Lonely Planet Writer

76-Second Travel Show: 'Sand makes the beach'


Do we agree on what a 'dream beach' is? My friend Assen in Sofia, Bulgaria, prefers the quiet, rocky cliffs in northeastern Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast to the soft sandy ones in the center and south. Dennis Adams, a historian at South Carolina's Beaufort County Library, wrote an interesting overview of where sand comes from, told me, 'It's all a matter of taste. Someone who runs likes Florida's spongy, harder sand; those who want to just stick their toes in the sand like looser sand, like here at Hilton Head.' (His preference was for something other than the pebbly beaches of the French Riviera.)

But the king of the arenophiles -- 'sand lovers,' yes I just learned the phrase -- is Michael Welland, a veteran British geologist, who started making a traveler's guide to landscapes, and ended up with (something of a traveler's guide to) sand itself. His 2009 book Sand: The Never-Ending Story gets my vote for the best beach read for anyone wanting to know what they're sitting on -- and just how much life lurks in a cup full of sand.

Turns out sand -- that essential ingredient of most of our dream beaches -- has nothing to do with a substance (though quartz particles make up 70% of the world sand grains), but is defined only by size: sand is a particle between 0.6mm and 2.0mm in diameter. And that's it. Can be volcanic rock, coral, shells, quartz, even chewed-up shells passed through the digestive system of parrot fish. Think I prefer the former options.

I grew up in landlocked Oklahoma. The sea, for a long while, was filled with a water that makes a bad stew and animals that wanted to kill you. I overcame my fear eventually. One of my favorite experiences was at empty beaches near fishing villages at remote northwestern coast of the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc. One local had set up a shack that sold coconuts, grilled fresh fish, had a German shepherd to play with, and hammocks to sway in. I had the shack and the surf to myself.

--> What's your dream beach?