Pauline Frommer, 42, remembers first visiting Cancun as a seventh-grader when her father, Arthur, author of the famous Frommer Travel Guides — reported on the coastal city’s very first hotel.
“It was completely deserted back then,” says Frommer, also a travel writer.
Unfortunately, such secluded beaches rarely stay that way for long. Cancun has morphed into a sun worshiper’s Mecca as famous for its high-rise hotels and nightclubs as for its beaches.
Some of the islands off of Cancun, like Isla Mujeres, have absorbed the overflow, attracting travelers who just want to get away from it all. While some enjoy the apres-beach activities of Cancun, many others are simply seeking that idyllic patch of white-sugar sand where they can stretch out a towel, unplug and tune out. Especially these days, when any news on your BlackBerry is bound to be grim.
Of course, if you’re willing to spend the money — and lots of it — you can find your private patch of paradise at five-star beach resorts. Make that semi-private. The extremely high end of luxury travel, says Martha Gaughen, a vice president with Sterling Brownell Travel in Atlanta, seems to be recession proof, for now. So, if you were thinking you’d have the beach to yourself in St. Barths this year, think again.
“People who were holding off making their travel plans are booking them now” at the higher-end Caribbean resorts, says Gaughen.
With effort comes privacy
So where can you go if you really want to get away from it all? Just like her experience in Cancun 30 years ago, Frommer says there are still plenty of stunning, secluded beaches around the globe.
“They are just a little harder to get to,” she says, “and if what you’re looking for is total seclusion, you’re probably going to have to give up some amenities to enjoy it.” And the best part is, fewer amenities often means a lower price tag.
You’ll find total seclusion on the island of Holbox, near Cancun, Frommer says. The northernmost island in the state of Quintana Roo is completely undeveloped and it boasts some of the most scenic — and isolated — beaches in the Yucatan peninsula.
“The streets are sand-packed and the beach is lined with palm-thatched huts,” says Frommer. “There are no ATMs and there is absolutely no cell service. You can spend days without seeing a car.”
While a room in Cancun can set you back $1,000 a night at a place like the Mandarin Oriental, the most you’ll pay per night on Holbox is $300. You can even rent a two-bedroom bungalow for $1,000 a week.
People usually visit the island on day trips from other neighboring islands to explore the (friendly) whale shark caves, but if you can put up with less-than-super-posh accommodations, “it’s quite a beautiful place to relax.”
The Caribbean and beyond
We asked Gaughen, Frommer and other travel experts to share some of their favorite beach sanctuaries around the world. Our only requirement was that the beaches be public, not limited to guests of any particular resort.
Predictably, several are in the Caribbean. Others, like the beaches of Ecola State Park, are as close as the Oregon Coast.
“Though rocky, the beaches on Oregon’s coast are gorgeous,” says Frommer. “They can be quite secluded. They’re perfect for long walks and the vistas are spectacular.”
Frommer also appreciates the beaches’ proximity to artistic communities where you’re more likely to find an inspiring art gallery than a tacky bar serving umbrella drinks.
She’s also partial to the milky white beaches of Molokai often referred to as the old island, or the most Hawaiian island. “To me, Molokai is what I imagine Hawaii must have looked like when Capt. Cook first set eyes on the islands,” she says. “Literally all of the tiny coves and beaches on this island are so private that you are often the only person there.”
The island is only slightly more expensive to get to from Honolulu ($135 one way), but a beach-front room at the authentic Hotel Molokai with your own private lanai is only $220 a night.
Much closer for many, Gaughen says some of her favorite secluded beaches can be found St. Barths. She likes Colombier Beach in particular, which is accessible only by boat or a trek down a goat trail.
She also likes many of the tiny beach coves in the British Virgin Islands, many of which have no name. If you stay at some of the swankier BVI resorts, like Little Dix Bay, they will take you out on whaler boats and drop you off with lunch, an umbrella and a walkie-talkie on a desolate patch of sand where it can be just you, your Tony Hillerman novel and the waves. When you’re ready to head back, you use the walkie-talkie and the boat comes to pick you up.
Travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes says “there are zillions of romantic, secluded beaches out there” but “access” is almost always the problem. As the lead author of Lonely Planet’s Caribbean Guide, Ver Berkmoes has spent a fair amount of time poking around the islands trying to ferret out the top beaches.
Fit for A princess
He says while Antigua champions its 365 beaches (one for every day of the year), it’s Antigua’s smaller, sister island of Barbuda — 25 miles to the northeast — that has the better, more secluded beaches. In fact, Barbuda’s miles of white- and pink-hued beaches have been largely left untouched — which is why this was a favorite destination of Princess Diana.
“It’s kind of hard to get to, but it’s not impossible,” says Ver Berkmoes. You must first fly to Antigua. From there, you can take a ferry, though the service is somewhat quixotic, he says, or you can charter a plane or helicopter ($200 round trip). “And once you get there, the whole place is practically a private beach complete with all the clichés: sand as white as sheets and water so clear you can see the bottom.”
There are little beach-side rental cottages “and a few places to get a good meal and a cold beer, but on Barbuda, it’s all about the beach.”
The guest houses range from $50 to $150 a night. The most expensive lodging is at North Beach Cottages, on the northern tip of Barbuda. Three simple bungalows right on the beach and accessible only by boat, rent for $400 a night — meals (plenty of lobster) included.
Ver Berkmoes is also fond of Bonaire, which gets lots of attention for its underwater attractions (great scuba diving), but deserves recognition for its stretch of pink sand beaches. “If you like long walks in the middle of nowhere, the beaches at the south end of the island are fantastic,” he says. “You can walk forever.”
Outside of the Caribbean, Ver Berkmoes was charmed by White Sand Beach, “a perfect little cove on the East Coast of Bali with a big, jungle backdrop.” It’s one of the few beaches on picturesque Bali that does not have black sand and, when he discovered it four years ago, “There was not a soul, just a few fishermen.”
He wrote about it rather enthusiastically in the Bali guide, and when he returned in 2006 “there were some huts selling cold beer, and day beds to rent.” This year, when he returned to White Sand Beach, several simple seafood grills had set up shop on the sand.
His advice? Enjoy this one while you still can.