For aeons, invading armies, explorers and voyagers have crossed oceans to reach new shores, while islands and peninsulas have provided solitude and strategic locations to monks, traders and jailers, giving the world’s coastlines a fascinating range of windblown edifices.
Think seaside holidays lack history and culture? These coastal ruins – mysterious, ancient and wild – blow that idea right out of the water.
Essaouira has long attracted streams of artists, film-makers and travellers to match the camel trains that once bore gold and salt from Timbuktu; Orson Welles’ Othello (1951) featured the Unesco-listed walled medina’s wave-lashed ramparts, as did Game of Thrones.
The popular local story that the fort subsiding into the beach inspired Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand is more apocryphal, but nonetheless, the whitewashed medina and dramatic seafront battlements make Essaouira a bewitching combination of Moroccan and European architecture.
Skellig Michael, Ireland
Boats only attempt the choppy 12km crossing from tiny Portmagee in County Kerry to Skellig Michael, the larger of the two Skellig Islands, between April and October. En route you’ll pass wild birds wheeling above the jagged outcrop of Little Skellig, home to the world’s second-largest gannet colony. Then it’s time to disembark and climb the precipitous staircase to Skellig Michael’s stone beehive cells, constructed by the monks who lived here between the 6th and 12th centuries AD.
There’s still a strong sense of the extremes of devotion that led the ancient clerics to create this remote and wind-battered Irish cousin of Normandy’s Mont St Michel and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall – a mystique that saw it feature as Luke Skywalker’s Jedi temple in the latest Star Wars films. Eco tours are available in addition to those that disembark on the island, or there’s the Skellig Experience on the relatively mild Valentia Island.
The name of this Mediterranean fishing köy (village), only accessible by boat or along the Lycian Way footpath, refers to the crusader kale (castle) overlooking its tumbledown cottages, home to the ancient world’s tiniest theatre.
But to discover a Turkish Atlantis, follow the lanes down to the harbour, where two Lycian house tombs rise dramatically from the dazzling turquoise shallows. They’re relics of ancient Simena, the batık şehir (sunken city) submerged by a series of 2nd-century AD earthquakes; hop in a boat or sea kayak to see building foundations, staircases and shattered amphorae disappearing into the blue depths alongside Kekova island. You can reach the area on a tour from Kaş.
Acropolis of Lindos, Greece
This is one of two stunning classical acropolises – fortified upper cities – dating back well over 2000 years on Rhodes, the largest of Greece’s 15 Dodecanese islands in the southern Aegean. Climb the steep path to the lofty site, which lords over Lindos’ sugar-cube houses and turquoise bay like a medieval castle thanks to its battlements constructed by the crusading Knights of St John, who took the island from the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century.
The ruins within include a Temple to Athena Lindia (‘Athena of Lindos’ – a reference to the uniquely fireless form of worship practised by the Greek goddess’ followers here) and a Hellenistic stoa with 20 dazzling white columns. From here, there are stirring views of the maritime realm that attracted adventurers such as Odysseus and Alexander the Great.
Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland
Standing on an island where three great sea lochs meet, on the coastal road to Skye, Eilean Donan has featured in films from Highlander (1986) to the Pierce Brosnan Bond, The World Is Not Enough (1999). It was pounded for three days by a fleet of English frigates, before being blown up using a magazine of 343 gunpowder barrels, because Spanish troops were garrisoned here while supporting the short-lived Jacobite rising of 1719.
Fortunately, the sturdy structure was not completely obliterated, and was returned to its former glory in the early 20th century. You can cross the stone-arched bridge to tour the dramatic pile, which was recently named Scotland’s 'Best Heritage Tourism Experience', and see artefacts including a sword used at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Port Arthur, Australia
At the extremity of the peninsulas and islands clumped southeast of Hobart, on the last sheltered bay before you cross the Tasman Sea to New Zealand’s distant South Island, lies Port Arthur – an abandoned 19th-century penitentiary. Hardened criminals who reoffended on arrival in Australia were incarcerated within these thick Victorian walls, reached from mainland Tasmania across Eaglehawk Neck, a slither of land patrolled by guard dogs and sharks in the surrounding waters.
At the penal settlement’s peak in the 1840s, over 3500 convicts were put to work logging and shipbuilding, and you can learn their stories on lantern-lit ghost tours of the darkened site. More than 1000 people died here during Port Arthur’s half-century of operation, giving the guides many tales of unexplained events and eerie incidents that have spooked everyone from colonial soldiers to today’s visitors.
Ostia Antica, Italy
Ostia ('mouth') was the harbour for Ancient Rome, set at the mouth of the Tiber. Founded around the 4th century BC, it survived sacking by pirates and civil wars to become a major port with a population of 100,000, before the decline of the Roman Empire set in and it was ransacked again.
River silting means the site now lies on the Tiber’s final alluvial bend before it meets the Tyrrhenian Sea, and this build-up saved many of the ruins by immersing them in muck. Major excavations took place under Mussolini for a world fair that never happened and the spread-out site now makes an excellent day trip from Rome, with highlights including the Terme di Nettuno (Baths of Neptune) and the amphitheatre. Look out for the mosaics in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, which housed Ostia’s merchant guilds, and the fresco menu in the thermopolium (cafe).
This fortified Mayan port city overlooking the Caribbean had reached the height of its success when the Spanish conquistadors sailed past in 1518, noting its multi-coloured buildings and ceremonial fire. Thanks to its sturdy, 3m- to 5m-high walls, Tulum (its name means ‘wall’ in Yucatán Mayan) survived the Spanish arrival by almost a century and has remained popular with pilgrims and travellers.
Iguanas dart over the weathered stones of several ruined temples and buildings, the most impressive of which is El Castillo (the Castle) with its grand staircase and plumed serpent carvings. Also look out for the two-storey Templo de las Pinturas, featuring columns, relief carvings and coloured murals, and the Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the Wind God).
Nicknamed the 'Ukrainian Pompeii', Chersonesus (which means 'peninsula’) was an ancient Greek colony established 2500 years ago on the Crimean Peninsula. It has Roman, Byzantine and Greek ruins, including a basilica pictured on Ukrainian banknotes – all atmospherically overlooked by a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Following Russia’s widely condemned annexation of this chunk of Ukrainian territory in 2014, visiting the disputed peninsula presents logistical challenges and ethical dilemmas. Nonetheless, it is still possible to visit this Pompeii on the Black Sea for a glimpse of how people lived two millennia ago.