While the words beach vacation usually call to mind a tropical white-sand beach studded with palm trees and lapped by turquoise waters, the truth is that the world’s beaches come in all shapes and sizes—some stranger than others. There are black, green, red, and even purple stretches of sand. Humans also add their own bizarre twists to the beaches of the world and have even tried to trump Mother Nature. Just look at the world’s largest swimming pool (pictured below), which runs alongside a gorgeous Pacific Ocean beach in Chile. Oh, what will they think up next?
You wouldn’t expect Iceland to be a swimmer’s paradise. But then you probably haven’t been to Nauthólsvík Beach on the southern coast of Reykjavík. While ocean temperatures this far north normally top out at a frigid 50 degrees, runoff from the capital’s geothermal heating system (safely) warms the seawater of this sheltered cove to a comfortable 70 degrees in summer. If that’s still too cool, for a few bucks you can steep in the two “hot pots” (pools filled with 100 degree freshwater).
Beyond the beach: Once your fingers go all pruney from your soak, rent a boat from the Siglunes Sailing Club, or refuel with carrot soup and the catch of the day at nearby Nauthóll Bistro. Spend the evening chilling out at the 56-room Hotel Borg, an elegant Art Deco beauty in Reykjavík’s central square.
About seven miles north of Liverpool is a little coastal village called Crosby. It would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the 100 anatomically correct cast-iron human figures that stand on its beach, facing out to sea. This surreal scene, called Another Place, is the work of English sculptor Antony Gormley, who used a cast of his own naked body for the installation. The statues, which were previously exhibited in Norway, Germany, and Belgium, were supposed to be shipped off to New York City in 2006, but locals fought to keep them here. Some statues are submerged when the rather large tides come in, and over the years, they’ve attracted barnacles and sunk into the sand. Still, it would be easy to mistake these lifelike statues for nudists watching the horizon—if it weren’t for the freezing British location.
Beyond the beach: The Crosby Lakeside Adventure Centre, which includes a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, and fitness center, opened in late 2009, but the town still lacks good lodging options. Liverpool’s landmark Atlantic Hotel—though a bit austere—offers outstanding views of the city’s historic buildings and waterfront from its 225 rooms.
San Alfonso del Mar
Seeing as San Alfonso del Mar fronts a huge beach and the Pacific Ocean, it seems an odd spot for the world’s largest swimming pool. But the pool’s remarkable spaciousness complements the ocean beyond rather effortlessly, and jumping in the pool’s 79 degree water is a much more tempting prospect than venturing into the 63 degree seawater nearby, with its dangerous waves and currents. The resort complex on Chile’s central coast resembles a modern Mayan city, with pyramidlike apartment buildings towering above the colossal saltwater pool. Well, since it’s over half a mile long and holds about 66 million gallons of water, it’s more like a lake. Lining the pool are white-sand beaches, palm trees, and docks for the sailboats that ply the gin-clear water.
Beyond the beach: With such a large pool to get around, it’s definitely easiest to stay directly at the resort. If the mammoth lagoon doesn’t keep you occupied, there’s scuba diving, golf, tennis, paragliding, soccer fields, volleyball courts, a 3-D golf simulator, a full gym, a club, an open-air amphitheater, cafés, ice-cream parlors, tea shops, and an aquarium. Let’s just say you won’t be bored here.
Bowling Ball Beach
Mendocino County, California
Part of Schooner Gulch State Beach, Bowling Ball Beach in northern California’s Mendocino County looks like an art installation—yet it’s all natural. Round boulders, roughly four to five feet in diameter, begin poking out of the water with the shifting of the tides. By the lowest ebb, the sand is covered with neat rows of these strange balls. Technically known as concretions, the hard, mineral-based spheres have resisted the endless lashing of the Pacific, while the Cenozoic mudstone that once surrounded them has eroded away to form the cliffs that line the shore. Despite the perfectly reasonable explanation, the boulders add an eerie vibe to an already otherworldly stretch of remote Californian coastline. (Note: The main trail to Bowling Ball Beach is currently closed for repairs; only experienced hikers should attempt the steeper alternate routes.)
Beyond the beach: Perched on the head of a cliff three miles up the coast, the 115-foot-high Point Arena Lighthouse is one of the tallest lighthouse towers on the West Coast. Originally built in 1870, it was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and rebuilt in 1907. Guests can spend the night in one of its four keeper’s houses, all with fireplaces, full kitchens, and sea views.
Tropical Islands Resort
While it’s assumed Germans like to travel far and wide to tropical hot spots, this wacky indoor world brings the beach vacation to them. Housed in a former airship hangar that covers the area of about eight football fields, Tropical Islands claims to be the world’s largest indoor water park and the largest freestanding hall in the world (at 32 stories high, the Statue of Liberty could stand upright in it). Even in the dead of winter, you can build sand castles under palm trees on the 650-foot-long beach, take a dip in the “sea,” or suntan on a lounge chair—the south-side roof is made of transparent foil. Tropical Islands also features the world’s largest indoor rain forest (50,000 plants) and Germany’s highest waterslide (82 feet). Oh, and did we mention the fitness center, 18-hole mini golf course, and evening magic shows?
Beyond the beach: Located about 37 miles south of Berlin and 62 miles north of Dresden, Tropical Islands is convenient to Germany’s well-trodden tourist path. If you don’t want to trek back to Berlin after a day at the beach, check into the 28-room Landhotel Krausnick, a simple, clean, and efficient chalet-style inn just a five-minute drive from Tropical Islands.
Hong Kong, China
Repulse Bay Beach, an artificial strip of sand on the south side of Hong Kong Island, is one of that city’s most popular beaches, and you’ll know it by the throngs who pack the place on sunny summer days. Shark nets and floating platforms have been added for swimmers, and of course the needs of a nearby dragon also had to be considered during the construction of a 37-story residential building on the hillside behind the beach. Legend has it a dragon lives at the top of the mountain, and a feng shui master warned that the building would block the dragon’s access to the shore. Hence, a large hole was cut out of the tower’s center to mollify the dragon and avoid a whole lot of bad luck.
Beyond the beach: Repulse Bay Beach is also famous for the elaborate statues of Chinese sea goddesses at the Kwun Yam Shrine. Throw a coin into the mouth of the fish statue and receive good fortune; cross the gaudy Longevity Bridge and add three days to your life! Once you’ve had your fill of dragons and superstition, retire to Jia, a Philippe Starck–designed hotel in Causeway Bay that has 54 apartment-style guest rooms.