only about 200 miles north of built-up Brisbane lies this wild stretch of largely desolate sand. Fraser Island's status as the largest sand island in the world automatically conjures dreams of mile upon mile of blissfully uninterrupted oceanfront. Indeed, the surf beach stretches for some 75 miles, and you can easily find a private section for swimming.

Getting to Fraser requires a short ferry ride. A 4-wheel-drive vehicle, hired on the mainland, is the best way to explore the island at your whim. When it's time to sleep, pitch a tent in the sand or stay at one of the island's resorts. The beaches are sublime, and if you want to de-salt yourself, you can dip inland to one of the crystal-clear lakes set in the dunes.

Tip: Camping in dingo territory not your thing? Check in to one of Australia's top eco-tourism experiences at Kingfisher Bay Resort. Rooms overlook lakes and the island's rugged bushland. Eco-tours include whale watching and ranger-led hikes.

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
Punta del Este may be Uruguay's most famous beach resort, but the South-Beach-meets-South-America feel of the place hardly screams "off the beaten path."

Ask an Uruguayan to point you in the direction of a beach after his or her own heart, and you can bet it will be located in the laid-back department of Rocha.

Situated a few miles off the highway, the tiny peninsula village of Cabo Polonio is accessed by 4-wheel-drive trucks or horses, which transport visitors over the dunes to a hidden beach.

Electricity and running water — delivered to only a few places by rainwater and the odd generator — are rare commodities here. There are a few posadas (rustic motels), and most of the block-style vacation bungalows dotting the dunes are lit with candles at night. The long, sandy beach, which is popular with windsurfers from around the world, is rugged and totally undeveloped. On 1 side of the peninsula, the ocean pounds the shore, while the other side offers a sheltered crescent of beach more suited to swimming.

Tip: Rent your own private beach bungalow for a few nights or by the week. Most online information about rentals is in Spanish, so consider contacting the country's Ministry of Tourism for assistance with bookings. 

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Intrepid European and Australian backpackers fresh from the ferry rub elbows with international jet-setters who have just flown in from Ho Chi Minh City at this palm-fringed isle off the coast of southwestern Vietnam. Stretching about 30 miles from north to south, Phu Quoc is the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, but it has remained a relative secret. Most tourists who make it to Southeast Asia bypass the island for more trafficked Thai destinations such as Phuket and Koh Samui.

Bungalow-style accommodations dominate, but recent hotel openings hint that the island — like the rest of Vietnam — won't remain a travel secret for long. Luckily, more than half of Phu Quoc is protected as a national park. So for now, at least, the beaches are pristine, the reef snorkeling is impressive and the delicious Vietnamese fare is alone worth the journey.

Tip: The island is loaded with stunning beaches, but one of the prettiest is Bai Sao, located on the southeastern coast.

Isla Bastimentos, Panama
Nine Caribbean islands off the east coast of Panama make up the archipelago called Bocas del Toro. For the region's most sublime beaches (and that's saying a lot, considering that Bocas del Toro is loaded with brilliant spots), set your sights on Isla Bastimentos.

Playa Wizard is one of the most beautiful shorelines on the island, with a wide, empty stretch of sand and some of the best surf in Central America. And at nearby Red Frog Beach — accessed by a short hike or water taxi — you'll have your best chance of spotting Panama's native poison dart frog.

Tip: Near the national marine park, Al Natural Resort offers oceanfront bungalows that feature thatched roofs, mosquito nets and porches with uninterrupted ocean and rain-forest views.

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