Travellers flock to the Mediterranean shores of Italy, France and Spain, but for deliciously different places to dip your toes, look a little further north on your map of Europe. You’ll need a sweater if you visit outside the summer, but the views, dunes and magical history are worth a slightly paler suntan.
Poland rarely graces sun-worshippers’ wishlists, but beach towns across the coast of Pomerania (Pomorze) blaze with Monaco-esque glamour and golden sands. And ‘Hel’ may be a curious name for paradise, but this nefariously named peninsula, jutting out into the Baltic Sea, is an ethereally beautiful stretch of sugary beaches and pine forests (as well as a mecca for windsurfers).
A coastal road trip is the best way to take in the region’s best beaches. Start in Gdańsk, a port city with a tumultuous history, and the birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity movement. Make your way northwest to glitzy spa city Sopot, where locals say you’ll find the warmest waters in the region. Your next stop, Gdynia, is a treat to explore with beaches a short walk from the centre. While lacking the architectural sparkle of its more glamorous neighbours, Gdynia’s film festival and laid-back nightlife is rapidly making it a favourite for coast-hoppers. Finally, enjoy the most magical shores by taking a hydrofoil, or better yet – the highway to Hel.
Sweden is fringed with remarkable shorelines, from the ‘Riviera’ of Falsterbo to the far-flung island hideaway of Hamneskar. But for beauteous beaches, year-round merriment and a glimpse into the ancient past, head to Halland. Soak up some rays on Tylösand’s beach, where locals preen and jab at beach volleyballs. Family-friendly camping options abound near towns like Varberg right down the western coast to Falkenberg. After a tough day of replenishing your vitamin D levels, you can explore one of Sweden’s most famous relics, the bog-preserved Bocksten Man (www.lansmuseet.varberg.se).
Unlike many beach destinations, which turn into ghost towns out of season, Halland retains its sparkle. When the Scandinavian winter blows in, visitors still arrive for Christmas markets and snow-sprinkled shorelines. Whatever the season, Halland’s beach hotspots are within day-trip distance from Scandinavia’s budget capital of cool, Göteborg (Gothenburg).
Curonian Spit, Lithuania
Like an errant lock of hair, the Curonian Spit connects Lithuania to the isolated Kaliningrad region of Russia. Take a ferry from boisterous Klaipėda to this narrow outcrop of land, bordered on one side by the Curonian Lagoon, an eerily beautiful haven for wild birds; the other side is smattered with sleepy beach towns and rolling dunes. Fishing town Nida is the top attraction, enticing visitors with its colourful house fronts, bargain seafood and its ‘Lithuanian Sahara’, the 52m Parnidis dune.
As you might expect from this remote sliver of Eastern Europe, myth and magic abound, from the open air folklore museum in Juodkrantė to Nida’s pagan burial markers. The area has a relaxed, family-friendly vibe but is becoming increasingly trendy among music fans, with an annual jazz festival. Don’t drift too far south of Nida unless you have a valid Russian visa.
South coast, Wales
With an 870-mile coastal path that allows hikers to walk the entire length of the country, travellers to Wales will stumble on more beautiful beaches than they thought possible. The sweeping coastline of the Gower Peninsula draws celebrities and surfers, but to enjoy all the guilty pleasures of the British beach experience, venture further east to Tenby. Amble along the golden expanse of South Beach and gaze out at the views of Caldey Island – better yet, take a guided tour around the island’s old priory for a glimpse into the region’s spiritual heart. Swim in the clear waters of Castle Beach, or at low tide, wander all the way to St Catherine’s Island. Most importantly of all, order ice cream often, and say yes to the raspberry topping.
Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Spas are dotted around this fragrant Baltic isle, and visitors flock to Saaremaa to be massaged, buffed and slathered in mineral masks. This Estonian island is all about relaxation: awaken your muscles at a spa and take a stroll around the cafe-lined streets and 13th-century fortress in Kuressaare, the island’s biggest town; then head west out of town to Mändjala-Järve beach.
For more remote shores, seek out Tukhana beach on Saaremaa’s northern coast – the waves are bigger and the pine-forested setting is wilder. You can also leave the crowds behind by exploring the west coast – beaches on the outskirts of Vilsandi National Park are ideal for finding your own secret stretch of sand. Saaremaa is a four-hour bus transfer from fairytale capital Tallinn on the Estonian mainland (ferry ride included).