A great exotic beach is a little like a banana. You have to experience it at the right time. Peel a banana before it's ripe and you get a tough, tasteless fruit. Wait too long and it's mush.
To torture this analogy for one more paragraph, there is a cycle in the life of a beach resort just as there is in the life of a banana. It starts with a suitable strip of sand. For me, this means it must be wide and free of rocks. The water must be clear. Perhaps this pristine plage is adjacent to a fishing village. Perhaps it's set against a virgin rain forest. But in its natural state, it's like a green banana. Not yet ready, at least for me.
I am happy to let the backpackers and campers be the first to take advantage of a beach. I don't want to pitch a tent, camp among the bugs in the sand and relieve myself in the forest. I will wait until the pioneers have done their work, slowly attracting the developers of some good small hotels, interesting restaurants, wi-fi and indoor plumbing. When they have nurtured the young beach getaway to the prime of its adolescence, that's when I want to be there.
The trick is not to wait too long. Because as with people, the process of maturation doesn't stop when a beach is in what I consider its prime. More hotels and restaurants follow. Then bigger hotels and more tourists. Buses. More people. Purveyors of cheap souvenirs. And so on. It seems that when it's harnessed to a beach, the engine of capitalism can only lead to hordes of people showing off too many fleshy tattoos, pushing into Senor Frog's for margaritas served in punch bowls.
Of course, this is a matter of taste. And if you, dear reader, would prefer to camp on the beach or wear a wife-beater shirt while drinking margaritas from punch bowls, you're entitled. I just hope you won't see me when you're on your preferred beach getaway.
Anyway, I am pleased to say that I've just come back from a place, Tulum, Mexico that meets enough of my personal great beach criteria to make it into my Top Five. Tulum is on the Yucatan coast. It's well south of the overripe resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen (below, left), but not so far south that you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there. The beach is wide and the water is clear and turquoise.
Development in Tulum is presently at that sweet spot where none of the hotels rises higher than the palm trees, but you can get wi-fi and a good martini if you want it. It has a reputation for being a resort for New York yoga devotees, and you do occasionally see someone on the beach, facing the Caribbean in the lotus position. But yoga isn't as popular as sun worship, from my observation, and the beach has a cool and casual atmosphere. A lot of the hotels offer seaside massage tents and there are a couple advertising Mayan clay sweat lodges.
A dash of exotic culture is always a welcome touch in my beach stew, and Tulum has this in the form of Mayan ruins. There's one within walking/biking distance at the north end of the zona hotelera. The larger, grander ruins of the city of Coba are 25 miles to the west. That stone ring pictured on the right is part of a ball court built by the Mayans at Coba to play a game whose rules and purpose we can only guess at.
My only quibble with Tulum is that it's a little too isolated from Mexico. The town of Tulum is a wide spot on the highway about two miles inland from the beach. I suspect a lot of Tulum visitors never see it. They turn off the highway just before Tulum town and take the narrow little beach road to the hotels and cafes. You can easily spend a week in a beachfront hotel in in Tulum without ever hearing, let alone knowing, Spanish.
But it meets my major criteria, which in addition to the beach include good, small, beachfront hotels, good food and drink, and an uncrowded, not-too-blatantly commercial ambience.
Here, by the way, is my Top Five. I present it with the proviso that I've visited these places at various times in the last 33 years. A lot may have changed.
5. Half Moon Bay, Jamaica. An elegant resort not far from the Montego Bay airport. The deposed Shah of Iran took shelter here before he died.
3. Santorini, Greece. Black sand beaches, Hellenic temple ruins, and cafes overlooking the caldera of an ancient volcano.
2. Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos. Maybe the best pure beach in the group. And the weather in January, as far as I know, fluctuates between sunny and mostly sunny, with high temperatures ranging from 83 to 84.
1. Bandos Island, Maldives. The closest I've ever come to a Robinson Crusoe experience, albeit with good food and drink close at hand. And a few steps into the water, the reef surrounding the island teems with coral and fish. Or, at least, these things were true in 1983. I looked up the web site, and I see the island now has a convention center. Plus, global warming has the seas threatening to engulf the Maldives, so I can't guarantee what you'll find if you go there.
There were places that could have made my list, but didn't. I've never been to the French Riviera when it was warm enough to lie on the beach, so I reserve judgment. There's a fantastic beach called Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, but it's still in the backpackers-and-tents stage. I have high hopes that after some future trip, they'll make the list.
And somewhere out there, I hope, the perfect beach getaway is still waiting for me to discover it.