The World's 15 Best Beach Towns

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Bocas del Toro, Panama
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Bocas del Toro, Panama

We can thank broke backpackers and smart surfers for discovering Bocas del Toro, a group of nine mostly roadless islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, where there are boats instead of cars and chickens instead of alarm clocks. As with most beach towns that are hard to get to, it's the type of place where the main commercial center, Bocas Town, on the island of Colón, hasn't quite caught up to its own tourist boom: It's a laid-back hub of Latin-Caribbean culture, where dreadlocked locals dance the samba and expat surfers drink beer at bars built on stilts over the water.

A lot of folks don't even hang out in Bocas Town long enough to drop their board bag because they know that just a short, $3 boat-taxi ride away is a crowd-free reef break, a perfect crescent of white sand, and a pristine bay teeming with tropical fish. They know that Zapatilla, covered in palms that hang over clear water, holds some of the best snorkeling in the world. They know that when the swell comes up, Carenero will be going off. They know that just through the mangroves is Red Frog beach, often the center of activity in Bocas del Toro, where Dutch girls tan topless and stoned locals sip cold beer while listening to reggae music on an '80s-vintage boombox.

Getting There: Fly to Panama City, then catch a connection to Bocas Town on the island of Colón.

Port Antonio, Jamaica

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Port Antonio, Jamaica

Jamaica has an image problem: It's either college girls raging bachelorette-style in Montego Bay or that dude from work coming back from Negril with a fucking braid in his hair. But there's a whole other Jamaica out there, as long as you're willing to put in a little effort.

Here's how: Just a couple of hours from Kingston, along the island's prettiest mountain roads, is a wild, resort-free slice of tropical perfection called Port Antonio. One of its beaches, Frenchman's Cove, was used for the country's classic travel-agency posters; another, the Blue Lagoon, is where a pubescent Brooke Shields went all feral-sexy.

Villas built by an early jet-set crew that included Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming – and which have been converted into budget guesthouses and superluxe rentals – dot the hillside. The most original stay is hotel-and-recording-studio Geejam. But even with all its international influence, Port Antonio is a real Jamaican town. Bike to the beach or to the spliff-and-dancehall-fueled Roof Club (11 West St, 876-715-5281), full of locals and blissed-out expats. For jerk chicken, it's Boston Bay; for reggae, get down at one of the sonic boom sound-system parties.

More information: Fly to Kingston and drive two hours northeast. Geejam's villas are set into the rugged hills. [From $495; geejamhotel.com]

Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Just beyond Rio's most famous beach, Ipanema, is an even richer and more fashionable – but refreshingly subdued – hangout. The hamlet of Leblon is a mellow mix of Rio's most affluent Cariocas: tan, lithe locals who spend confounding amounts of free time nearly naked, playing futevôlei (no-hands volleyball), jogging or skating along the wide sidewalk, or sipping caipirinhas at colorful beachside kiosks. Leblon is Rio without the favela grit or the chaos of a major tourist party scene. Inland, bars and cafes line leafy streets amid upscale apartments and boutiques, where an older wealthy crowd ebbs and flows in typical Brazilian languor, before settling in at Jobi, a small boteco that serves the local draft, Chopp. Meanwhile, a younger contingent gets lively at Sushi Leblon and then hits the neighborhood's friendliest open-air spot, Bar VelosoAcademia da Cachaça, on Rua Conde Bernadotte, does inventive cocktails made from the famous sugarcane spirit until the wee hours. It is still Rio, after all, and plenty of bars, clubs, and cafes stay open – and busy – until sunrise. Then it's back to the beach.

More information: Fly to Rio, and then catch a taxi (about $35) for the 30-minute drive south. The apartments at Marina All Suites have sea views [from $270, marinaallsuites.com.br]

 

Todos Santos (Baja, Mexico)

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Todos Santos (Baja, Mexico)

Doing Baja right has always been a challenge: Cabo feels like Fort Lauderdale; clueless road trips can easily end in a breakdown among the cacti. But that uncrowded break, the cold Pacificos and cheap fish tacos – and the wild freedom of a big desert beach, sun setting behind the bonfire – are out there, in a place called Todos Santos.

Todos is the Santa Fe of the Mexican desert, a hip little artist community with an old colonial downtown and kids playing soccer in the square. It's not perfect: The town is a mile from the nearest beach, where the Pacific is too violent for safe swimming or surfing. But world-class waves hit La Pastora a few miles north and Los Cerritos – with an ideal beginner break – to the south. Those imperfections are what keep the mega-resorts away. Sure, you'll beat up the rental car bouncing down the dirt road, weaving among the palm trees until the blue sea comes into sight. But after you've ridden your last wave, you've still got top-shelf margaritas at the Hotel California – and more good restaurants than most cities ten times the size – just a few miles up the road. Or catch fishing boats as they come ashore in the afternoon and grab sashimi-grade ahi or a whole dorado for pennies on the dollar.

More information: Fly into San Jose del Cabo (SJD) and rent a car for the hour and one half drive to Todos, where bus and taxi service are limited. Major rental retailers are available, and Dominic's is a well-regarded local option.

Astopor

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Astopor

While luxury hotel chains and very un-Muslim nightlife are turning Marrakesh into the Miami of North Africa, Essaouira, the windswept port town 100 miles west, feels firmly stuck in the boho 1970s. There was a time when Hendrix, Cat Stevens, and the Stones all came to get lost in the town's mellow beach vibe and soak up the local Gnawa music. Today, it's Daenerys Targaryen. The city serves as a set for Game of Thrones, standing in for the slave city of Astapor.

At first, Essaouira (pronounced essa-WERA) feels slightly desolate, but after a few days wandering the souks and climbing the crumbling ramparts lined with galleries and seafood restaurants, you'll feel like a local, haggling with artisans for their carved-wood animals and drinking mint tea at one of the outdoor cafes in the main square, Place de L'Indépendence.

Essaouira is not your Caribbean-style beach scene: The waterfront is dominated by a busy fish market and the sand is less than pristine. Backpackers mingle with vacationing European couples while teenagers play pickup soccer alongside camels, which you can ride for a few dirham. While the waves are great for surfing, the sea's pretty cold all year and can be rough. But like the town itself, the water is blessedly empty, even in high season.

More information: Fly to Marrakesh and grab a taxi ($70) or bus ($8) for the two-and-a-half-hour drive west. Morocco's first eco-hotel, Lalla Mira, is a good old-town option. [from $58; lallamira.net]

 

Paia, Maui

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Paia, Maui

Paia, a former plantation town on Maui's north shore, is sort of a vacation spot for people who've been on vacation since 1969. For everyone else, it's the home of the legendary 50-foot wave Jaws – or it's that weird place you pass on your way to Hana or Haleakala volcano.

The vibrant three-block town is a patchwork of stained glass, wheatgrass shots, hemp vendors, and eclectic shops and restaurants. Maybe the only reason it never caught on with the package-deal crowd is because its nearest beaches are pummeled by huge and violent waves (for safe surfing and snorkeling, drive to Tavares Bay right on the edge of town).

Paia's position in the middle of Maui means great inland adventures. A few miles south, rising 10,023 feet into the clouds, is the dormant volcano Haleakala. Haleakala Bike Company will shuttle you to the top in predawn darkness, where you can watch the sun rise over the crater and then bomb the 23-mile, 29-switchback descent all the way back to town, in time for an Ono Benedict at Charley's. Come back to Charley's after hours and you may end up catching a surprise Willie Nelson gig: He has a place a few miles up the road.

More information: Fly to Kahului and grab a shuttle, or drive 15 minutes west. The Paia Inn is boutique-slick in the center of town [From $240; paiainn.com].

Isla Holbox, Mexico

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Isla Holbox, Mexico

In the past decade, the coastal idylls on Mexico's Mayan Riviera have been falling like dominoes under the flag of Señor Frog's. But a small island in the Gulf, 40 miles north of Cancún, remains unconquered. Isla Holbox – which requires a three-hour taxi ride on potholed, chicken-crossed roads through tiny villages, and then a ferry ride packed with grocery-shopping locals – greets you with a misty breeze as you wander its narrow dirt roads.

The island's main mode of transport is a fleet of past-their-prime golf carts, a fitting symbol for this 26-mile-long, two-mile-wide economic anomaly: a Yucatán fishing community living in one-story cinder-block shacks near the main square that coexists harmoniously with longtime expats running tidy thatched-roof pensiones and pizza restaurants along the beach. The hotels and restaurants feel like an archipelago of Swedish, French, and German islands, as palapa-shaded residents, lulled by hammocks and margaritas, drift into a shared discreet congeniality. Your third mezcal will make you feel like you've been dropped onto that floating city from 'The Empire Strikes Back' (minus Stormtroopers, which are strictly mainland), in a vaporous, temporal community of visitors.

You're not here to get wild, drunk, or laid, unless it's by someone you brought along (in which case you will, and frequently). You're here to enjoy the kind of solace a millionaire would travel thousands of miles to find. The bad news: The island has an ATM. The good news: It doesn't work so well.

More information: Fly to Cancún and catch a connector [$650 for five people; Aerosaab], or drive three hours to Chiquilá and take a ferry ($4). Casa Sandra is thatched-hut luxe right on the beach. [From $260; casasandra.com]

 

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

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Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

Start where the road ends. Drop Montevideo in the rearview mirror, even though the capital of Uruguay has the vibe (and steakhouses) of Buenos Aires 25 years ago. Get lunch in Punta del Este, the Malibu of South America, and drive on. Skip lovely José Ignacio, a really south Hampton, where the rich practice simplicity. Just east of there, at the Laguna Garzón, the coast road stops and skips a beat before you land in Cabo Polonio.

Sputter over the mouth of a lagoon onto a two-car ferry. On your right will be a beach with a mile-and-a-half-long left break; on your left, an eco-resort your girlfriend will melt over. Keep moving, if you can, to the sandy point. You've entered Rocha, a different South America, where the beaches get wider, the life slower, and a Brazilian vibe kicks in.

Off the grid but increasingly on the map, Cabo Polonio was founded by fishermen, squatters, dropouts, and hippies, but sits inside a national park, with no road access, electricity, or running water. Ditch your rental car at the trailhead and ride in a huge, balloon-tired truck over the dunes and out to the beach, where there are a couple of small hotels, though most people rent a bed in one of the 400 ranchitos, tiny two-room houses that dot the bluffs. Walk miles of empty beach, learn to surf among sea lions, or shop – there's one store, with no ice. Read or write by candlelight. You might see right whales, or just sit still for hours hoping to. Pay no attention to the locals, who tend to wander the streetless village with a smile, often burning a joint. There are other towns out here, but Cabo Polonio is where you need to be now.

The government is slated to break up this bohemia and will remove at least 100 illegal houses soon. "We may not be here when you come back," says Laura Cánepa, who owns the Posada de los Corvinos, a small pink house that is, with seven beds, one of the largest guest accommodations in the area. Working from photographs, park rangers demolish any new additions or improvements to the rustic houses. The settlement's future is in doubt, but time changes everything. Cánepa doesn't miss the days before cell phones. "Now I text my neighbor right in front," she laughs. Her new LCD lights drain the solar panels less, and life is beautifully bearable in this half-unplugged township of the imagination. Someday electricity will arrive. Maybe they'll even put a bridge over the lagoon. But for now, you've reached the end of your road.

More information: Fly to Montevideo and take a five-hour bus ride ($15), or land in Buenos Aires and ferry to Montevideo. The funky, solar-powered Posada de los Corvinos sits a few hundred yards from the sea (from $10).

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

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San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

There's a point in every surf movie when the wandering heroes pile into a Land Rover and bounce their way down a rocky cow path or jungle road that ends where the ocean begins – a surf idyll with steady waves and a handful of locals riding a break that would be lousy with boards back home. That scene plays out daily in Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur, a town so Pacifically mellow that its chief concern is hitching a ride out to one of the beaches tucked along the coast to the north and south.

Today's destination is Playa Hermosa, a few coves south of town. The half-hour journey entails several river crossings, many tons of obstructive livestock, and a $3 fee paid to the stern woman manning the gate. Riding shotgun is Rex Calderón, a 19-year-old San Juan native and the best junior surfer in Central America, who explains why the woman's husband is climbing onto our pickup. "Security," Rex tells me. "Sometimes banditos in through here. With pistolas."

There remains a scary side to Nicaragua – armed insurrection, grudge-holding Sandinistas, those banditos – but it's largely by reputation only. Besides, it was the country's leftist leanings that kept it from becoming Costa Rica sooner, as decades of war and well-earned anti-American resentment delayed the invasion of the hemisphere's most intrusive tourist force. The Nicas I meet are still happy to see foreigners toting backpacks and longboards. With the exception of a few adventurous Californians, people didn't surf here until the late 1990s. But once they started, word traveled fast.

Playa Hermosa is a stunning stretch of jagged Pacific coast, with a rickety outdoor bar that rents boards and sells beer, and a newly renovated wooden A-frame with bathrooms and an outdoor shower. Even the road to get there has improved lately. A steep stretch of it was paved – reparations paid by 'Survivor,' which filmed a season here – after secrecy-obsessed producers shut down cove access, even by boat, to fishermen and surfers. There are a total of three people in the water – Brits on surf holiday – when I flop down on my board.

Most of the great beaches that surround San Juan del Sur – Maderas, Remanso, Tamarindo – are similarly outfitted: There's usually a place to borrow some wax and scarf a fish taco. That San Juan has no real break of its own doesn't diminish it as a beach town. More than one Nica reminds me that San Juan del Sur is "the St.-Tropez of Nicaragua," and the beachgoing here is closer in spirit to the South of France than to Southern California. Few people are swimming or diving for volleyballs in the sand. Instead it's the kind of beach where a three-generation family will decamp on a Sunday afternoon for ceviche de pulpo, grilled camarones, and as many Toñas – the delicious national lager that costs only $1 – as they can down before driving back to Managua.

San Juan sheds that familial vibe each night. The steady offshore breeze from nearby Lake Nicaragua means there's no need to rise with the roosters to catch decent waves, and partying in San Juan often means meeting the roosters head-on. "It's one of the few surf towns where you can surf and party," says Javier Baldovinos, who founded the Nicaragua Surfing Association a few years ago. With outdoor bars like the Black Whale and Henry's Iguana offering cheap Toñas, local rum, and sweaty, makeshift dance floors where dozens of countries of origin are represented, San Juan attracts savvy party people, but also wandering spirits who stumble in and never leave.

Take Henry Roy, a white-haired ex-pilot quietly lording over the evening with a Cuban tucked into his mouth, a local girlfriend at his side, and a laptop that empowers him to play "Brick House" whenever he damn well wants to. Roy was laid off after 9/11, so he bought a Ford 4WD and drove down from Houston. "I never did use the four-wheel drive, but I did hit a cow," he says. "San Juan in 2002 felt like Montana in the 1970s. You could get drunk on $5. It soaks into you. It's got soul."

It's true that San Juan's draw transcends surfing. When Rob Thomas left his stress chamber of a futures-trading desk to move here, it wasn't the waves that brought him. He and his wife opened El Gato Negro, an expat hub serving San Juan's best coffee, which they grow and roast themselves. (They also refuse to serve it to go, on the grounds that if you don't have five minutes to enjoy a coffee, you can get it elsewhere.) After work, Rob bikes the jungle trails around town. "When I got to San Juan, I bought a $65 Chinese mountain bike and started getting lost in the woods," he recalls. "Now I have an $8,000 carbon-fiber bike and a network of trails in my head." But all that tech doesn't prevent him from getting smoked once in a while. "There are strong riders here," he says. "I got caught on a hill by a guy with an old bent bike and a machete taped to his crossbar. He was wearing flip-flops!"

Collioure, France

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Collioure, France

Collioure is not the Mediterranean of millionaires, whose yachts and bronzed bodies clutter the azure waters of Saint-Tropez. Collioure is that rare workingman's Med: an unpretentious fishing village with pebbly beaches, 320 days of sun, and a tan it comes by honestly. Yet somehow it still exudes the mysterious air once breathed in by artists like Henri Matisse, lured here by its pure light and lusty vitality.

French for the past 350 years, Collioure is a distinctly Catalan town, set in a cove where the Pyrenees fall into the sea, just 15 miles from Spain. Its pastel row houses ascend from a small bay that twinkles like wet paint. Life in Collioure carries little urgency. In summer the beaches fill up with French families on holiday, but there are five to choose from – the Plage de Port D'Avall is the town's best. Grilled fish a la plancha and glasses of wine are served nearby on sunny seaside terraces.

At night Collioure's cobblestone streets feel intimate, as Catalans duck into lamp-lit cafes like Casa Léon on Rue Rière. Order a crème catalane, a rich custard dessert, and a glass of local Banyuls red, which smells like baked fruit and tastes sweet, sunny, and sincere – everything the Mediterranean should be.

Getting There: Fly to Barcelona and catch a three-hour train ride [$42]; it's six hours from Paris. Casa Païral is a 19th-century Catalan home. [From $120; en.hotel-casa-pairal.com]

Ericeira, Portugal

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Ericeira, Portugal

Just 30 minutes from Lisbon, Ericeira has a lively urban edge that's rare in old-world European beach towns. Tradition rules in this beautiful 12th-century fishing village, but the town also embraces a youthful crowd of professional surfers and laid-back Continental partyers.

Narrow cobblestone streets, whitewashed walls, and cobalt-blue trim surround locals flashing big smiles in front of family-owned outdoor cafes, pastelerías, and restaurants in the main plaza. The town's famous mid-19th-century philharmonic draws Lisbon socialites and fans from all over the country.

But for what makes this town unique, seek out Ericeira's beach parties, which are raw yet refined. Praia do Sul is full of tan Europeans bobbing their heads to house music; on Praia dos Pescadores, the local favorite, there's always a pickup soccer game. Grab at least one meal at the funky pizzeria on Ribeira d'Ilhas beach. It morphs into a dance club, and then spills out onto the beach around two in the morning, where the dancing continues until sunrise. And if you want to keep going after that, Lisbon is only a half hour away.

Getting There: Fly to Lisbon and drive 30 minutes north. Coxos Beach Lodge sits within the Natural Surf Reserve, a couple of minutes from town. [From $80; coxosbeachlodge.com]

 

Raglan, New Zealand

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Raglan, New Zealand

Immortalized in the 1960s film 'The Endless Summer' as home to a series of three world class left point breaks (Indicator, Whale Bay, and Manu Bay), Raglan, New Zealand has been famous for its surf ever since. Occasionally, the points link up and produce rides in excess of one mile – some of the longest waves found anywhere in the world. Because of this, life in Raglan is still largely dictated by the wind, tide, and swell. If the conditions are good, chances are a lot of the local businesses will be closed with "gone surfing" signs hanging on the door.

While certainly surf-centric, the waves aren't the only thing to catch in Raglan. In the last few decades Raglan has quietly become a counterculture hotspot and gathering place for an eclectic group of artists, musicians, organic farmers, and surfers from around the world, all drawn to Raglan's long waves, laid-back lifestyle, and natural beauty. The picturesque lively downtown boasts a huge variety of restaurants like The Orca Restaurant and Bar (known for its freshly caught seafood) and art galleries like Matapihi (a showcase for talented local artists). Plus, live music is plentiful and other cultural events like the Raglan Film Festival abound throughout the year.

The best place to stay in Raglan is in a camper van, which are plentiful in New Zealand and can be bought from other travelers about to leave, or rented at many locations easily. There are a number of formal and informal campsites and hostels that cater specifically to van life; two of the best are Kopua Holiday Park, located right in town near the harbor and the Karioi Lodge, a few clicks outside of town near the surf. There are also private houses to rent and hotels depending on your taste. It usually costs about 20-30 NZD ($17-$20 USD) per night for RV camping and hotels range from 30-200 NZD ($25-$250 USD) per night.

If the wind is onshore, the surf is flat, or your arms feel like wet noodles from paddling back up the point after the long rides Raglan is famous for, then check out Bridal Veil Falls, a 180-foot waterfall a few minutes from town. There are also a variety of road and mountain bike trails available, along with sea kayaking and an 18-hole golf course in town. The beautiful black sand beach of Ngarunui is a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike and the location of the renowned Raglan Surf School.

Beautiful, relaxed, and always full of action, visiting Raglan can be tricky. It's one of those places you go for a week and end up staying for a month or two. Don't say we didn't warn you.

More information: Fly to Hamilton, roughly 30 miles to the east, and catch a shuttle ($43) or a bus ($35) – a two-person minimum applies. [raglanscenictours.co.nz]

 

Kotor, Montenegro

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Kotor, Montenegro

In the very best way possible, Kotor, Montenegro is a veritable backwater. To get there, you first have to sail down the Adriatic Sea's Croatian coast, pass into the Gulf of Herceg-Novi, carefully cruise through the narrow Verige Strait, and then, finally, continue east and then south through the sky-blue Boko Kotorska (Bay of Kotor). Your arrival will be unmistakable, as the splendor of Kotor unfolds before you. You'd swear you were in a Norwegian fjord, were it not for the 100-degree temperature, Venetian-style architecture, and really cheap (but good) beer.

Kotor packs its harbor front like a symphony orchestra sits on a stage. It has to, because immediately behind it rise steep, craggy mountains with Mediterranean cypress trees growing high and thin from the solid rock. The lack of cover makes it easy to see Kotor's ancient walled fortress from the water, and from nearly every place in town, for that matter. Enormous stone walls snake up the mountain for nearly three miles, tracing out an arc of protection from the seafront to the fortress buildings atop the mountain and back down. At night, the entire length of the walls is floodlit, making for one spectacular view.

To reach the top of the mountain, put on hiking boots, slip the town's gatekeeper three euros, and then climb 1350 semi-crumbling steps to the top. After reaching the fortress on the peak, head back down to one of the many open-air cafes in the city's charming and seemingly prosperous old town. Or, should you visit in the scorching heat of mid-summer, you won't be faulted if you simply stop halfway up and buy a beer from the vendor who invariably sits with his ice chest in the welcoming shade of the ancient Our Lady of Remedy church (built by 14th-century plague survivors). It's the perfect place to hang out and thank your maker, while gazing up towards the unforgiving, winding rocky top and down to the sparkling azure and terra cotta scene below.

The stari grad (old town) is a jumble of narrow streets and town squares filled with medieval architecture, 12th-century churches, and small shops. The seafood in Kotor is fresh and tasty, and places like the Cesarica and Luna Rossa have good reputations. We're especially fond of the outdoor Scorpio Caffé: Here, shaded by the spire of St. Nicholas's church, you can view the fortress, use the free Wi-Fi, enjoy relaxed but gracious service, and drink your fill of Karlovac or Nikšiko beer for practically nothing. As the locals say, Ziveli!

More information: Besides the elaborate coastal route mentioned above, for which you'd need to charter your own boat, Kotor can also be reached by flying to the nearest airport at Tivat (TIV), about five miles away. Montenegro Airlines offers the most nonstop flights from European hubs such as Belgrade, Copenhagen, London-Gatwick, Paris, and Rome, among others.

Teahupo'o, Tahiti

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Teahupo'o, Tahiti

For most of us, Tahiti is a stereotype: a South Pacific honeymoon spot but with actual native Polynesians fishing off their traditional outrigger canoes. Fact is, though, that few giddy newlyweds actually stay on the main island, and, after landing at Pape'ete airport, promptly continue on instead to Bora Bora or the neighboring atolls, with their luxurious overwater bungalows. We fly to Tahiti, however, for one important reason: Teahupo'o.

A remote fishing and farming village on the southern tip of the main island, Teahupo'o is a mystical green-mountain wonderland where wild roosters and dogs scamper around, locals sell pineapple and raw tuna poisson cru, and incredible waterfalls and deserted swimming spots are within a short drive. The place looks like a set from 'Lost' in the best of ways, and it comes alive every year during Billabong's annual surf competition, which pits the world's best surfers against possibly the world's heaviest wave – a torque-driven monster that breaks in shallow water over a reef that can slice your head off. (Laird Hamilton famously battled it in the excellent 2004 surf-doc 'Riding Giants').

Surprisingly, summer is the best time to visit Tahiti: Despite a permanently warm, humid climate, the island is never drier and cooler than in June, July, and August. Even then it's hard to find good accommodations in Teahupo'o proper, so we recommend staying at the Manava Suite Resort (from $270; spmhotels.com), an all-suite W-style hotel that's a departure from all the other old-school-Polynesian options. What's great about the Manava, besides sleek design and the largest infinity pool on the island, is that it's minutes from the main Tahiti airport in Pape'ete, where you often must land late at night. It's also just a 40-minute drive down to Teahupo'o. In fact, we've spotted surf-contest competitors staying there, and it looks right out on the island of Moorea, which has its own killer surf breaks and is accessible via a 30-minute ferry ride.

Can anyone surf Teahupo'o? Don't be ridiculous. Despite its tempting barrels, this wave ranges from 10 feet up to 70 and is all but reserved for experts. But watching the pros from a small boat piloted by a local from the town's marina is one of the great spectator sports in the world. If you want to get in the water as a novice, there are plenty of more manageable breaks along the roads that lead back up to your hotel – although after seeing some epic Teahupo'o wipeouts, we're not always in the mood.

More information: Air Tahiti Nui and Air France offer direct, nine-hour flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti's main airport at Pape'ete. To get to Teahupo'o, rent a car, and drive south from the airport along the western coast of the island until you hit the southern portion of the island called Tahiti Iti. Teahupo'o is in the southern portion of that area.

 

Wellfleet, Massachusetts

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Wellfleet, Massachusetts

Cape Cod is beloved by Northeasterners on vacation, to say nothing of the many people who fly in from all over the world, to experience some Norman Rockwell-hits-the-beach charm when the days get long and the sun stays hot. But Cape Cod – that is to say most of the parts of it that you may want to visit – has a tourism problem. There are too many people, too many cute B&B's, too many general stores where you can buy homemade candy, rubber sharks, and souvenir T-shirts. The crowd issue is especially acute around Hyannis, where the Kennedys live, and further east, toward Brewster and Yarmouth.

We don't recommend avoiding the Cape altogether – although you will experience traffic with a lovely Los Angeles quality on weekends. We just prefer to head past the cutesy areas of the south and western Cape and drive right up to the northeastern section, just south of the tip, on the protected national seashore. The name of the place is Wellfleet (you may recognize the name from seeing its superior oysters on the menus of great restaurants), and it's still a wooded wonderland of rustic homes, fresh and saltwater ponds, a laid-back harbor-and-ocean town – albeit popular with discerning tourists for art and antique galleries – as well as magnificent 150-foot-high sand-cliff beaches.

But don't just take our word for it. The place has served as inspiration and sanctuary for some of the finest writers, including Thoreau, Edmund Wilson (the critic who mentored F. Scott Fitzgerald and frequently welcomed visitors like Auden and Dos Passos), John Cheever, The New Yorker's Philip Hamburger, and many other masters of narrative. (Vonnegut lived nearby in Barnstable, but we won't hold that against him.)

We love Wellfleet's simplicity, even if our favorite stretch of sand veers toward the popular. It's called Cahoon Hollow Beach, and it backs up to those epic sand cliffs you must climb down. Once you're at the water's edge, you are literally so far east that the sun is at your back, and it's not uncommon for people to sit with a view of the cliff behind you. Sure, a shark or two has been seen in this refreshingly chilly water, but more have been seen in the manicured and mannered Chatham to the south, and the water here is rougher, rendering it ideal for a body – or a surfboard. Luckily, you don't have to venture far for refreshments, either. At the top of the cliff, where you parked your car, lives a famous restaurant and bar called The Beachcomber, where you must eat fried whole belly clams (or some shellfish) and drink a summer ale, lest the magic of the place with its bustling outdoor deck, impassioned Red Sox fans, and haphazard nature fail to appeal to you.

Wellfleet's not about luxury hotels, which is part of why we love it, and it's most common to rent yourself a cottage in the area, either through HomeAway or at the Wellfleet Colony, a collection of Bauhaus-inspired homes where the writers Lionel Trilling and Bernard Malamud retreated from their urbane, literary lives. Wellfleet is unapologetic about its intellectual history, but it lacks pretensions, and that's likely what provided solace to so many notable minds, to say nothing of the many doctors and academics who continue to seek out the place. What the town can promise you is rest, a sense of escape that will reboot you anew. That's why everyone, including the Pilgrims, first came to the Cape.

 

 

 

 

 

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