Can’t decide between a city or beach break? Some of the world’s most magnificent metropolises have been blessed with pristine stretches of sand, so you can effortlessly combine architectural riches, cutting-edge cuisine and vibrant nightlife with a spot of seaside relaxation. So slap on the sun block and the shades, here’s our pick of the best urban beaches.

Havana, Cuba

On summer weekends it seems like the whole of Havana decamps to Playas del Este, a seemingly endless sweep of palm-fringed sand just 18km from the city. Santa Maria at the western end has an all-day piña colada-party vibe. If you’re prepared to walk, you might even find your own private Caribbean paradise.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Despite the high body count in summer, Banje Beach by the Old Town walls is the most famous in Dubrovnik. Just 1.5km from the city, Sveti Jakov Beach is the under-the-radar local’s favourite, a 500m-long crunchy mix of sand and small pebbles, beneath a beautiful church of the same name.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cities don’t come more beach-centric than Rio, backed by a high-rise skyline and granite peaks. So join the bronzed Cariocas on iconic Copacabana and upmarket Ipanema for a friendly game of footvolley (you guessed it: a sport combining volleyball and football), or just admire the view over a caipirinha. The famous sands are also host spectacular New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Miami, USA

Once-seedy SoBe (South Beach) is now the stomping ground for Miami’s beautiful people, its palm-studded strip filled with chic bars, fusion restaurants and hedonistic clubs. But you can up the culture quotient with a tour of the historic Art Deco neighbourhood, or head inland to the up-and-coming Wynwood Arts District.

Barcelona, Spain

Barceloneta is one of the city’s most iconic and popular beaches. Its shabby waterfront was revitalised in the massive makeover for the 1992 Olympics and now this former fisherman’s quarter is lined with chic and cheerful tapas bars. Join the throng over a cold beer and the Catalan take on paella.

Sydney, Australia

Most visitors join the burnt backpackers and territorial surfers on Sydney‘s world-famous Bondi, but the surrounding Eastern Suburbs beaches, including Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee have a more laid-back, local vibe. Manly is the party hub of the Northern Beaches, while keen surfers should check out Freshwater, Dee Why, Curl Curl and Narrabeen.

Dubai, UAE

Better known for its soaring skyscrapers and mega-malls, the Middle East’s most flamboyant city has miles of white-sand beaches – some of them shipped in from the desert. You’ll find the designer-clad sun worshippers on Jumeirah Beach, or there’s the free stretch of sand running the length of Umm Suqeim, known as Kite Beach.

Los Angeles, USA

West LA’s Venice Beach is a people-watching paradise. Ocean Front Walk is lined with surf shops, ice cream parlours and street vendors, and a never-ending circus of stilt-walkers, jugglers and fortune-tellers play to the eclectic crowd of power walkers, cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders. Just don’t expect to have it to yourself.

Nice, France

More than 35 pebbly beaches – both public and private – stretch uninterrupted along Nice’s glamorous Promenade des Anglais, from the airport to the Old Port. Each beach has its own vibe but it can be worth splashing out to lounge on a private plage that comes with a few frills.

Cape Town, South Africa

Dramatic boulders divide Clifton Beaches into four small, interlinked coves. Fourth Beach is the liveliest, Third is gay-friendly, Second is the students’ hangout and First is the one for surfers. While they’re sheltered from the bitter trade winds in summer (November to March) be warned, the water is always icy in Cape Town.

Helsinki, Finland

You might not put ‘Helsinki’ and ‘beach’ in the same sentence but Finns flock to the nearest strip of sand – the 450-metre-long Hietaniemi, known as Hietsu – in summer to make the most of the ‘white nights’. Out of the (rather chilly) water, you can get active with volleyball, basketball and football.

Honolulu, Hawaii

Once a retreat for nineteenth-century Hawaiian royalty, Waikiki Beach is now chock-full of high-rise resorts, tourists and surfers. But even that can’t detract from the killer views of Diamond Head volcano. The long, rolling breaks are perfect for novice surfers, or you can ride an outrigger canoe, before watching the sunset from an oceanfront bar.

Vancouver, Canada

The city’s many beaches all come with views over the North Shore Mountains. Kitsilano (Kits) Beach is the place to see and be seen, with free tennis and basketball courts and the largest saltwater pool in Canada. The more low-key Spanish Beach is perfect for BBQs and long strolls.

Chicago, USA

Over 40km of beautiful public beaches line the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan, perfect for work (with free wi-fi), rest and play. North Avenue is one of the most popular, where you can start the day with a yoga session, play some volleyball and end with a dip in the freshwater lake.

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What once began as a marketing ploy for a therapeutic mud found near Boryeong, a small city on South Korea’s sandy west coast, has since transformed into a unique festival that draws millions every year. But this is no spa day.

Mud Fest 2008 by Hypnotica Studios Infinite (license)

The annual Boryeong Mud Festival is where people come to get dirty. Filthy. Caked from head to toe in wet, grey earth that is – according to Korean research institutions – exceptionally good for your skin.

Try keeping those cosmetic benefits in mind as you speed down inflatable super-slides into mud pools. Challenge others attendees to a wrestling match in the much-famed mud ring, fly high in a slimy bouncy castle, or try some marine-style mud training if you’re feeling tough. All this and more is situated right on Daecheon beach. So if you feel the need, just wash off in the placid Yellow Sea.

Mud Fest 2008 by Hypnotica Studios Infinite (license)

Boryeong Mud Festival runs for ten days, from July 17th–26th, and is open to all ages. The final weekend has proven to be the wildest in the past, kicked off by a Friday night hip-hop rave, but don’t underestimate the party-power of mud on any given day.

Muddy people 2 by Jordi Sanchez Teruel (license)

Whether you’re trying to sort out where wet earth ends and your body begins, or comprehend the paradox that mud is actually cleaning you, this festival is definitely worth the trip. Who’s up for it?

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You’ve dug a moat, successfully sculpted a mound higher than your knees and managed to drizzle a viscous mixture of sand and salt water over the château spires (for that drippy je ne sais quoi) – then some rogue child bulldozes your beach creation back to oblivion. Well, it was never as good as it could have been, because you didn’t have a professional Sandcastle Butler to help you.

This is no joke. Oliver’s Travels, a family travel company that prides itself on the quirky, exquisite and extraordinary, is currently training the world’s first fleet of “Beach Butlers” to help families transform loose sand into their wildest dreams.

From securing a premium plot of shoreline, to concocting the perfect water-to-sand ratio, this new breed of VIP concierge will be grand masters in the art of sand-sculpting. No construction is too extreme. They’ll help you brainstorm, draft actual blueprints, find the right spot, and create something with a structural integrity you can be proud of along the beaches of the UKSpainFranceItaly and Greece.

Of course, this bespoke service does come at a cost. Prices are listed at £500 for a full day, and £300 for a half. Thankfully, Beach Butlers will also be fully trained in childcare before receiving their artisanal qualifications, so you don’t have to worry about them subjecting your youngsters to the same rigorous training that they’re probably undergoing right now.

Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Draped across the turbulent waters of the Norwegian Sea, far above the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are, by any standard, staggeringly beautiful.

In a largely tamed and heavily populated continent, the Lofoten are a rare wilderness outpost, an untrammelled landscape of rearing mountains, deep fjords, squawking seabird colonies and long, surf-swept beaches.

This was never a land for the faint-hearted, but, since Viking times, a few hundred islanders have always managed to hang on here, eking out a tough existence from the thin soils and cod-rich waters. Many emigrated, while those who stayed came to think they were unlucky: unlucky with the price of the fish on which they were dependent, unlucky to be so isolated, and unlucky when the storms rolled in to lash their tiny villages.

Then Norway found tourism. The first boatloads turned out to be English missionaries bent on saving souls, but subsequent contacts proved more financially rewarding. Even better, the Norwegians found oil in the 1960s, lots and lots of oil, quite enough to extend the road network to the smallest village, and thereby end rural isolation at a stroke.

The islands’ villages have benefited from this road-building bonanza and yet kept their erstwhile charm, from the remote Å i Lofoten in the south through to the beguiling headland hamlet of Henningsvaer, extravagantly picturesque Nusfjord and solitary Stamsund.

Today, the Lofoten have their own relaxed pace. For somewhere so far north, the weather can be exceptionally mild: you can spend summer days sunbathing on the rocks or hiking around the superb coastline.When it rains, as it does frequently, life focuses on the rorbuer (fishermen’s huts), where freshly caught fish are cooked over wood-burning stoves, tales are told and time gently wasted.

If this sounds contrived, in a sense it is – the way of life here is to some extent preserved for the tourists. But it’s rare to find anyone who isn’t enthralled by it all.

Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.  Compare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

It starts as soon as the ferry pulls away from the quay. Heading out from the bustle of the main island of Malta into the shimmering blue waters of the Gozo Channel, the Mediterranean sun warm on your skin, tensions just ebb away. Sliding past the tiny island of Comino, its solitary defensive tower giving a gentle thumbs up, the pretty little port of Mgarr is already in sight.

It’s only 25 minutes on the water from Malta to Gozo, but it’s time enough to slip back a few decades, throw off the stresses of modern life and prepare for a holiday on GMT.

No, not Greenwich Meantime, Gozo Maybe Time, the island’s default setting and the ideal time zone for a truly relaxing break.

Gozo is rural in a way Malta no longer is. Terraced flat-top hills punctuate fertile valleys, mosaics of tiny fields surrounded by dry-stone walls. The local limestone – honey-coloured and glowing – is everywhere, the island’s building material for everything from Neolithic temples and farmers huts to the towering Medieval Citadel that rises dramatically from the centre of the island, popping up in almost every inland view.

Each village square on the island has its shop or café and most have a red letter box or phone booth and a tiny police station hung with a traditional blue lantern – a colourful dash of leftover Britishness.

Take your time

In Gozo everyone seems to have time. Time to sit beneath the citadel in It-Tokk (literally ‘the Meeting Place’), the main square of Gozo’s charming little capital, Victoria. Time to chat in the shade of an oleander tree or the oversized Parish church that dominates every village square.

Gozitans make time for visitors too. Ask the way, and you may find yourself accompanied rather than told. That is not to say they intrude; they don’t – not even on celebrities. Which is one reason the likes of Gary Neville and Billy Connolly escape here.

Follow in Brangelina’s footsteps

One of Connolly’s haunts is secluded Mgarr Ix-Xini. He comes here to eat at the peaceful little fish restaurant that sits at the head of this steep-sided rocky creek from March to November.

A narrow path, flanked by sweet-smelling wild fennel and rich aromatic thyme, winds up the rock above clear waters. The sea here is perfect for swimming, snorkelling and diving, protected from the prevailing northwesterly winds.

Until recently it was truly off the beaten track, but Mgarr Ix-Xini has just landed on the map as the place where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt filmed their latest movie, By the Sea. In the film this is the South of France in the 1970s and the restaurant’s tiny interior is the French village shop. Colourful shelves and a few props remain and you can now sit on the Tamarisk-shaded terrace sipping wine ‘mis en bouteille par Jolie-Pitt’.

Marvel at Gozo’s magnificence

Mgarr Ix-Xini is just one of Gozo’s many coastal attractions. Edward Lear, master of the nonsense rhyme, who came here to rest, walk and paint, described the island’s landscape as “pomskizillious and gromphiberous, being as no words can describe its magnificence”.

The landscape is indeed amazing; from the dramatic Ta’Cenc cliffs plunging 145m into the sea to a strange clay hill like a giant grey doorknob, and the rich red sands of Ramla Beach – arguably the best beach in the country.

At ‘Calypso’s Cave’, meanwhile, Homer’s Odysseus is said to have been held willing hostage by the charming sea nymph. The collapsed cave isn’t much to look at but the view is stunning and it isn’t hard to see how Odysseus might have fallen into GMT and forgotten to go home.

Get salty

Gozo has been feeding a human population for 7000 years. In fact, it may have been the first place in Malta to be settled, with farmers arriving by sea from Sicily just 90km to the north.

Evidence of this can be seen on the stretch of coast just west of the little resort of Marsalforn. Scooped out cliffs of smooth golden sandstone, like desert dunes, form the backdrop to chequer-boards of seaside salt pans.

It’s a place that time forgot, where a few families still produce salt as it has been made since Roman times, storing it in rock-cut rooms behind the bright-painted doors tucked into the cliff face.

You can buy salt at Jubilee Foods in It-Tokk, which also offers tastings of other local produce like sweet prickly pear jam and tangy dried Gozitan goats cheese.

Go back in time

By the middle of the fourth millennium BC – before the creation of Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids – people on Gozo were building sophisticated stone temples, with monumental facades, semi-circular rooms, plastered walls and carved decoration.

The best remains can be seen at Ggantija, pronounced “Ji-gan-tee-ya” – as in, “gigantic”. Constructed of limestone blocks up to fifty tonnes in weight, it is little wonder that locals long-believed the temples were built by giants.

You can learn about the people who actually built them in the excellent exhibition at the Ggantija visitors’ centre, which also houses some remarkable prehistoric statuary including a few of ‘The Fat Ladies of Malta’ – big-bottomed women in pleated skirts – and phallic symbols, probably both part of an ancient fertility cult.

The temples are built on one of Gozo’s characteristic plateaux above a rural landscape probably little-changed since the Temple Period. The temple terrace was originally paved and was perhaps the ‘It-Tokk’ of Neolithic Gozitans, chatting away their own GMT.

When you come to leave, you’ll find aeroplanes do not run on Gozo time. Instead, laze in the Mediterranean sun on the deck of the Gozo Ferry – that precious 25 minutes feels like a crucial final burst of GMT to fortify you for a return to the twenty-first century.

Malta International Airport is just a 45 minute drive (or 1hr 15mins by bus) from the Gozo Ferry and nowhere on Gozo is more than half an hour from the port. Tickets are only required on the return ferry and cost just €4.65. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

A resident of Hawaii, photographer Dustin Wong has always been in awe of his home island’s natural beauty. Here he shares some of his best pictures of Hawaii

“Growing up on the island of O’ahu teaches one many things. For me, those lessons include: land is a limited resource; life can be simple; and within nature there is profound beauty.

“Each year I travel back to the island to reconnect with family, and explore the land and sea. There has been rapid development and change in recent years, however there are still many places to experience the unique beauty that the island has to offer.

“There is a rich natural history to the three-million-year-old island, which for many years remained untouched by human hands. The island weather and Pacific Ocean have shaped the landscape in diverse ways; the paradise that is Hawaii was indeed carved by nature’s whim.”

Bellows Beach in the Morning

A fiery sunrise over Pearl Harbor

Cruise ship sailing in Hawaiian waters

Surfers in the lineup on the North Shore

The reef at China Walls

Moisture in the air from a rainstorm glows during a sunset

A family leaving Kaimana Beach at the end of a beautiful day

Clouds hover over the steep ridges of the Ko’olau Mountain range

A sea turtle swimming on a clear day

The newly renovated rainbow mural at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki

Hanauma Bay

The beautiful remains of a sea urchin found along the shore

A stream in the Nu’uanu Valley

A wave crashes along the lava rock

Moon rays shine over the Mokulua Islands

A full rainbow beams across Makua Valley

Yoga in the forest of Nu’uanu Valley

A panoramic view of the East side of O’ahu

A surfer anticipating clean conditions at Rocky Point on the North Shore

Powerful shorebreak at Sandy Beach

You can see more of Dustin’s photography on his website, Facebook, and Instagram

The Sunshine State takes great pride in its 600 or so miles of beautiful beaches. Thanks to a year-round mild-climate – sub-tropical in the south – these mesmerizing white sands make Florida prime beach territory.

Although some of the most popular beaches are around Miami on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, with its warm breezes, bone-white sands and spectacular sunsets, shouldn’t be overlooked.

From east to west, here’s our pick of the best beaches in Florida.

South Beach

Miami’s most exciting area, South Beach, which occupies the southernmost three miles of Miami Beach is the natural place to start this list. Filled with pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings, up-and-coming art galleries, modish diners and suntanned beach addicts, it’s often celebrated as one of the hippest places in the world. Socially, South Beach has an unbeatable buzz. Here, Latin, black and white cultures happily collide, gay and straight tourists soak up the sun together, and Cuban cafés and chic boutiques sit side by side. Though elsewhere Miami’s cultural schizophrenia may cause friction, here it’s at its riotous, cocktail-clinking best. Try to turn in early one night and wake up for an early-morning stroll– the lucid white light and wave-lapped tranquillity are striking.

Bahia Honda State Park

Beaches are rarely found in the Keys, owing to the reef, but the sands at the 300-acre Bahia Honda State Park are some the best. Among the finest are Sandspur Beach, Calusa Beach and Loggerhead Beach, all of which offer golden sand, good swimming and snorkelling, and the opportunity to view rare plants, eagle rays, jackfish and the occasional nurse shark.

photo credit: hondabahia.JPG via photopin (license)

Siesta Key

One of several barrier islands fringing Sarasota, Siesta Key is refreshing and laidback, attracting a younger crowd. Clusters of shops, restaurants and bars form Siesta Key Village, along Ocean Boulevard, but beach-lovers should head straight to Siesta Key Beach, beside Beach Road, where the sand has an uncommon sugary texture due to its origins as quartz (not the more usual pulverized coral). It’s a wide, white strand that can – and often does – accommodate thousands of sun-worshippers.

photo credit: P5262983 via photopin (license)

Anna Maria Island

Just a short distance from the hard-working town of Bradenton lies the attractive Anna Maria Island. It’s a bright and convivial place with ramshackle beach cottages, seaside snack stands and beachside bars. As for the beaches, Coquina Beach offers excellent swimming, while if you’re after tranquility, Anna Maria Bayfront Park, at the island’s northern tip, has stellar views across the bay to the Sunshine Skyway, where you can watch pelicans feed from the nearby pier.

photo credit: 2011 best (675) via photopin (license)

Fort de Soto Park

Fort de Soto Park is the furthest point south you can reach by car on the stretch of coast running south from St Petersburg. Made up of five interconnected keys, it covers 1136 untrammelled acres and some blissfully undeveloped beaches. As well as the ruins of a Civil War era fort, the park contains almost three miles of white sand, which possess an intoxicating air of isolation during the week – pristine North Beach is contender for the best on the Gulf coast.

photo credit: 9068 via photopin (license)

Sand Key Park

Just to the south of Clearwater Beach, a full-scale resort community popular with students and families, lies pretty 65-acre Sand Key Park, where tall palm trees frame a scintillating strip of sand. This classic beach vista is a good spot to watch dolphins, though the view is marred by the nearby high-rises. Beyond lounging on its belt of sparkling white sands and enjoying the daily sunset festivities at Pier 60, you can also make a day-trip to Caladesi Island (see below), a few miles north.

photo credit: Clearwater Beach – Sand Key Park – December Sunset via photopin (license)

Caladesi Island

For a glimpse of what the St Petersburg beaches must have looked like before the onset of mass tourism, make for Caladesi State Park, just to the north of Clearwater Beach. From Caladesi’s mangrove-fringed marina, boardwalks lead to a beach of unsurpassed tranquillity that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing and shell collecting.

photo credit: Caladesi Island Beach via photopin (license)

St George Island

A few miles off the aptly named Forgotten Coast, the three Apalachicola barrier islands are well endowed with beaches and creatures – including thousands of birds that use them as resting stops during migration. The largest island, St George, boasts twenty-seven miles of powdery white sands and Gulf vistas. Shady live-oak hammocks and an abundance of osprey-inhabited pine trees add colour to a day’s lazy sunning.

photo credit: Rocky Beach via photopin (license)

St Andrew’s State Park & Shell Island

With some of the best stretches of sugary white sands on the Gulf coast, St Andrew’s State Park is one of the region’s real highlights. The brilliant white beaches here are wild and undeveloped gems, while a further 800 acres of untouched Shell Island, across the inlet, is also part of the reserve.

photo credit: St. Andrews State Park 11 via photopin (license) / colour corrected

Perdido Key

Perdido Key, lined with spectacular untouched, bone-white beaches, has some of the best sands in the Panhandle. Though there has been some development in the centre, large swathes of beach and the island are protected within Perdido Key State Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore. A one-and-a-quarter-mile nature trail allows you to explore the area, and if you’re smitten with the seclusion, stick around to swim or pitch your tent at one of the primitive campgrounds.

photo credit: Sunset over Perdido Bay via photopin (license)

Header image credit: Dreamstime.com: Ivan Cholakov / Icholakov.

Explore more of Florida with The Rough Guide to FloridaCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Dreaming of a forum for your long-repressed artistic abilities? Hoping to construct a life-size sand-version of Elvis, Jesus or someone else close to your heart, then have it washed away with the afternoon tide?

Next week, on June 20th, the annual Sandcastle Contest in Cannon Beach, Oregon, offers just the opportunity – along with the chance to have your creation gawked at by thousands of onlookers. Others may have surpassed America’s oldest sandcastle-building competition in size since its debut in 1964, but there’s something to be said for taking part in the original.

The field is limited to 150 entrants, so you may have some qualms about taking the place of an expert, but don’t worry too much; unless you’ve won in a comp before, you won’t be eligible for the “masters” competition – where the architects get serious with their sand.

Here are some of the mind-boggling entries from previous years’ competitions.

photo credit: foreclawsure via Flickr (license)

photo credit: what now? via photopin (license)

photo credit: dragon castle, haystack rock via photopin (license)

photo credit: st. bernard via photopin (license)

photo credit: sandpuppy via photopin (license)

photo credit: sandmeowth via photopin (license)

photo credit: Sand Split via Flickr (license)

photo credit: sand art via photopin (license)

photo credit: fleur via photopin (license)

photo credit: Sandcastle at Cannon Beach via Flickr (license)

Discover more unforgettable experiences around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

Dotting the southern Agean, the Cyclades (Kykládhes) are one of the best places in Greece’s for island-hopping. But it’s not all the crystal-clear seas and golden beaches that you might expect.

On volcanic Milos, a geologically diverse island known for its unusual rock formations and geothermal springs, the spectacular shorelines are characterized by multicoloured rocks and volcanically heated sand.

Sarakiniko, in particular, is astonishing. This sculpted inlet, with a sandy seabed and gleaming white rocks, is a far cry from the sandy strands Greece is famous for.

If you’ve ever wanted to step foot on the moon, this is as close as you might get.

photo credit: Sarakiniko beach via photopin (license)

photo credit: Sarakiniko beach via photopin (license)

photo credit: Sarakiniko beach via photopin (license)

photo credit: Sarakiniko beach via photopin (license)


Explore more of the Cyclades with the Rough Guide to the Greek IslandsCompare flightsbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Kiki Deere, co-author of the Rough Guide to the Philippines, heads off the tourist trail to Batanes. This cluster of islands, located almost 150km off the northernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines, sees just thirty or so foreign visitors a year.

“Batanes? Batanes? Up there?” was the reaction of most Filipinos when I told them I was catching a plane north to the remotest province of the country. This was coupled with a puzzled expression, followed by a long “Oooooooh”.

Only 190km south of Taiwan, the islands of Batanes are closer to the Taiwanese coast than to the Philippine mainland. The archipelago was created following a series of volcanic activities when Mount Iraya erupted around 325 BC – today a dormant volcano that stands 1517m above sea level.

The province comprises ten islands of which only three are inhabited: Batan Island, the largest in the group; peaceful Sabtang Island; and the less accessible Itbayat. Their isolation has resulted in a unique culture and distinct traditions; the language, cuisine and climate have little in common with the rest of the country.

Image by Kiki Deere

Rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs

Our little six-seater plane rocked back and forth as we struggled to land on wind-swept Batan Island, whose capital, Basco, is named after Governor José Basco y Vargas who brought the islands under the Spanish Crown in 1782.

Below us stretched verdant rolling hills, windswept massifs and sheer cliffs rising 70m above sea level. The topography of the islands varies dramatically from the mainland – with grazing cows, undulating hills and strong winds. I felt I could have easily been in Ireland, not in the tropical Philippine archipelago I had extensively travelled, with its powdery, white-sand beaches shaded by coconut trees.

“Today we will visit Marlboro County, and then on to Sabtang Island” my guide announced as soon as I’d settled into Fundación Pacita, the former home of artist Pacita Abad today a surprisingly upmarket hotel. His voice was calm and composed; he spoke in musical tones, rolling his “r” in a pleasant lilt.

Like Filipino, the Ivatan language is peppered with pidgin Spanish words. The Ivatan are the native inhabitants of these islands, and trace their roots back to Formosan (Taiwanese) immigrants as well as Spaniards who travelled here in the sixteenth century.

Image by Kiki Deere

A testament to the trusting nature of the locals

We drove up and down the island’s many hills, the engine of our little car calling out as it climbed a slope, letting out a groaning sigh of relief as we reached the top and zoomed down the other side, only to grate again as we clambered up the next.

As we came over the brow of the first hill, there before us were green pastures being grazed by horses and bulls, with Mount Iraya and the roaring Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

Locals make a living by raising goats and cows, and plant root crops that are able to cope with the islands’ harsh environment, including yam, garlic, sweet potato and onion. Fish, livestock and root vegetables form the mainstay of the islands’ cuisine. During most of the year provisions are flown in or shipped over from the mainland, but during typhoon season ships and planes are often unable to reach the islands.

We continued south along the coastal road to the Honesty Café, an unmanned coffee shop selling t-shirts, beverages and snacks where customers drop payment in designated boxes, serving as a testament to the trusting nature of the island’s inhabitants.

Image by Kiki Deere

Life has changed little over the last few centuries

A rocky thirty-minute boat ride across the treacherous waters of the Balintang Channel took us to Sabtang Island, home to steep mountains and deep canyons where life has changed little over the last few centuries.

This peaceful island is peppered with Ivatan stone villages, and the picture-perfect town of Chavayan is home to some of the best-preserved traditional homes in the Philippines. Unlike in the rest of the country where nipa huts are a common sight, the houses in Batanes are made of limestone to withstand the destructive force of typhoons that so often strike the islands.

I strolled along the town’s streets, my guide encouraging me to occasionally pop my head into the stone houses, whose wooden floors are traditionally polished with banana leaves. Their cogon-thatched roofs are sturdily built, lasting up to two or three decades. Street names are chiselled in stone plaques.

At the Sabtang Weavers’ Association, women sold small artefacts and offered me homemade biscuits that they had lovingly prepared in their humble homes. Intrigued and surprised at the sight of a foreigner, they questioned me as to my provenance, proudly showing me the small trinkets they had painstakingly made.

Image by Kiki Deere

An elderly lady with a mustard yellow cardigan wore a rain cape called vakul, traditional Ivatan headgear made from stripped leaves of voyavoy palm to protect her from the strong sun and frequent rainstorms that so often hit the islands. Her coarse hands fingered a small hand-woven souvenir that she encouraged me to buy.

When I flew back to the province of Luzon a few days later, where thick jungles and bustling beach resorts justifiably attract their fair share of tourists, the far-flung islands of Batanes, with their thirty or so foreign visitors a year, suddenly seemed like a distant dream.

Explore more of the Philippines with the Rough Guide to the PhilippinesCompare flightsbook hostels or hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.  

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