Pamukkale, Denizli Province, Turkey
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The white travertine terraces filled with the warm, translucent water of Pamukkale are a fluke, a fortuitous quirk of geological whim. The calcite-laden waters derive from springs in a cliff almost 200-metres high and their path has created an incredible landscape that culminates in a series of stepped pools. The ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis was built nearby and people have been bathing in the pools carved out by the hot flowing waters for thousands of years.
Firopotamos, Milos, Greece
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Milos is a lesser-known Cyclades island – thanks to its history as a mining asset, it’s much less developed than some of its neighbours. Its dramatic volcanic rock formations rise up out of waters that range from emerald to cerulean. One of the island’s most charming beaches is the tiny strip of sand at Firopotamos, surrounded by colourful fishermen’s houses with syrmata – boat garages – on the ground floor. Swim out to the tip of Firopotamos to see a disused ladder sticking up out of the sea – it was once used to deliver supplies – then look up to lands to see the Church of Saint Nikolaos.
Aitutaki, Cook Islands
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Just 1800 people live on the island of Aitutaki, which means “little paradise”, but the rest of us can at least experience the main island and the 15 motus (tiny islets) that are dotted across an enormous, twinkling lagoon in the South Pacific.
The Exumas, Bahamas
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More than 365 islands, also called cays, make up the Exhuma region, which means visitors can swim with other tourists off larger islands or discover lonesome islets to explore alone. There’s also the option to swim off Pig Beach with a cohort of enthusiastic wild pigs. True story.
Crater Lake, Oregon, United States
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Located in Crater Lake National Park, this is a caldera lake, formed by volcanic magma more than 7000 years ago. Swimmers can enjoy water that is among the purest in the world but only at Cleetwood Cove, and only for a short amount of time each year (mid-June to mid-September) due to the very cool temperatures.
St Peter’s Pool, Malta
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Malta has plenty of gorgeous beaches with clear blue-green waters and white sands but to lose the tourists, check out St Peter’s Pool near Marsaxlokk. A natural swimming pool set in a sheltered bay, it’s popular with locals and snorkellers. There are ladders to descend into the pool but it’s more fun to hurl yourself off a rocky platform into the cool depths.
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Even saying the word Zanzibar evokes something exotic – you can almost smell the spices and hear the waves lapping at white sand. There are more than 25 beaches on the main island, Unguja (generally referred to as Zanzibar), but Matemwe is the longest and most unspoiled. It’s a stretch of swaying palm trees and white sand, with a lagoon fronting the village. Swimmers can enjoy the clear blue waters and snorkellers should venture out to Mnemba Island, where you can spot some impressive marine life, including giant trevally and trumpetfish.
The Blue Lagoon, Grindavík, Iceland
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Iceland’s incredible Blue Lagoon is supplied with geothermal water that originates two kilometres beneath the surface. On its way to the lagoon, the water picks up minerals, algae and silica but before it gets there it passes through a plant that uses its heat to power municipal hot water. Clever, right? The water finally reaches its destination in pools sunk into black lava. It’s the silica reacting with sunlight that gives the lagoon its incredible blue colour. Year round, the Blue Lagoon is a toasty 37-40 degrees, meaning in the depths of the icy winter you can wallow in the warmth and gaze at the Northern Lights.
Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island, Australia
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Fingers will prune and still it’s impossible to pull yourself from the gorgeous water of Lake McKenzie. It supports very little life thanks to the white silica sand that helps purify the rainwater that makes up the lake.
Phi Phi Leh, Phuket, Thailand
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Everywhere you look is postcard-perfect on the Phi Phi Islands. The small uninhabited Phi Phi Leh is the tropical idyll on which the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach was shot. At Maya Bay, sheltered by soaring cliffs on three sides, tourists duck-dive in the exceptionally clear waters before returning to the larger islands as the sun sets.
Playa Blanca, Isla Baru, Colombia
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True to its name, the sand on Playa Blanca (white beach) is as white as white can be and powdery soft to boot. The water is warm and turquoise-clear, and tiny fish dart about in the shallows. The island is reached by boat from gorgeous, crumbling, colonial Cartagena, Colombia’s northernmost town. Visitors can sleep in basic thatched huts with sand floors on the beach or pay a very small fee to sleep in a hammock and drift off to the sound of the gentle lapping sea.
Layang Layang, Malaysia
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A remote island 300 kilometres north of Borneo, Layang Layang is so isolated and the waters of its reef so deep and clean that only passionate divers tend to visit. There’s one resort and a naval base but of most interest is what’s below the surface of the water: teeming with marine life, the reef is roamed by exotic species such as barracuda, dogtooth tuna, butterfly fish and sharks.
To Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa
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At some stage in history a volcano went off in Lotofaga, on the south coast of Upolu island in Samoa, creating a lava tube cave that connects the ocean to an enormous 30-metre-deep trench in the earth. A wooden ladder leads down to the grotto and the view from the top is most captivating – you can see right down to the white sandy bottom of the pool.
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
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Copacabana, the Girl from Ipanema, itsy-bitsy bikinis – Brazil is known for its beach life but the island of Fernando de Noronha is a local secret. It’s all lush green forests, pristine sand and glinting clear waters protected by its UNESCO World Heritage status. Snorkelling the waters around the unbelievably pretty Baia do Sancho reveals communities of spinner dolphins, turtles and hundreds of species of fish.
Divna Beach, Dalmatia, Croatia
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The view from the water at Divna (which translates as “beautiful”) is of green hills and quaint stone houses set right on the pebbly beach. The water is clear and the small white pebbles worn smooth and soft by time and tides.
Radhanagar Beach, India
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Tucked away on the archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal, the forest-filled Havelock Island is the stuff of desert-island dreams. The two-kilometre stretch of Radhanagar Beach in particular is worth fantasising about, with fine, shell-white sand, impossibly clear waters and jungle canopies reaching over its edges. The area is teeming with aquatic life, too, making snorkelling a must.
Zlatni Rat Beach, Croatia
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An arrow-shaped peninsula pointing straight into the Adriatic Sea, this one-of-a-kind cape is on the southern side of Brač Island, one of the larger atolls in the cluster off the coast of Croatia. In addition to hosting over half a million trees bearing the rare buhavica olive variety, this picturesque island has this little beauty which, understandably, gets a lot of visitors during the warmer months.
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Although the main drawcard to this site remains the 13th century Mayan ruins perched on the cusp of the Caribbean Sea, the beach below doesn’t hurt as a backdrop. The coast known as “Tulum” actually extends for what is roughly a 10-kilometre stretch of coastline just east of Tulum town proper and its entire expanse is blindingly white and tinged with tropics. There’s also a noteworthy length of restaurants and bars running parallel to the coast – the only fair rival to such stunning shores.
Cape Greco, Cyprus
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Although the strip-mall-style town of nearby Ayia Napa and its seasonal crush of British partygoers isn’t overly tempting for outdoor types, there are still pockets of this eastern Cypriot corner worth exploring. Hugged by the Cape Greco National Forest Park, this headland is a wealth of beaches, sea caves and coves just asking to be dived into. Back on land, there are walking trails through the forest and out to the cliff edge where a modern Greek church, the Agioi Anargyroi Chapel, overlooks the Eastern Mediterranean.
Playa del Amor, Mexico
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Although many of Mexico’s edges are dotted with natural cenotes, the enormous sinkhole punctured into Islas Marietas is said to be the result of man-made destruction. As an uninhabited island off Mexico’s west coast, the island was supposedly exposed to extensive military weapon and artillery testing from the early 1900s, creating the bowl-like topography that attracts curious tourists to make the hour-long boat journey from Puerto Vallarta. Access to the swimming spot is through a six-foot tall water tunnel visitors must swim or kayak through.
Navagio Bay, Greece
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Hidden in a cove of the oft-forgotten Ionian Islands, the luminous beach of Navagio Bay on the isle of Zakynthos glows with beauty. Also known as “Smuggler’s Cove” or “Shipwreck Bay”, there’s an air of adventure and mystery, thanks to the rusted husk of a cigarette and booze-smuggling ship, Panayotis, which, as the most common story goes, sunk off its shores in the early 1980s while being chased into a storm by authorities. Thanks to the surrounding cliffs, this beach is only accessible from the sea but travelling 15 minutes from the nearby port of Vromi Maries adds to its secretive atmosphere.
Cenote Zací, Mexico
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You could almost walk straight past this natural marvel on your journey through the Mexican town of Valladolid, at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Just off a city street, past the paved car park, is the unexpected Cenote Zací, one of the country’s 6000 natural sinkholes. This particular cenote is around 260 feet deep, with brush-covered cliff edges creating a grotto of cool, refreshing water perfect for combatting Mexico’s balmy temperatures.
Hamoa Beach, Hawaii
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It isn’t just the surrounding vegetation that makes this Maui beach feel wild – it’s also the deceptively strong currents that lap at its edges. A hotspot for surfers, the offshore reefs around the bay create sizeable waves but the moody black sand – characteristic of Hawaiian beaches thanks to the volcanic activity – makes it a unique spot to drop a towel and simply relax.
Polignano a Mare, Italy
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Seemingly carved through surrounding craggy cliffs, this sandy cove in Italy’s Puglia region, some 30 kilometres south of Bari, is set below the cobblestoned town of its namesake. Atop the ring of limestone precipices, the rustic houses of the town are hazardously perched, with some walls slipping straight down into the sea. It creates that kind of bucolic character visitors love about Italy – and makes for an atmospheric dip.
Rottnest Island, Western Australia
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The beaches of this Western Australian isle are postcard perfect and not just because there are eternally happy quokkas nearby. The entire island is ringed with sandy spots that aren’t just good for a refreshing swim – fishing, surfing and snorkelling are all worthy pursuits on Rottnest (and they’ll all be performed in some truly pristine waters).