What makes a great family beach? Clean water for swimming, clean sand for sitting, sunbathing, playing or walking, and naturally occurring amusements such as gullies, tide pools or rocks to climb. Access to decent food and bathrooms and even showers is also a plus and thankfully relatively common in Europe where I live. And of course, beautiful scenery and nearby towns with lots of activities certainly help.
For the past two decades I’ve lived in Spain – part of the peninsula that has been the Florida of Europe since the days of the Roman Empire – and got to know quite a few European coastal areas. With a husband and two children on these coastal trips, my repertoire has expanded considerably.
Below is a selection of my family’s personal favorites, from the calm, clear waters of Ålbæk, Denmark, to the white sands of Spain’s Balearic Islands.
Lush, green Asturias on Spain’s northern coast is the country’s dairy farm, and since the less fertile coastal areas have traditionally been left uncultivated, there are fragrant pine forests (and, surprisingly, eucalyptus forests) that roll up to the region’s sand dunes. . beaches.
Frejulfe beach in western Asturias is a sentimental favorite of ours as it is only about a six minute drive from my husband’s childhood home near the town of Navia. For ten years our children knew only the broad crescent of the beach as the place where we would gather at the end of December to leave the Christmas meals. But when the pandemic limited international travel, we were able to experience the summer joys of Frejulfe – in bathing suits instead of jackets and hats.
Like most Asturian beaches, Frejulfe has small waterfalls, caves and a narrow brackish river that winds through the sand into the sea, giving smaller children who don’t like waves a safe place to frolic. Due to the neighboring forests, there is always enough driftwood to build elaborate tents decorated with beach towels.
Depending on the tides, rock formations on the edges of the bay provide a fertile area for spying for anemones, starfish, crabs and the occasional small seahorse.
Some beaches, such as nearby Fabal, are accessible via steep steps or precarious paths that would be difficult, if not unsafe, for smaller children, but Frejulfe has easy access and a large car park, not to mention a bustling chiringuito (beach hut restaurant ) and surf lessons for older children.
Nearby restaurants fill the fishing villages of Puerto de Vega and Luarca – the locals love it the barometer in the latter for seafood and rice stews. There are also ancient Roman and Celtic settlements; endless coastal walks; waterfalls in the hills; and the beautiful beach of Las Catedrales, named for its huge flying buttress-like rock formations, about 30 minutes west of Galicia.
Cap Ferret and Arcachon
A peninsula of a series of charming hamlets tucked into the woods and dunes, Cap Ferret has the wild Atlantic Ocean on one side and the more sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon (essentially a large bay) on the other. It offers everything you could wish for for a family beach holiday with French flair – winding streets for cycling, a wharf lined with seafood restaurants (the area is known for oysters), a lighthouse and superb shops tucked between the shady alleys that striped boatneck sell shirts and scented candles with vetiver. All this is wrapped in a ribbon of immaculately clean and wide golden sands kissed by a fresh Atlantic breeze.
As we were there at Easter when the weather could be less reliable we stayed in Arcachon, a lovely Belle Epoque seaside town, a lovely 15 minute ferry ride across the bay on the south bank of the Bassin. Arcachon scored with my kids too, especially its quirky colorful Art Nouveau architecture and fantastic family friendly restaurants. (“France is known for the best pizza,” my food-critical son Freddie remarked as we sat down at” Boys from Peppone on the main road of Arcachon.)
Exploring America’s National Parks
The glory of the American national park system attracts hundreds of millions of visitors every year.
For all five kids in our group, the star attraction was the huge spa in our hotel – The Baths of Arguin – which, contrary to the image one might have of a tense European spa, offered a children’s hour every night for all of us to enjoy and frolic in the therapeutic waters between the jets and hydromassage stations.
As we drove out of town on our return home, we stopped to climb the Dune du Pilat, a huge sand dune at the mouth of Arcachon’s cove. It is by far the tallest and largest “building” in the area and offers stunning views of the town, sea and forest – an area that has sadly been destroyed by recent bushfires. Seeing blotchy figures at the other end of the dune, my daughter Frida said, “It looks like the Great Wall of China,” and it did.
Ålbæk Strand and Råbjerg Mile
Huge dunes provide wonderful playgrounds for children who can climb on them, roll off them or try in vain to run in the soft sand. Between Ålbæk and Skagen at the northernmost tip of Denmark is Råbjerg Mile, known to my family as “the wandering dune” as it is considered a “living” dune and drifts slowly across the peninsula. Like the Pyla in Arcachon, its size and vastness are astounding.
The Danes in this area have always had to deal with migrating sands and live as they do at the intersection of the deep and swirling North Sea and the much shallower and calmer Baltic Sea. The sand just continues to wash up on the west coast, drifting east, having once buried a nearby church. At Grenen, the pointed peak of Skagen where the two seas meet, the accumulating sands allow Denmark to grow towards Sweden.
There is no wave in the crystal clear waters of the beach called Ålbæk Strand – just a few miles south of Råbjerg Mile and a perfect place for young children to frolic in the sea. Because it’s so shallow, while still invigorating, the water gets much warmer than you’d expect in Scandinavia. And the beach seems to stretch into eternity, so there is a lot of nature to discover amid the dunes and forests. Ferries that commute between Norway, Denmark and Sweden can be seen on the horizon.
For a break from the sun, the nearby town of Skagen is fairytale-like, with its narrow streets lined with cute yellow and red houses nestled in lush gardens, the legacy of the area’s transformation from hardscrabble fishing village to bohemian art colony in the late 19th century, to luxury resort in the 20th. The picturesque harbor bustles in the morning when the catch of the day arrives and stays busy at lunchtime when food and beer stalls provide a festive alfresco dining spot. Hotels, such as the charming historic from Ruth offer wonderful accommodations, but given the relatively high cost of food and drink in Scandinavia, it’s worth renting on a short-term basis so that not all meals have to be in restaurants.
And the city’s small museums, such as Skagen Museum and Ancher .’s houseserve kid-friendly portions of culture, much of which is reminiscent of local life and legend, while the cafe and bakery The backyard serves a delicious garden lunch and fun summer outdoor concerts.
Natural Park Sudoeste Alentejano and Costa Vicentina
In recent years, the jet-set love with Comporta, the increasingly chic and increasingly expensive summer destination south of Lisbon, has largely overlooked the wilder Atlantic coast further south. I was alone on my first visit to the area in 2007 and as I drove south towards Zambujeira do Mar, the coastal road continued to offer such beautiful glimpses of sandstone coves lapped by blue-green water that I couldn’t resist taking a look stopping periodically for 10 minutes swims for deserted beaches such as Praia do Tonel.
I fell for those beaches so hard that we have now gone back twice and stopped in different places each time. Family-friendly beaches with parking and easy paths to the beach, perhaps even a lifeguard in season, include Praia do Carvajal and Praia de Odeceixe. While other and newer accommodation options exist, we have a soft spot for the Herdade do Tourila quaint farm hotel with a great pool and fantastic breakfast.
Driving back to the hotel one evening after a great (and amazingly cheap) dinner at the super casual Azenha do Marin the small beachside town of Azenha do Mar, the road plunged into an area of strawberry fields so fragrant it was like having a second dessert.
A fun addition to a beach adventure here is to head south to Sagres, now a hip surf town where Henry the Navigator once had his sailing school in the Fortress of Sagres during the voyage of discovery of Portugal.
An unexpected benefit of the pandemic was our discovery of the joys of coming to the beach by boat. In June 2020, when international leisure travel was virtually banned all over the world, my husband realized that the economic laws of supply and demand for private boat rental in the Mediterranean would be reversed (many boats, but few passengers), so we booked a trip that had always seemed too extravagant and rented a boat for a five-day cruise around Formentera, the smallest and most unspoilt of the Spanish Balearic Islands.
We boarded in Ibiza and within minutes of making the 20 minute crossing to Formentera we anchored and snorkeled in stunningly clear turquoise waters, elbowing each other underwater for schools and the odd baby octopus to designate. Finally we walked up the coast, a strip of powdery white sand so narrow it took only a few minutes to cross, and went back into the sea on the other side. There was nothing but nature around us.
We took such a winding route back to the boat that by the time we climbed aboard, nearly four hours had passed. As a kid I spent hours on end in the ocean, but this was the first time my kids did, tirelessly swimming huge distances and wanting to do it again after lunch.
That first stop, Ses Illetes, is typically (and rightly so) ranked as the most beautiful beach in Formentera and often in all of Spain. A short boat ride south, there are restaurants such as Beso Beachfamous, fun, delicious and hugely expensive, in the dunes.
Some of the island’s other beaches are isolated smaller coves, but Formentera’s south coast also offers a wide crescent of beautiful beaches. With a few resorts like Gecko Beach Club and private villas, the beach is more built-up, but we found marine life was even richer and more varied, and the cruise south along the island’s deserted eastern flank offers views of impossibly vertical cliffs Freddie, compared to the cliffs of Insanity of “The Princess Bride.”
For those who don’t want to stay overnight on a boat, there are accommodations on Formentera and day trips or longer cruises can be arranged from the larger ports in Ibiza.