On The Road
Seven Holidays That Combine Swimming And Sightseeing
You don’t have to choose between waves and architectural wonders – here’s where to get the best of both worlds
Tulum beach. Photograph by Ms Jennie Ross/Gallery Stock
A traveller would be bold to suggest it is the most serious dilemma, but it is an important decision nonetheless: beach or culture? Do you fully submit to the slowing of time, allowing your feet to flatten over days as you tax yourself only with cocktail menus and tan lines? Or do you immerse yourself into more than just the sea, keeping your brain alive while navigating crumbling ruins and city streets?
Fortunately, not least if time is a consideration, there are places where you can do both – where a quick hop and a step (or an easy taxi ride at most) can give you days that begin peacefully facing the waves and end with higher-brow pursuits and the wearing of shoes. Plus, you will navigate those stifling streets and occasional crowds with wider eyes and a Zen-like calm, knowing what awaits back at your hotel.
Archaeological remains at Delos, Mykonos. Photograph by Mr David C Tomlinson/Getty Images. Below: photograph by Mr Vangelis Paterakis/Courtesy of Bill & Coo Coast
Hip hotels spring up on Mykonos like mushrooms ready to be stuffed – ever so delicately – in one of the Greek island’s beachside tavernas. At least half a dozen prime properties have arrived this summer alone, including Bill & Coo Coast, the cooler, more introspective sister of the recently refurbished boutique hotel of the same name, which sits closer to the island’s hedonistic heart. Smaller and more secluded, with just 15 luxury suites on the western edge of the Agios Ioannis peninsula, the new hotel faces the sun as it sets behind the island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Admire it from across the water, before arranging for a short hop over to it by boat. This cultural – and, now, archaeological – axis of the Cyclades islands is home to some of the best preserved remnants of Ancient Greece, including excavated market squares, the columns of ruined temples and the forbidding rank of marble lions that have guarded the sacred site since the seventh century BCE. Then, explore the serene bay of Rhenia in time for sunset. A 10m Marvel rib, with wine and tzatzki thrown in, will make your half-day tour a breeze (€565, fivestargreece.com).
Where to stay: Bill & Coo Coast Hotel
What to wear
Capitolio Nacional, Gran Teatro and Hotel Inglaterra at the Parque Central in Havana. Photograph by Mr Reinhard Schmid/4Corners. Below: photograph courtesy of Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
President Donald Trump’s diplomatic vacillating notwithstanding, Cuba is an island to visit sooner rather than later, thanks to thawing measures made by the previous US administration. The state still owns the hotels, but the big operators are piling money into prime properties. Just opened in the heart of Unesco-protected Old Havana, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is the first luxe big hitter of the new era. It occupies the 100-year-old Manzana de Gómez building, formerly a grand shopping arcade, and includes a spectacular rooftop pool and giant spa. Skip across the Parque Central to the Gran Teatro de La Habana. Restored and reopened last year, the stone and marble home to Cuba’s famed National Ballet has a busy programme of repertoire highlights, as well as performances of Carmen and Mr Henry Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas this year. There are beaches within easy reach of Havana – try Playas del Este. Better still, stay in Old Havana, then head east to wind down at Hotel Melia Buenavista, an adults-only resort in the Northern Cayes with a private beach, on your way to Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest Spanish settlement on the island’s remotest tip. The timewarped city, itself fringed with jungle and sandy coves, is known to Cubans as their most beautiful coastline, but has remained relatively under-visited by tourists since Mr Christopher Columbus moored here, slack-jawed, more than 500 years ago.
Where to stay: Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
What to wear
Underwater sculptures at Baiae. Photograph by Mr Pasquale Vassallo. Below: photograph courtesy of San Montano Resort and Spa
There are very few places around the world where the beach lover in search of cultural enrichment should look below the waves. But at Baiae, seven miles west of Naples, scuba divers can swim among the ruins of the lost Roman city, once the scene of unthinkable excess and scandal. In the dying days of the Empire, wealthy Romans flocked here to bathe and gorge themselves at hedonistic beach parties – Nero and Caesar built private villas, and Sextus Propertius, the Augustan poet, described Baiae as a “den of licentiousness and vice”. Volcanic activity eventually did for the place and much of it sunk. Today, Centro Sub Campi Flegrei offers tours of the underwater archaeological park and its preserved statues and mosaic floors. But for the area’s best beaches, it’s the island of Ischia, eight miles off shore, where you’ll want to stay. The hilltop San Montano Resort & Spa has sweeping views of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, as well as six swimming pools and, via a short path, access to the beach. The spa honours the region’s volcanic geology with mud treatments – it would all be rather staid by Roman standards, but you may leave feeling more cleansed than Nero after a big weekend.
Where to stay: San Montano Resort & Spa
What to wear
Mayan ruins at Tulum. Photograph by Mr John Elk/Getty Images
Much has been written about the rise and future of Tulum, the once sleepy beach town on the Yucatán peninsula’s Riviera Maya. Out of earshot – by a just-about-sufficient 80 miles – from the package resortopolis of Cancún, Tulum became a magnet for moneyed Manhattanites and Instagram royalty with hippy aspirations, a boho oasis easily reached by private jet. As land prices have soared with the patronage of Messrs Jared Leto and Justin Bieber, among others, rival destinations including nearby Holbox Island have already been declared “the next Tulum”. But, like Brooklyn itself, the “Williamsburg of Mexico” is bigger than that tag suggests, and remains home to some of the finest beach hotels in Mexico. Nômade, which opened last year, holds fast to the town’s bohemian roots. Conceived by Argentine architect Sebastian Sas, its 35 casitas each have their own terrace a few steps from a private stretch of Tulum’s miles-long beach. The bustle of the town, with its laid-back boutiques and restaurants, is a short scoot away, while the 13th-century Mayan ruins are unmoved by tides of tourism, rising as they do, still remarkably intact, above the the blindingly white sands.
Where to stay: Nômade Tulum
What to wear
The Peponi Hotel on Shela Beach, Lamu. Photograph courtesy of The Peponi Hotel. Below: Photograph courtesy of The Peponi Hotel
Watering-holes of note are more numerous in the safari parks of Kenya’s interior than along its stunning 300-plus-mile coast, where centuries ago settling Arab and Persian traders contributed to a vibrant new Islamic culture and language (the word “Swahili” derives from the Arabic for “coast”). But there are opportunities to toast the sunset, not least at the legendary bar of the Peponi Hotel, a family-run institution now celebrating its 50th year on the historic island of Lamu. The Old Pal, a blend of whisky, vermouth and Campari, is the house cocktail to sip before a stroll onto Shela Beach as dhows sail past. The Peponi played a big part in Lamu’s evolution from backpackers’ favourite to glamourous barefoot retreat. Mses Gillian Anderson and Kim Cattrall, and the Monacos, have all frequented the plush hotels, resorts and villas that dot the coastline, including those on Manda Island, which lies just across the water. A mile or two north across the wide sands, a journey best made by dhow, Lamu’s car-free Old Town is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, and has been protected by Unesco for more than 15 years. Navigate the bustle along narrow streets between whitewashed houses of coral stone and mangrove timber, finished with courtyards and elaborately carved doors.
Note: check Foreign Office advice before travelling. At the time of writing, the UK government deems Lamu and Manda Island safe for visitors, as long as you arrive by air rather than by road.
Where to stay: Peponi Hotel
What to wear
Amphitheatre at Xanthos. Photograph by Ms Ellen Rooney/Mr Robert Harding. Below: photograph courtesy of Fairlight Jones
Turkey has long been a favourite among well-heeled Brits in search of sun and chichi restaurants, and Kalkan still rightly draws visitors by the dozen to the former fishing harbour on its Lycian coast. New player Fairlight Jones has just landed with a handful of especially stylish properties in the hillside bay and beyond, including The Waterside, a short stroll from the harbour. Its nine suites, seven of which have private pools, rise up the rocks and peak at the penthouse, which has the best views of the bay. At the bottom, a winding path leads to a beach club shared with The Bay, a sister hotel with generous gardens and two-storey private pool houses. Take a day to explore the historic coastline, including the golden sands of nearby Patara Beach, as well as the Kas peninsula, aboard Aleyna, Fairlight’s luxury gulet. Inland, the archaeological sites of Letoon and Xanthos are a short taxi ride away and best visited in the morning before taking lunch back in Kalkan. You will need to visit London’s British Museum to marvel at some of the greatest treasures of Xanthos, but the ancient capital and grandest city of Lycia remains home to tombs and the ruins of a sweeping Roman amphitheatre.
Where to stay: The Waterside
What to wear
Monuments at My Son, the ancient kingdom of Champa, Vietnam. Photograph by Mr Paul Panayiotou/4Corners. Below: photograph courtesy of Naman Retreat
Not so long ago, “China Beach”, as the Americans called it during the Vietnam War, thronged with GIs enjoying some R&R on white sands. Helicopter pilots flew low to catch glimpses of sunbathing nurses. Today the gently curving bay that links booming Danang to historic Hoi An offers a peacetime escape for visitors in any uniform. If quiet is what you yearn for, head right to the middle of the 20-mile beach, where Naman Retreat spills out on the sand in a series of glassy pools and contemporary villas. The dining house, a modernist cathedral crafted in bamboo with towering columns and arches, is the work of renowned Vietnamese architect Mr Vo Trong Nghia. Step off the beach, if the mood takes you, via your private plunge pool to head inland and explore the Unesco-protected ruins of the ancient My Son sanctuary. The remnants of towering temples built between the fourth and 13th centuries have survived both encroaching jungle and American bombs. Head south along the coast to the bustling Japanese merchant houses, temples and old wooden tea houses of Hoi An. Or, for a taste of 21st-century Vietnam, go north to Danang after dark to experience a newly thriving city of neon-lit skyscrapers rising between remnants of Vietnam’s French colonial past.
Where to stay: Naman Retreat