It's hard to top the beach -- any beach -- as a prime people-watching venue. From bikini babes to metal detector fanatics to toddlers enjoying their first wave action, it's nonstop performance art. But some beaches take that art to new heights, with casts of characters to delight the most jaded voyeurs. Here are a few of our favorites.
Think of it as a sort of sandy Times Square -- a magnet for the crazed, the crazy and everyone in between. Southern California's landmark Venice Beach teems with surfers, bodybuilders, skateboarders, musicians, fortune-tellers, street artists and garden-variety freaks -- and the tourists who gawk at them. Most of the action is concentrated on Ocean Front Walk, a 2.5-mile promenade lined with eateries, surf shops and one-of-a-kind vendors. Rent skates or a bike and join the parade. Oh, and the beach is pretty nice, too.
Everybody's beautiful to someone, as the song goes, but in South Beach it seems that everybody's beautiful, period. The models, moguls and movie stars strutting their stuff along Ocean Drive do nothing to dispel that notion. Start your day with breakfast outdoors at the News Cafe, a local hot spot, then stake out your spot on the beach -- which, by the way, is as good as it gets, with white sand and warm turquoise waves. Back on the streets, grab a bite, check out the shops, admire the Art Deco architecture and hit the clubs. When you tire of it all, stroll down to newly-renovated South Pointe Park, on the beach's southernmost tip, and watch the cruise ships sail out to sea.
Where else to watch surfer dudes and dudettes in action than Honolulu's Waikiki Beach? Yes, it's tourist central, but that's the point. Hawaiian royalty once gathered here; now the hotel-lined shores beckon visitors from around the world. It's hard to top the iconic backdrop of Diamond Head for a classic photo op. Beloved native son Duke Kahanamoku, aka the father of modern surfing, honed his craft here, and his bronze, 9-foot beachfront statue is a good place to get your bearings. But don't just stand there, hodad. Take a surfing lesson (Waikiki's calm waters are ideal for beginners), sample some poi (a Polynesian dish made from the taro plant), and check out the shopping, dining, cute cafes, hula dancing demos, outrigger canoe races and surfing competitions.
Tall and tan and young and lovely, the denizens of Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema Beach don't have to work very hard to live up to their worldwide reputation as gorgeous -- or so it seems. But the hugely popular stretch of sand, immortalized in the mid-1960s in the hit bossa nova song "The Girl From Ipanema," offers more than eye candy. Ipanema’s beaches attract locals and tourists alike, who come for the lively ambience, pickup games of soccer and frescobol (like tennis without a net), good surfing and tons of vendors. The surrounding neighborhood is packed with museums, galleries, fashionable shops, eateries and trendy night spots.
You didn't think we'd write about the best beaches for people-watching and not list a nude venue, did you? Without any further ado -- or clothing -- we give you Vancouver's Wreck Beach. Lovingly maintained by the dedicated members of the Wreck Beach Preservation Society, the 5-mile wilderness-like beach is accessible via Trail No. 6 from Pacific Spirit Park. Popular with families, couples and singles, the beach features international vendors and food concessions, impromptu music jams, pickup games of volleyball and bocce ball, a nude-only "casino," and shallow, kid-friendly tide pools. Body-painting (free for kids; suggested donation for adults) is an art form here.