Squeezed between Argentina and Brazil and shaped a bit like a football, Uruguay doesn’t feature on your average South American checklist. But with its progressive politics, sizzling asado culture and some of the best beaches on the continent, we think it should.

From off-grid hippie enclaves (note: cannabis was legalised here in 2014) to chic celebrity hangouts to riotous party towns, there’s a beach here for everyone. It would take a while to cover every stretch of sand along Uruguay’s largely unspoilt 660km coastline, so we’ve selected five beach towns that we think make Uruguay a strong contender for best beach destination in South America.

For remote relaxation: Cabo Polonio

Without roads or electricity, and with a population of about eighty, Cabo Polonio is the place to go for a proper escape from civilization. The Cabo Polonio experience begins with the journey – whether you pay someone with a rowing boat to take you there, ride a horse along the beach, hike for 7km over the rolling dunes or hop in a 4X4 from the national park entrance.

There are only a few rustic places to stay here (the Cabo Polonio Hostel boasts a pedal-powered washing machine) and some tin-roofed restaurants fire up the asado during the summer. Don’t expect anything to “do” in Cabo Polonio, other than lie in a hammock, drink beer, and pay a visit to the talkative sea lions who hang out near the 120-year-old lighthouse. The hardest decision you’ll make is whether you should ever leave.

Cabo Polonia, UruguayImage by Brennan Paezold on Flickr (license)

For chilled out chic: La Pedrera

About a hundred years ago, the Arrarte family built a beach hut on this peaceful stretch of coast – comprising two sandy beaches separated by a rocky headland – and a few of their friends followed suit. Today, this is one of Uruguay’s emerging chic holiday towns, which some compare to what Jose Ignacio was like before it became popular among the holidaying millionaire set.

Expect a gorgeous, wave-lapped beach (with a black, rusted shipwreck – Cathay VIII – on the western side), dusty lanes criss-crossing the town and a few ramshackled bars and restaurants serving fresh grilled seafood.

For something special, Pueblo Barrancas has lovely cabañas-on-stilts, dotted around a sloping forest just off the beach; it may be 2km west of town, but the moonlit walk home along the beach is unforgettable.

For night owls: Punta del Este

If you know somebody who has travelled to Uruguay and likes to party, there’s a fair chance they made a beeline for Punta del Este. Situated on a narrow peninsula, the town nicknamed the “Miami of South America” is the stark opposite of Uruguay’s laidback persona – high-rise, brash and expensive.

But for all its sins, Punta del Este has some of Uruguay’s best beaches and offers the most raucous night out in the country. Wide, sandy Playa Mansa is a prime sunbathing spot lapped by gentle waves, while choppier Playa Brava is worth a visit to check out (and be photographed beside) the famous Hand in the Sand sculpture.

In the evening, seasoned revellers will make for the club hubs of La Barra to the east or Punta Ballena to the west.

Punta del Este, Hand sculture, UruguayPixabay / CC0

For glitz and glamour: Jose Ignacio

Equally as chic as neighbouring Punta del Este, only without the behemoth tower blocks that line the beach there, Jose Ignacio has recently transformed from a humble fishing village to become one of the most fashionable holidaying destinations in Latin America.

In the summer months you’ll be sunbathing on the sandy beach alongside bronzed millionaires, supermodels and celebrities – and you’ll pay for the privilege to stay in one of the elegant guesthouses or the futuristic, waterfront Vik Hotel.

Still, the village retains hints of its old charm and is a good option for a day trip, if you can find a parking spot alongside the sports cars.

For the surf: Punta del Diablo

Its name translates as “Devil’s Point”, but there’s nothing frightening about this remote surfing town near the Brazilian border. During the low season, this has a similar somnolent vibe to Cabo Polonio – populated by dreadlocked locals and knackered dogs – and offers reliably great surfing throughout the year on the central Playa Pescadores.

During the summer months the 1500-strong population bulges to 20,000 as backpackers and a hedonistic student party crowd descends – mostly from Brazil and Argentina – onto the wide, sun-drenched beaches. For community-spirited accommodation just off Playa Grande, Rosi and Martin’s labyrinthine off-grid home is a charming option.

Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, beach destinationImage by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes on Flickr (license)

Explore more of Uruguay with the Rough Guide to South America on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Looking to unwind on a tropical island somewhere in Southeast Asia? Then head to the island of Langkawi, Malaysia’s ultimate escape from the country’s frenetic cities. From trekking into the rainforest to wildlife-watching – all between spells of relaxing on a wide, sandy beach – here are a few reasons why you should escape to Langkawi.

1. Because cocktails flow freely down by the sea

While beach resorts abound, there are still a few brilliant beach shack bars left on Langkawi’s shores, many of which are on the sands of Pantai Cenang.

Little Lylia’s Chillout Café is a throwback to island nightlife before the arrival of multinational investors. What’s lacking in ostentation is more than made up for by the warmth of hospitality. Flaming lamps on the beach and table-top candles add a touch of rustic romance. The sound of lounge music merges with the lapping of the waves and you can unwind with a shisha pipe or a plate of chicken satay in addition to cocktails.

2. Because it’s teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife

Board a boat at Kilim Jetty to tour the waterways of Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. You’ll have a good chance of spotting pythons between the twisted roots of mangroves and bonnet macaques feeding.

Keep your mouth closed when you pause to view the awesome sight of bat colonies hanging in caves within limestone formed 550 million years ago – who knows what might drop from above!

The Datai Langkawi, Malaysia Images by Mott Visuals

The island also provides habitat for more than 200 bird species. In the island’s foliage you’re likely to spot oriental pied hornbills, easily identifiable thanks to their bulbous beaks. Females have blue eyes and the males’ are red.

You’ll need well-attuned ears to identify the call of greater racket-tailed drongos, which have a quiff-like crest and distinctive twin tail feathers. Impressively, the drongos are able to mimic as many as 26 calls by other birds and animals, including the whooping and shrieking of monkeys.

3. Because you can trek in an ancient rainforest

Pack your boots and hike, to the sounds of squealing cicadas and chirping birds, in dense rainforest on the slopes of Gunung Raya and Gunung Machincang, Langkawi’s highest mountains. Companies like Dev’s Adventure Tours and Junglewalla offer guided tours providing insights into nature and wildlife.

Alternatively, follow marked trails at your own pace. Locals rate the trail to the Telaga Tujuh waterfalls, whose seven pools are associated with legends featuring fairies.

4. Because the sea waters are warm and ripe for swimming

If you’re a water baby, then you’ll love Langkawi. Ocean temperatures fluctuate between 28–30°C (82–86°F), making swimming in the sea inviting and pleasant. Be warned though: jellyfish can be a problem. The creatures, known locally as obor obor, lay their eggs by the shore on evenings. Several resorts protect guests with anti-jellyfish nets. Wearing a rashie or T-shirt helps minimise your exposure to stings.

The Langkawi Cable Car System

5. Because you can ride a cable car in tropical temperatures

Cable cars are usually associated with winter holidays but riding the Langkawi Skycab lifts you above the dense canopy of the virgin rainforest decking Gunung Machincang. The peak of the steep-sided mountain stands 708m above sea level, where viewing platforms prove popular spots for enjoying panoramas of the island. On clear days you can see the coastline of southern Thailand beyond the glimmering Andaman Sea.

If you have a head for heights, ascend to the Top Station in one of the glass-bottomed gondolas, peering over the ancient jungle’s treetops on the way. The 15-minute ride carries you 2.2 kilometres.

At the top you can cross the 125-metre long Sky Bridge. The world’s longest free span, curved bridge dangles above a chasm from a single metal pylon. Blend in by snapping selfies on the vantage point that doubles as one of Langkawi’s best-known landmarks.

6. Because there’s great accommodation for all

Whether you’re strapped for cash or want to splash out, there’s somewhere for you on the island of Langkawi.

Many of the beachfront resorts are aimed at the higher end of the market – many making a perfect romantic getaway for couples in love. If stepping down from a chalet onto a white-sand beach to spend a morning dozing in a gently swaying hammock sounds up your street, splurge on the Meritus Pelangi Beach Resort and Spa at Pantai Cenang.

Malaysia, Langkawi Island, Pulau Langkawi, Pantai Tanjung Rhu

The Tipsy Gypsy Guesthouse is a brilliant budget option, where you can hang out with fellow travellers and sip cocktails at the on-site bar. There’s also a smattering of homestays in Langkawi and even Airbnb has made its way to this little isle.

7. Because there are miles of silver sand for the beach bums…

If you want to roll out your towel and while away time on Langkawi’s sandy beaches, head to popular Pantai Cenang, on the south-west coast, or for ultimate relaxation, head north to the quieter Tanjung Rhu.

If lying on the sand taxes your patience try a jet ski tour or sunset boat cruise in waters around the island. They don’t cost the earth and are a great way to see Langkawi’s pretty shoreline.

Stuart flew to Langkawi with Malaysia Airlines via their hub in Kuala Lumpur. Explore more of Malaysia with the Rough Guide to MalaysiaCompare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The USA is practically bursting with amusement parks, from the sprawling and city-sized to the off-beat and unexpectedly endearing. Cotton candy and corn dogs, kiddie rides and coasters – here are the best theme parks in America.

Six Flags Magic Mountain, California

Magic Mountain boasts the world record for most roller coasters in a single amusement park, clocking in with a whopping 19, plus heaps of other rides. Thrills deserving of mention include Superman (launching you backwards from 0 to 100 miles per hour in seven seconds) and Tatsu (the tallest, fastest, longest flying roller coaster in the world).

15027606533_dd9ea41b48_kSix Flags Magic Mountain by Jeff Turner on Flickr (license)

Cedar Point, Ohio

Though only two coasters short of Magic Mountain’s record, Cedar Point can still brag about its 72 other rides. A long stretch of sandy swimming beach along Lake Erie and array of attractions catering to all ages have kept this park an American favourite since its opening in 1870.

Walt Disney World, Florida

What list of amusement parks could go without mentioning Disney World? Indeed, the complex really is a world unto itself, with four gigantic theme parks, two top-notch waterparks, nonstop entertainment and 28 different Disney resorts suited to a variety of tastes and budgets.

From the cheery nostalgia of Magic Kingdom to the looping coasters of Hollywood Studios, Disney World’s immensity doesn’t just warrant a day trip, but a whole holiday.

Magic Kingdom - Rose Garden SunsetMagic Kingdom by Jeff Krause on Flickr (license)

Dollywood, Tennessee

Few places put such a charming spin on celebrity cultism as Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s very own amusement park. Built in her Great Smoky Mountains homeland, the park draws its inspiration from the history and culture of East Tennessee.

An impressive breadth of rides, award-winning shows and festivals, a full-size steam train and the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster keep more than three million guests a season steadily rolling in.

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, Florida

Universal Studios used to have an unspoken reputation as secondary to Disney, though by all means still a brilliant park. However since the opening of Islands of Adventure, particularly the recently expanded and incredibly detailed Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they just might be the best in the country.

A replica of the Hogwarts Express now connects the two parks. Both are bursting full of attractions, ranging from cutting-edge coasters on Marvel Superhero Island to whimsical ride-alongs in the land of Dr. Seuss.

Universal - Fire Breathing Dragon 1Diagon Alley by Jeff Krause on Flickr (license)

Knoebels, Pennsylvania

Founded in 1926, Knoebels is a classic American amusement park running the types of nostalgic attractions and mighty wooden coasters you’d happily relive every summer. But above all, Knoebels should be praised for its prices. General admittance is free, and rides range from $1.25 ­to a maximum of $3 per person.

The park’s rather famous freshly-baked apple dumplings with ice cream also deserve special mention, as well as its dogs-allowed policy.

Pacific Park, Santa Monica, California

Though the thought that Pacific Park’s whirring rides are supported by a wooden pier alone might feel a little death-defying, the oceanfront ambience here will have you feeling California carefree.

There are only thirteen rides but remember: you’re in Santa Monica. Stroll through the gorgeous Venice Canals Walkway to Venice Beach, where Californian bodybuilders pump iron under the sun, skateboards and surfers showcase their skills, and all manner of bric-a-brac sellers, psychics and ragtag performers set up along the boardwalk. Welcome to people-watching paradise.

20434107342_d563e2522f_oPacific Park by Jim Sheaffer on Flickr (license)

Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, Indiana

The automatic two-parks-for-the-price-of-one-ticket is a huge draw here. Holiday World consistently wins awards for being the cleanest park in America, and it boasts some top-notch rides too.

Neighbouring Splashin’ Safari is home to the two longest water coasters on Earth, and it provides a refreshing relief after a hot summer morning spent in the sun. Plus, the thoughtful inclusion of free parking, sunscreen, wifi, all-day soft drinks and refreshments with the purchase of your entry ticket adds bonus value for your tourist buck.

Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City

During the first half of the twentieth century Coney Island was a resort attracting the wealthy, home to grand hotels and extravagant carousels. Though no longer in its heyday, the East Coast atmosphere of the place is tough to beat.

Romantic old rides (three of which are protected NYC historic landmarks) look over 2.5 miles of white-sand beach and a lively boardwalk. Mid-century signage still adorns classic carnival games and stalls dishing out grade-A American comfort foods. New coasters are also in the works, and classic events such as Nathan’s Famous frankfurters Hot Dog Eating Contest and The Mermaid Parade continue their legacy each year.

9997838755_da850d8e7e_oConey Island Boardwalk by Augie Ray on Flickr (license

Legoland, California

A great park for younger children, a day at Legoland provides a nice change of pace from the unbearable wait times of America’s most popular parks.

The nature of the park itself inspires kiddie creativity, and the success of 2014’s Lego Movie has breathed new life into the place. That said, those looking for an adrenaline fix may be left wanting.

Explore more of America with the Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Cover image from: Pixabay/CC0

Since the 1960s, foreign tourists have flocked to Goa, India’s smallest state, attracted by its palm-fringed golden beaches, glorious sunshine and distinctly relaxed attitudes. Domestic tourism has taken off enormously in recent years too, such that now almost ninety percent of visitors are from within India.

Kerala, several hundred kilometres south, draws double the number of both domestic and foreign tourists than Goa, with its dense tropical landscape, tantalising festivals and 550km of striking coastline.

Here’s what to expect from each of these captivating states, and how to decide whether to visit Goa or Kerala first.

St Cajetan from Divar Island, Old Goa, India

What’s the local culture like?

Goa was a Portuguese territory from the sixteenth century until 1961, and a quarter of the population remain Christian today. Though Hindus still make up the majority of the population, unusually for India you’ll find churches in pretty much every town, some of the best of which are in Old Goa, the state’s former capital and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kerala is intensely ritualistic, with numerous ancient indigenous practices that are unique to this region and which make a visit here far more alien to Western perceptions than Goa. All-night festivals are frequent occurrences at temples across the state, with fireworks, splendidly adorned elephants and deafening drums combining to create magical spectacles.

A performance of kathakali, Kerala’s most famous form of ritual drama, is well-worth experiencing to see the elaborately made-up and fantastically dressed performers act out ancient stories with astonishing intensity.

India, Kerala, Cochin (Kochi), Christmas celebrations, street parade

Which is best for food?

Goa and Kerala are renowned for their excellent cuisines. South Indian curries are generally much spicier than those in northern India, and use simpler, tangier ingredients often including copious amounts of coconut, fresh chillies, tamarind and curry leaves.

Masala dosas originated in southern India, and are a breakfast staple across both states. Rice usually replaces bread in family homes of both states, though in touristy places – and especially in Goa – naans, chapatti and parathas are readily available.

Yet despite these similarities, Goan and Keralan cuisines differ more than you might think.

Idli, steamed rice cakes, are a staple in Kerala, usually served with sambar, a lentil-based vegetables stew. Vada, deep-fried lentil doughnuts, are also immensely popular here, where meals are often served on banana leaves. The vindaloo, meanwhile, is a Goan creation. Vinegar, one of the key ingredients, is a Portuguese legacy, and these ultra-hot curries are traditionally made with pork.

Keralan food is traditionally vegetarian, but you’ll find meat in most places, and fresh, delicious seafood is ubiquitous, as it is in Goa.

India, Goa, fish curry

Where can I party?

When hippies flocked to Goa in the 1960s, parties spread like wildfire. By the 1990s, Goa Trance was in full swing, attracting partygoers from all over the world to dance till dawn on the sand or in beautiful jungle settings. At the turn of the millennium, the authorities clamped down, banning loud music after 10pm, and with it went the rave scene.

These days parties do still exist (if the police are successfully paid off), and Goa still has a reputation as the party capital of India, particularly around Anjuna and Vagator. Beer as well as local and imported spirits are widely available at beachside restaurants, and cocktails are especially popular in the early evening happy hours.

Kerala, by contrast, has never had much in the way of nightlife, unless you count all-night kathakali performances. Some hotels and restaurants catering for tourists do serve alcohol (amusingly sometimes disguised in tea pots in unlicensed places). In coastal resorts such as Varkala, you’ll find plenty of cheap booze, and even the odd impromptu party which carries on till the small hours.

India, Goa, Palolem Beach, beach lined with huts and backed by palm trees

Where will I find the best beaches?

Goa’s beaches tend to be wider and cleaner than that of Kerala, and are, overall, more tourist-friendly. You can take strolls down the beach and continue for hours, connecting from one resort to the next, which isn’t possible in most places in Kerala. Beachside accommodation is plentiful, from budget shacks to glitzy resorts. There are coastal yoga retreats galore and shops selling the usual hippy tat wherever you go.

Though Kerala’s beaches tend to be smaller, and the beach-shack culture is pretty much non-existent, “God’s Own Country” is home to numerous pretty shores, particularly in the far north where you’ll find some gorgeous quiet coves scattered among little fishing villages. Kerala is also queen of Ayurvedic treatments – if you’re interested in some alternative therapies, this is the place to for you.

India, Goa, huts and palm trees at Palolem Beach

What sights are there to see?

Old Goa is home to some lovely examples of whitewashed churches, and the Dudhsagar waterfalls near the southern border with the state of Karnataka manage to draw curious tourists inland. But it’s Goa’s beaches which brings most people here, rather than any specific “sights”.

The main attraction for visitors to Kerala is Fort Cochin, with its European-era architecture, spice markets, iconic Chinese fishing nets, art exhibitions and hip cafés. Another Keralan allure is the chance to ride a boat through the myriad of narrow backwaters that weave their way through lush forests and offer a glimpse into traditional rural village life that’s barely changed for centuries.

India, Kerala, Kerala Backwaters

Where should I go in a nutshell?

If you’re up for some serious sun worshipping, plenty of boozing and some yoga to cleanse your soul the morning after, your best bet is Goa. If you’re looking for a quieter, more culturally immersive trip, try Kerala. And if you have a weakness for punchy curries, extend your trip and go to both.

Explore India with the Rough Guide to IndiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Croatia is one of Europe’s rising tourist stars. This remarkable Adriatic country of 1244 islands, bear and wild boar inhabited forests and world-class vineyards is so much more than just a beach destination. To make sure you hit the ground running in this complex and diverse nation, follow our top ten Croatia travel tips.

1. Be picky

Avoid the temptation to cram too much of this geographically challenging country in to your first visit. If you only have a week split it between the capital, Zagreb, for a night or two and spend the rest of the time exploring the famous Adriatic coast. Longer trips allow rewarding forays further afield, where gems like the UNESCO listed Plitvice Lakes, the castles of the Zagorje and the Slavonian vineyards await.

2. Don’t only go to Dubrovnik

Yes Games of Thrones star Dubrovnik is every bit Lord Byron’s ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, but also tempting on the coast is Split, the country’s second largest city, whose city centre is remarkably a UNESCO site, the spectacular Roman Diocletian’s Palace.

Further north the old Roman hub of Zadar and early Croatian city Šibenik are lively hubs just emerging from the bitter 1990s war, where the cafes are less filled with tourists.

The same goes for the city of Pula in the northwest of the Croatian littoral, which boasts a UNESCO listed Roman amphitheatre.

Croatia, Dalmatia, Hvar, Hvar Town from the sea

3. Don’t let the bugs bite

From late spring into autumn mosquitoes are a nuisance throughout much of the country so find a good repellent that your skin does not react to. Light colours help. Avoid wearing fragrances too. Tics are a more pressing problem as they can cause serious illness so wear thick socks and cover up your legs when hiking. A simple tic remover is a good investment, especially if you may be trekking in rural areas.

4. Get the best beds

Spare beds can be hard to come by in summer especially in the most popular islands – like Hvar and Brač – and Dubrovnik. Booking ahead makes sense, but if you do get caught short look out for the sobe signs, which are essentially advertising rooms in locals’ homes. As well as being cheap, staying at a sobe can be a great way to meet Croats. If they are full, owners will often point you in the direction of another nearby.

Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Pelgesac, two bottle of red and white Croatian wine and half full glass of red wine resting on barrel, barrels in background

5. Drink up

Of the big domestic brands Karlovacko is the favourite beer of many Croats and justifiably so. Croatia’s wines are seriously underrated abroad, at least in part due to the relatively small production and high domestic demand. Look out for the mighty Dingac red and the dry Posip white, both from Dalmatia. Istria is renowned for its Malvasija (great with seafood), while the Dubrovnik region’s own Malvasia is on the rise too.

6. Health matters

You should always take out decent travel insurance, even for a weekend break. If you’re an EU resident, be sure to pack a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This entitles you to a basic level of state health care in Croatia. It won’t cover you for repatriation, ongoing medical treatment and non-urgent treatment though, which is where good travel insurance comes in. The emergency ambulance number in Croatia is 112.

7. Get active

Croatia may be famed as a sea and sun destination, but getting active is the best way to discover its wilder corners. Paklenica National Park offers superb hiking and climbing, while in the islands the walk to the highest point, Vidova Gora on Brač, offers remarkable views. For rafting the Cetina River tempts, while windsurfers should head to Korčula and paragliders to Mount Ucka.

Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Split, pile of silver fish at fish market

8. Eat well

Croats are justifiably proud of the fine organic produce their country conjures up in such abundance and many will refer to the processed food in supermarkets witheringly as ‘cat food’. Wherever you are, a local market is never far away, so shop local to put together a mouth-watering picnic bursting with fresh flavour.

9. Talk to the locals

Be very careful when discussing the Homeland War, which ravaged the country as it became independent from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with a local. Do a little bit of research before your trip and hold back any too hastily formed views. Then when a Croat does decide to open up a little about those defining years, your knowledge and interest may help you gain an insight into the country well beyond the tourist sheen, which adds a totally different dimension to your trip.

10. Savour the seafood

Croatia’s seafood is truly world class. A bounty of fishy delights are hauled daily from the Adriatic, the cleanest corner of the Mediterranean. Even if you’re timid about bones and shells no trip to the coast is complete without a seafood feast. The best value way of sampling a range of delights is to order the riblja plata, a mixed platter of fish and shellfish, which is usually plenty for two to share.

Explore more of Croatia with the Rough Guide to CroatiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Big Sur, California

Dizzying views of the Pacific Ocean are awarded at every bend of the 90-mile stretch of craggy coastal road between California’s Carmel and San Simeon. Rent a convertible and hit the highway in true Californian style. This is a sparsely populated region, so for it’s ideal for romancers seeking seclusion. Don’t miss the stunning McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach.

Big Sur, California

Las Vegas, Nevada

Rising out of the Nevada desert like the emerald city of Oz, fabulous Las Vegas flaunts its reputation as a destination for high rollers and thrill seekers. Notions of romance are vast and varied in this neon Mecca, so clasp hands and take your pick from gondola rides in the Venetian, a spin on the high-flying SlotZilla zipline or a late-night stroll along The Strip to the spectacular Fountains of the Bellagio.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Stowe, Vermont

Frank Sinatra crooned over moonlight in Vermont, but autumn in this New England state is the real showstopper. As the weather turns chilly, the landscape, which is thickly carpeted in forest, erupts into riotous shades of amber and gold – a spectacle of colour to make any pair of autumn-lovers swoon. Stowe is particularly picturesque, a classic American town with friendly locals and a backdrop of rolling hills.

Stowe, Vermont

Nantucket, Massachusetts

It’s a two-hour ferry from mainland Massachusetts to the beachy isle of Nantucket, where long stretches of sandy shore and wild heathland will certainly bowl you over. Inland, dreamy clapboarded houses – many still standing strong after 150 years – line the charming cobbled streets into Nantucket Town. Pick up supplies from a local deli, rent bicycles and pedal your way to the iconic lighthouse at Brant Point for a picnic in the dunes.

Nantucket, Massachusetts

New York City

New York City is arguably the ultimate city destination. Home to some of the world’s most venerated galleries and museums, even the most discerning culture vulture will be awed. The iconic skyline, bursting with recognizable landmarks, will delight city wanderers hunting photo opportunities. And for foodies planning a memorable meal? Dine under the arches of The Grand Central Oyster Bar, a city institution opened over a century ago, which boasts a whispering gallery famous for hushed propositions.

New York City

Crested Butte, The Rockies, Colorado

Outdoorsy couples seeking activity and alpine summer air should head to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. From June through August the meadows and forests of Crested Butte are blanketed in colourful arrays of wild flowers. Bike through woodland trails into a rugged wilderness of snow-capped peaks, or hike the 12-mile distance to Aspen and spend the night in one of the town’s luxury lodges – balcony hot tubs are, of course, de rigueur.

Crested Butte, The Rockies, Colorado

New Orleans, Louisiana

Colonised by France, briefly ruled by the Spanish and bought by the US in 1803, The Big Easy embraces cultural fusion like no other city in America. Perhaps best known for its music scene, and arguably as the hometown of jazz and blues, New Orleans is imbued with a spirit of festivity. Come nightfall the seductive French Quarter buzzes with romance. Think balcony dinners, red-hot Creole cuisine and buskers playing nightlong on street corners.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Kauai, Hawaii

Tropical island life doesn’t get more laid-back than Kauai. The palm-dotted beaches of this most northerly Hawaiian Island, famous for its surf and remarkable volcanic landscapes, offers pure paradise for any duo searching for a tranquil escape. Test the waters of Kiahuna beach – best for beginner surfers – or if catching waves isn’t your thing, head to Ha’ena on the northern shore, where trails through the State Park will lead you to ancient Hawaiian sites.

Kauai, Hawaii

Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska

Begin your trip by taking in the ethereal spectacle of the aurora borealis, best observed from the skies above Fairbanks during winter months. Here, temperatures can drop to heart-aching sub zero levels, but the Northern Lights (and a cuddle or two) will surely set frozen pulses racing and leave you starry-eyed. Next, ride the rails south from Fairbanks to Anchorage in a glass-topped train, the ideal vantage point to soak up that dramatic scenery in comfort.

Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska

Portland, Oregon

Artsy and vibrant with outstanding green spaces, Portland is the ultimate hangout city. Having planted itself on the map as a haven for keen cyclists and coffee lovers, there’s now a burgeoning street food scene and commitment to craft beer, with more local breweries than any city in the world. Spend an evening bar hopping and banish any resulting hangover with a trip to the enchanting Multnomah Falls, where a gentle amble leads you to the cascading waterfall and fairy-tale bridge crossing.

Portland, Oregon

Thailand is the quintessential backpacker destination. Here you can make the first footprints on secluded sands, dance shoeless under a full moon and swim beneath cascading waterfalls.

Running through Thailand’s rainforests and temples and looping around its islands and beaches is the so-called “banana pancake trail”, a well-worn, tried and tested backpacker route that has seen the sandals of thousands of independent travellers over the decades.

They’re still coming in their droves – and you’re a part of the action as soon as you strap on that backpack. Here’s everything you need to know:

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Which sights shouldn’t I miss?

For a frenetic introduction to Thailand, head straight to Bangkok where the neon lights and market stalls of Khao San Road still serve as the country’s main backpacker hangout. Slurp noodles, sip local beer and visit the gilded Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s giant gold reclining Buddha with your new friends.

For impressive Thai temples, head to Ayutthaya in the north, the country’s ancient capital now scattered with temples in varying stages of decay. The brooding red-brick ruins are best viewed at sunset, when the golden light makes this atmospheric city a photographer’s dream.

If you’re after something a little more laid-back, Kanchanaburi is the spot for you. You can take a train along the famous Death Railway, built by prisoners of war during World War II, see the Bridge over the River Kwai and swim at the tumbling seven-tiered Erawan Falls.

AyutthayaPixabay/CC0

Ko Pha Ngan is where the sands of Hat Rin see up to 30,000 people arrive each month for the famous full moon parties. The party starts at dusk, when thousands of lamps are lit, and continues through the night, with dancing, fire twirling and, of course, drinking.

If you want to get to know the locals, head to Chiang Mai, the jumping off point for numerous guided multi-day treks and short walks in the country’s remote north. Here you can visit small local communities, but be mindful of concerns around tribal tourism.

A monk in Chiang Mai, ThailandTore Bustad/Flickr

How should I get around?

A journey by tuk tuk is an essential Thai travel experience and you’re sure to use these noisy, fume-cloaked (but very fun) vehicles to get around, especially in Bangkok. Fares are the same no matter the number of passengers so team up with one or two (three is the safe maximum) other travellers to save money. Agree the fare before setting out (expect to pay 100-150 baht for short Bangkok hops) and be sure to have the right money ready on arrival.

Solo travellers can make good use of the motorcycle taxis that ply all common routes in both major towns and more off-the-beaten-track parts. These only seat one passenger and are no good if you’ve got luggage, but short journeys across town or the island can be good value (as low as 20 baht).

Thailand is a sizeable country and distances between large towns can be great (it’s 700km from Bangkok to Chiang Mai). An overnight bus or train is a good way of getting from A to B while also saving the cost of a hostel.

Tuk Tuk in Thailand, backpacking Southeast Asia

The overnight trains are operated by the State Railway of Thailand and run on four useful routes out of Bangkok, including services to Ayutthaya, to Chiang Mai and to Surat Thani (a jumping off point for many of the southern islands).

Second-class berths are the best bet for solo travellers, with the communal comfortable seats converting into fully flat curtained-off beds come nightfall.

First-class cabins are set up for two so only book these if you’re happy sharing with a stranger. Bring snacks and drinks and settle in for a long journey.

Don’t fancy the long journey alone? There are plenty of internal flights, with Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air (Thai Airways’ budget arm) and Thai Lion Air all offering daily Bangkok-Chiang Mai flights with a flight time of 1hr 15min. Flying also means not having to go back to Bangkok – trains and buses use the capital as a hub meaning you will keep ending up back there.

Where can I try some Thai delicacies?

Eating alone in Thailand doesn’t need to mean a table for one. The best food is often found at the local night market, where mobile kitchens sell noodles, fried rice, sticky rice cakes, pancakes and fresh juices, and seating is communal and lively.

Bowl of Thai food, Thailand

Almost every large town will have street stalls selling noodles day and night, so you can fill up without even sitting down.

Many hostels have cafés or restaurants, where you won’t stand out as a solo diner and may even meet fellow travellers in search of dining companions. Most travellers love nothing more than discussing where they’ve been or are going over a bowl of noodles or a beer.

What are the best ways to meet people?

If you want to meet people, sticking to the main backpacker destinations (including those listed above) is the best bet. Stay in hostels rather than hotels – choose to stay in a dorm so you’ll be sharing with other people and not holed up alone.

In Bangkok stay on or near the Khao San Road for the best chance of impromptu Singhas with your new friends – NapPark is a good choice, with its communal tamarind-shaded courtyard and TV room.

In Chiang Mai, Diva Guesthouse has six­-bed dorms and a sociable café on the ground floor, while Kanchanaburi’s Jolly Frog has a communal atmosphere and hammocks in the central, leafy garden.

Compass Backpacker's Hostel, Thailand, backpacking ThailandJames Antrobus/Flickr

Group activities are a great way to make friends fast. You can try everything, from day trips to Thai cookery courses. If you want an insight into Thailand through food, in Bangkok try Helping Hands or the vegetarian May Kaidee, and in Chiang Mai the Thai Cookery School.

For more of an adventure, take a zipline tour through the rainforest near Chiang Mai with Flight of the Gibbon or learn to scuba dive with The Dive Academy on Koh Samui.

Is it safe?

Thailand is largely safe for solo travellers of both genders – and despite the country’s prolific sex industry, women are unlikely to attract any more attention than men when travelling alone.

The standard precautions apply: don’t take unlicensed taxis and don’t go home with strangers. As long as you use your common sense, Thailand is a perfectly safe place to travel. Many hostels will also have female-only dorms.

Unfortunately drug-muggings are known to sometimes happen in Thailand. Don’t eat or drink anything a stranger gives you, especially on a train or at a full moon party. Trains and buses are ripe for petty theft so keep all your valuables with you when you travel.

Explore more of Thailand with The Rough Guide to Thailand. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Beyond the mystical sounds of gamelan and the intricate craft of batik, Bali boasts a world of subcultures often overlooked by visitors. The art makes bold statements, nightlife sometimes involves a new tattoo, and music is anything but serene.

On an island where locals are often denied entry from bars and clubs, an experience off the typical tourist trail is both vital and enlightening. Kick-start your journey into Indonesia‘s underground with this alternative list of things to do on the Island of Gods.

Get weird at Black Market

What do pet snakes, drunk tarot readers, homeless artists, punk hairdressers, organic grocers, and the police have in common? They’ve all appeared at Black Market Bali.

This unpredictable art event pops up where and whenever it pleases, welcoming whoever wants to set up. With no schedule or restrictions, it tends to unfold like some chaotic hybrid between a circus and a garage sale. Buy, sell, browse, perform or party to a backdrop of live music, quirky vendors and rice fields.
Jl. Basangkasa No. 88, Seminyak

blackmarket_warehouse_photoby_kelibow0095

Skate the pool at Pretty Poison

When a venue in Bali says it’s having a pool party, you can usually bet on gaggles of the scantily clad and sunburnt swaying to last year’s top forty. But not at Pretty Poison. Here the pool stays drained for skateboarders to party in day and night.

Live music, skate competitions, dance parties, open-air movie screenings, art shows and tattoo nights all go down surrounded by Canggu’s tranquil rice paddies. Rambunctious skaters respectfully wait for their turn to shred the pool, while onlookers mingle, dance and get inked.

Most importantly, Pretty Poison one of the few venues remaining on the island that attracts a roughly equal mix of Indonesians and foreigners.
Short Cut Road, Jl. Subak, Canggu

A video posted by @prettypoison___ on

Tune into the contemporary at Ghostbird + Swoon

Run by a young Balinese woman and and her American partner, Ghostbird + Swoon doubles as an art gallery and curatorial space for experimental fashion. Their manifesto? “‘We seek beauty. Not the thoughtless, fleeting kind. But the ugly kind that takes time, mistakes, intelligence, obsessive reflection and mad skills to cultivate.“ The space features works by contemporary artists, often Indonesian women, with exhibitions examining themes such as female identity in regional society, and the artistic potential of junk. Engage with the thought-provoking work here and you’re sure to gain a nuanced understanding of this vast, complex country. Jl. Danau Tamblingan No. 75, Sanur

swoon-25

 

Rock out at Twice Bar

It’s no secret that Kuta, Bali‘s commercial centre, is a little trashy – especially after dark. Developers and binge-drinking foreigners have transformed the area into a mishmash of uninspired nightclubs, sleazy bars and tourist traps. But in the midst of all the debauchery, one venue is worth your time: Twice Bar, founded by members of popular Balinese punk band Superman is Dead. The frenetic sound of Indonesian punk rock keeps most foreigners away, but if you’re looking to begin an off-beat Balinese night out, this is the place to be. Heavy music is an important part of Indonesian culture – Napalm Death is the President’s favourite band, after all. Enjoy cheap arak (the palm sap equivalent of moonshine), adrenaline-fueled shows, an in-bar tattoo parlour and friendly Anarcho-Indonesian company. Jl. Popies II, Kuta

A video posted by Nugra dadee (@nug412) on

Take shelter at Revolver Espresso

Hidden down nameless a Seminyak backstreet, the original Revolver Espresso isn’t easy to find but is worth the hunt – they serve the best coffee on the island. Inside, you might think you’ve wandered into a trendy East London warehouse, with high ceilings and chipped white paint on rough brick walls.

But there’s enough comfy seating and vintage bric-a-brac to keep this industrial space feeling cosy. The shop has become famous for its premium beans, carefully sourced from around the world, roasted in-house, and brewed to perfection.

With fun tunes always spinning on vinyl, and delicious food to boot –try the poached eggs on mashed avocado, homemade relish and sourdough toast – it’s an ideal place to escape the island heat or wait-out the rain.
Jl. Kayu Aya, Gang 51, Seminyak

15875577997_5630d6312d_oIced Revolver shot by Jonathan Ooi (CC license)

Buy a taco and get a free tattoo at The Temple of Enthusiasm

Lifestyle brand Deus Ex Machina makes bespoke café racer-inspired motorcycles, artisanal surfboards, skateboards, clothing and more. Since the opening of their flagship, The Temple of Enthusiasm, the once sleepy village of Canggu has transformed into into the island’s most happening area.

Whether you’re in it for the Temple’s hip concept store, art gallery, bar, restaurant, half-pipe, farmers markets, movie nights, high-speed dress-up drag races, live music, longboard competitions or Taco Tattuesdays (free tattoo with the purchase of your taco) – this bona fide Bali institution is an absolute must.
Jalan Batu Mejan No. 8, Canggu

Surf, snack, and drink a cold one at Batu Bolong Beach

A steep, black-sand beach with waves perfect for longboarding brings beginners and tattooed, retro-looking surfers to Batu Bolong.

Factor in a bustling Hindu temple, Balinese family gatherings, Indonesian street food, unbeatable sunsets and Old Man’s – a tiki bar-style beer garden that gets wild on Wednesday nights – and you’ll discover the atmosphere of this beach is tough to beat.
Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong, Canggu

20448057071_a42d5a6807_oBatu Bolong sunset by bruno kvot (CC license)

Kick back at a late-night goreng stall

Whether you’re wrapping up after a hard day of surfing, exploring or doing a whole lot of nothing, there’s no better place to unwind than at at one of Bali’s many roadside late-night goreng tents.

Pass on the cutlery (though it’s not usually on offer) and use your hands to tuck into fried chicken or tempeh (a soy product sort of like tofu), served with a side of mouth-watering sambal (spicy chili sauce), white rice and a single lettuce leaf.

Their ramshackle, bare-bones atmosphere is the perfect complement to the intense flavours served up, and locals are always happy to chat. This really is Balinese nightlife at its finest.

19472428939_8f9bf07cf4_oBali street food by steve deeves (CC license)

Explore more of the Bali coastline with The Rough Guide to Bali & LombokCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

You can’t expect to fit everything Europe has to offer into one trip and we don’t suggest you try. For those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few countries together.

The Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetEach of these itineraries could be done in two or three weeks if followed to the letter but don’t push it too hard – with so much to see and do you’re bound to get waylaid somewhere you love or stray off the suggested route.

For a complete guide to exploring the region and up-to-date recommendations of the best hotels, hostels, activities and more, buy the full guide here.

1. Britain and Ireland

Where else to begin but London (1) – one of the world’s greatest but most expensive cities. While your wallet is still intact move on to the storied grounds of Oxford (2) before heading to Snowdonia (3), where the Welsh mountains provide excellent hiking.

Soak up some history in the medieval streets of York (4), then make the trip north to stunning Edinburgh (5). Find your inner Braveheart in the Scottish Highlands (6) and fit in an unforgettable hike, climb, or ski while you’re at it.

Pop across the North Channel to Belfast (7), but be sure not to miss the nearby Giant’s Causeway – one of Europe’s great natural wonders. Grab a perfect pint of Guinness in Dublin (8), then wind down on the windswept beaches of Ireland’s West Coast (9).

2. France and Switzerland

Start in Paris (1), Europe’s most elegant capital, then venture off to the châteaux and prime vineyards of the Loire Valley (2). Move south to beautiful Bordeaux (3), which boasts bustling city life and some of Europe’s finest surfing beaches to boot.

Head south the peaks of the Pyrenees (4) before taking a trip through Southern France to the Côte d’Azur (5). Don’t miss the magic of Corsica (6), a true adventure playground, or traditional cooking in Lyon (7), the country’s gastronomic capital.

Try your luck skiing and climbing in the Alps (8), and end by relaxing riverside in laid-back Zürich (9).

3. Benelux, Germany and Austria

Kick off in Amsterdam (1) before enjoying more atmospheric canals and beautiful buildings in Bruges (2). Cologne’s (3) spectacular old town is a perfect first stop in Germany, but be sure to head north soon after for the vast port and riotous bars of Hamburg (4).

Few cities can compete with the style and youthful energy of Berlin (5), while Dresden (6) has also become a favourite backpacker hangout. Then head south to Munich (7), where Bavaria’s capital boasts everything from snowy scenery to beer-fuelled Oktoberfest.

Cross over the boarder to Austria and hit the slopes or the Mozart trail in scenic Salzburg (8), and conclude this itinerary among the palaces, museums, cafés and boulevards of Vienna (9).

4. Spain, Portugal and Morocco

Begin in the Basque capital of Bilbao (1), Spain’s friendliest city and home of the Guggenheim. Then it’s on to the city beaches, late-night bars and enchanting old town of Barcelona (2). Ibiza‘s (3) nightclubs are famous the world over, but its pockets of peace and quiet are worth the trip alone.

Gobble tapas and dance the night away in Madrid (4) before heading west for the countless port lodges of Porto (5). Cruise down the Atlantic coast to the historic Portuguese capital of Lisbon (6), then make for the region of Andalucía (7), stopping in the cities of Seville and Granada as you venture further south.

If you catch a ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco and set course for Fez (8), explore the medieval Moroccan city of labyrinth alleys, souks and mosques. Finish up in Marrakesh (9), a colourful city with a stunning backdrop of the Atlas Mountains.

5. Italy

Start in Milan (1) for a little Prada, Gucci, and Leonardo da Vinci. Veer east to visit the world’s most beautiful city, Venice (2), then south to the foodie nirvana of Bologna (3). Glide onwards to Tuscany (4) where Florence and Siena make excellent bases to explore the region’s hill towns.

You can hardly “do” Europe and not see Rome (5), and there is truly no better place to eat pizza than in the crumbling yet attractive city of Naples (6). Experience a Roman town frozen in time at Pompeii (7), before sleeping in one of Matera’s (8) hand-carved caves.

Kick back in Sicily (9) on idyllic beaches beneath smouldering volcanoes, or enjoy the hectic pace of Palermo, one of Italy’s most in-your-face cities.

6. Central and Eastern Europe

Get going in Prague (1), a pan-European city with beer that never disappoints. Move east to Warsaw’s (2) vodka-soaked bar scenes, Old Town, palaces and parks.

Arty and atmospheric Kraków (3) shouldn’t be missed, and neither should a trip to charming cafés of L’viv (4). Leave cities behind for the majestic wilderness of Slovakia‘s Tatra Mountains (4), then head back to civilisation and immerse yourself in Budapest (6) where you’ll find two great cities in one.

Finish this itinerary up in Ljubljana (7); Slovenia’s capital is a perfectly formed pit stop between central Europe and the Adriatic if you’re eager to push on to the Balkans.

7. Scandinavia

Start in the lively lanes of beautiful Copenhagen (1), and head north to Gothenburg’s (2) elegant architecture, fantastic nightlife and fully-functioning rainforest. A visit to Oslo (3) is worth the expense, but after a while you’ll feel the pull of the Norwegian fjords (4).

The mild climate and wild scenery of the Lofoten Islands (5) should not be skipped, but neither should the reindeer, huskies and elusive Northern Lights of Lapland (6). Of course, no trip to Scandinavia would be complete without a stop in Stockholm (7).

If you’re travelling in summer, get to Gotland (8) – Sweden’s party island, buzzing with DJs and bronzed bodies on the beach.

8. Russia and the Baltic Coast

Big, brash, expensive surreal – Moscow (1) is almost a nation in itself, and well worth a visit before moving on to the jaw-dropping architecture and priceless art collections of St Petersburg (2).

Head west to Helsinki (3), the proudly Finnish love child of Russian and Swedish empires, then hop across the gulf to charming and beautifully preserved Tallinn in Estonia (4).

Latvia’s cosmopolitan Riga (5) should not be missed, and when you need your nature fix go further south to the Curonian Spit (6), a strip of sand dunes and dense forest ideal for cycling and hiking. Wind this trip down in Vilnius (7), the friendliest and perhaps even the prettiest of all Baltic capitals.

9. The Balkans

Start with a slew of cheap but delicious wine, watersports, and vitamin D on the Dalmatian coast (1), then move on to Europe’s war-scarred but most welcoming capital, Sarajevo (2).

History-steeped Dubrovnik (3) rivalled Venice in its day, and is an easy stop on the way to Budva (4), Montenegro’s star resort with unspoilt beaches and throbbing open-air bars. Head further south to Tirana (5) for charming architecture and urban exploration, before visiting the shimming shores of Ohrid’s (6) mountain-backed lake.

Be sure to check out the chilled vibe of Sofia (7), and the more upbeat buzz of Serbia’s hip capital: Belgrade (8). End this itinerary by discovering Transylvania (9) – you probably won’t find any vampires, but you will find fairytale villages, colourful festivals, and wolf tracking in the Carpathians.

10. Greece and Turkey

Begin by finding the perfect beach in Kefaloniá (1), and continue to Athens (2) for a sun set over the Parthenon. Sail first to the island of Íos (3) for partying backpackers and hippie-era charm, then on to Crete’s (4) Samarian Gorge.

Get to the Turkish mainland for a visit to the remarkably preserved temples, mosaics, and baths in Ephesus (5) before mountain biking, paragliding, or diving in Kaş (6).

Then venture east to Cappadocia’s (7) volcanic landscape and subterranean city, and wrap up among the bazaars, hammams, and surprisingly hectic nightlife in Istanbul (8).

The Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetExplore more of Europe with the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Conjure up an image of the perfect Caribbean beach and you’ll find Cuba‘s generous shoreline fits the description perfectly: stretches of powdery, bone-white sand – often freckled with shady palm trees – and limpid, turquoise waters. And with so much coastline there are beaches to suit all needs: great swathes of golden sand groomed by resorts promise days on end of utter luxury, offshore islands act as jumping off points for exploring a wealth of coral reefs, while hidden down jungle-choked dirt tracks are sandy slices of undiscovered paradise.

Playa Los Flamencos

With 22km of creamy-white sands and cerulean waters, Cayo Coco effortlessly draws holidaymakers to its shores. The best beaches are clustered on the north coast, dominated by the all-inclusive hotels whose tendrils are gradually spreading along the rest of the northern coastline. Cayo Coco’s big three beaches, home to the all-inclusives and packed with boisterous activities, hog the narrow easternmost peninsula jutting out of the cay’s north coast. For a pocket of tranquillity, escape the main beaches and head to Playa Los Flamencos. The beach offers 3km of fine sands and transparent waters where tangerine-coloured starfish float through the shallows. There’s also good snorkelling out to sea.

Playa Pilar

A more serene retreat than it’s rowdier neighbour Cayo Coco, tiny Cayo Guillermo boasts 4km of stunning near-deserted beaches. With such an abundance of largely untouched sand, there’s no shortage of options for a bit of solitude but one beach that shouldn’t be missed is gorgeous Playa Pilar. On the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, Playa Pilar is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar, and was the author’s favourite hideaway in Cuba. With limpid clear shallows and squeaky-clean beaches, it is without doubt the top beach choice on Guillermo, if not in the entire cays.

Playa Pilar, Cayo Coco island

Playa Perla Blanca

The northern cays, a network of small islets, interspersed by turquoise waters and mangrove colonies, form one of Cuba’s newest tourist resorts. The cays are linked to the mainland by an impressive 48km causeway making the trip here all part of the adventure. At the far end of the chain lies Cayo Santa María, home to Playa Perla Blanca, one of the most splendid beaches in the area. It’s charm lies in its remote, untouched feel: it’s accessible, yet it has no facilities and is a bit of a trek to get to. But the journey, a total of 52km from the mainland, is worth it: the sand is as fine as it gets in Cuba.

Varadero

Varadero is undoubtedly the package holiday resort in Cuba and the glut of all-inclusive hotels, restaurants, and tour operators are all here for one reason: the beach – Cuba’s longest and one of the best in the Caribbean. It may be popular but thanks to its sheer size there’s enough space for everyone to indulge in a few days stress-free sloth. Stretching almost the entire length of a 25km peninsula that shoots out from the mainland, Varadero fits the classic Caribbean image: downy sand that forms a runway between palm trees along one edge and unruffled, sparkling waters along the other.

Stall on Varadero Beach, Cuba

Playa Los Pinos

Astoundingly beautiful and yet still deserted, Cayo Sabinal is so paradisiacal it’s almost eerie. It’s remained untouched thanks to it’s geographical isolation: to get here you have to drive 7km down a very bumpy dirt track, some of which is a causeway, a journey that no public transport and very few cars bother to make. A number of beaches await you at the north side of the 30km-long coral key – the longest of which is Playa Los Pinos, a blindingly white beach that’s perfect for a few days of complete tranquillity. Here sugary sands stretch out to meet the transparent waters, while wild horses and deer roam through the woodland that borders the sand giving the beach an almost magical feel.

Playa Ancón

Playa Ancón is often touted as the best beach on Cuba’s south coast and it’s easy to see why: it’s one of the longest in the area and boasts a dazzling sweep of sand that arcs around glittering turquoise waters. The beach may have put the area on the tourist map, but it has managed to keep a natural feel, with trees and shrubs creeping down to the shoreline. It’s a good jumping off point for snorkelling and diving in the reefs around the shoreline, plus Trinidad, Cuba’s colonial gem is just a stone’s throw away.

Playa Ancon, Cuba

Playa Ancón by neiljs (CC license)

Playa Turquesa

Simply translated as “turquoise beach”, it comes as no surprise to find that Playa Turquesa is one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. Filled with golden sand and bordered by mangrove forest at its eastern boundary, the shallow bay has a small coral reef a short swim offshore, while a strip of dense forest between the hotel Riu Playa Turquesa and the beach makes it feel perfectly undiscovered.

Playa Esmeralda

Some 5km west from Guardalavaca, picture-perfect Playa Esmeralda (also known as Estero Ciego) boasts clear blue water, powdery sand speckled with thatched sunshades and two luxury hotels hidden from view by thoughtfully planted bushes and shrubs. If you want unashamed hassle-free luxury, where the intrusion of local culture is kept to a bare minimum, this is the place for you.

Playa Guardalavaca

The resort of Guardalavaca is popular for good reason: a succession of gorgeous beaches sweeping around sheltered reefs, backed by a surrounding landscape of gentle hills and fields of sugar cane. One of the best beaches in the area is delightful Playa Guardalava, a 15000m stretch of dazzlingly white sand that draws both Cubans and tourists alike. Running along the centre of the beach, a strip of palm and tamarind trees provides a cool walkway and dapples the sand with shade, while a number of stands are on hand to rent out snorkelling equipment.

 

Playa Guardalava, Cuba

Playa Guardalavaca by Jeff (CC license)

Playa Francés

On Isla de la Juventud’s most remote upturned hook of land, lies Punta Francés, where you’ll find the island’s top beach, Playa Francés. There is over 3km of beach in all, split by a sandy headland into two broad curves of soft, silver shore ringed on one side by the lush green of a woody, palm-specked thicket and on the other by the glassy Caribbean Sea. The deserted tranquillity of this private world is all part of what makes it exceptional, though this is sometimes destroyed by hordes of cruise-ship visitors. Equally attractive are the nearby reefs; the beach lies within the island’s ecologically protected area, which is renowned for it’s superb diving.

Playa Sirena

The tiny islet of Cayo Largo, a narrow ribbon of land flanked by pale downy sands, is separated from Isla de la Juventud by 100km of sea.  With no permanent population, it’s entirely geared to holiday-makers who are drawn here for the irresistible beaches and various watersports. Protected from harsh winds and rough waves by the offshore coral reef, and with over 2km of stunning white sands, Playa Sirena, at the western tip of the cay, enjoys a deserved reputation as the most beautiful of all the beaches on Cayo Largo (if not in all of Cuba).

Cover of the guide The Rough Guide to CubaExplore more of the Cuban coastline with The Rough Guide to CubaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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