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5 Family Beaches in Europe

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What makes an awesome family beach? Clean water for swimming, clean sand for sitting, sunning, playing or walking, and naturally occurring amusements like gullies, tide pools or rocks for climbing. Access to decent food and bathrooms and even showers are also a plus and, thankfully, relatively common in Europe, where I’m based. And, after all, stunning scenery and nearby towns with plenty of activities actually help.

For the past 20 years, I’ve lived in Spain — a part of the peninsula that’s been the Florida of Europe for the reason that days of the Roman Empire — and have gotten to know quite a couple of European coastal areas. Now that these seaside trips include a husband and two kids, my repertoire has expanded considerably.

Below is a collection of my family’s personal favorites, from the calm, clear waters of Ålbæk, Denmark, to the white sands of Spain’s Balearic Islands.

Lush, verdant Asturias on Spain’s northern coast is the country’s dairy land, and for the reason that less-fertile coastal areas were traditionally left uncultivated, there are fragrant pine (and, surprisingly, eucalyptus) forests that roll right as much as the sand dunes of the region’s beaches.

Frejulfe beach in western Asturias is a sentimental favorite of ours because it is just about six minutes by automotive from my husband’s parents’ home near the town of Navia. For a decade, our youngsters only knew the broad crescent of the beach because the place where we’d bundle up in late December to walk off Christmas meals. But when the pandemic curtailed international travel, we got to experience the summer joys of Frejulfe — in bathing suits as a substitute of coats and hats.

Like most Asturian beaches, Frejulfe comes with small waterfalls, caves and a narrow brackish river that snakes through the sand into the ocean, giving smaller children who don’t like waves a secure place to frolic. Due to neighboring forests, there may be at all times loads of driftwood to construct elaborate tents adorned with beach towels.

Depending on the tides, rock formations on the cove’s edges provide fertile territory for spying anemones, starfish, crabs and the occasional tiny sea horse.

Some beaches, like nearby Fabal, are reached by steep staircases or precarious paths that will be hard, if not unsafe, for smaller children, but Frejulfe has easy accessibility and a big car parking zone, not to say a bustling chiringuito (beach shack restaurant) and surf classes for older children.

Nearby, restaurants fill the fishing villages of Puerto de Vega and Luarca — locals love El Barómetro within the latter for seafood and rice stews. There are also ancient Roman and Celtic settlements; limitless mountaineering paths along the coast; waterfalls up within the hills; and the stunning beach of Las Catedrales, named for its massive flying buttress-like rock formations, about half-hour west in Galicia.

Cap Ferret, a peninsula with a string of charm-forward hamlets tucked into the woods and dunes, has the wild Atlantic on one side and the more sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon (essentially a big bay) on the opposite. It offers all the things you could possibly want for a family beach holiday with French flair — winding lanes for biking, a wharf lined with seafood restaurants (the world is legendary for oysters), a lighthouse and exquisite shops tucked amid the tree-shaded lanes selling stripy boatnecked shirts and vetiver-scented candles. All of it’s wrapped in a ribbon of impeccably clean and broad golden sand beaches kissed by fresh Atlantic breezes.

Because we visited at Easter, when the weather might be less reliable, we stayed in Arcachon, a reasonably belle epoque resort town a pleasant 15-minute ferry ride across the bay on the southern shore of the Bassin. Arcachon also scored with my children, especially the quirky colourful Art Nouveau architecture and fabulous family-friendly restaurants. (“France is understood for one of the best pizzas,” noted my food-critic son, Freddie, as we sat down at Ragazzi da Peppone on Arcachon’s foremost drag.)

The glories of the U.S. national park system draw tons of of thousands and thousands of tourists every year.

For all five kids in our group, the star attraction was the vast spa at our hotel — Les Bains d’Arguin — which, au contraire to the image one can have of an uptight European spa, offered a children’s hour every evening once we could all soak and frolic within the therapeutic water amid the jets and hydro-massage stations.

As we headed out of town on our return home, we stopped to climb the Dune du Pilat, a large sand dune on the mouth of the Arcachon inlet. By far the tallest and largest “structure” in the world, it offers sweeping views of city, sea and forest — an area sadly devastated by recent wildfires. Upon seeing speck-like figures at the opposite end of the dune, my daughter, Frida, said, “It looks just like the Great Wall of China,” and indeed it did.

Massive dunes provide wonderful playgrounds for youngsters who can climb them, roll down them or try futilely to run within the soft sand. Between Ålbæk and Skagen on the northern tip of Denmark is Råbjerg Mile, known to my family as “the wander dune,” since it is taken into account a “living” dune and is slowly drifting across the peninsula. Just like the Pilat in Arcachon, its scale and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see extension are staggering.

The Danes on this area have been coping with migrating sands ceaselessly, living as they do on the meeting point of the deep and churning North Sea and the far shallower and calmer Baltic. The sand just keeps washing up on the west coast and drifting east, having once buried a close-by church. At Grenen, the tippy-top of Skagen where the 2 seas flow together, the accumulating sands have Denmark growing toward Sweden.

There may be nary a wave within the crystalline waters off the beach called Ålbæk Strand — just a few miles south of Råbjerg Mile and an ideal spot for young children to frolic in the ocean. Being so shallow, the water, though still bracing, gets far warmer than one might expect in Scandinavia. And the beach seems to stretch for eternity, so there’s plenty of nature to explore amid the dunes and woodlands. Ferries shuttling between Norway, Denmark and Sweden may be seen cruising across the horizon.

For a break from the sun, the nearby town of Skagen is fairy-tale pretty, its narrow lanes lined with lovable yellow and red houses nestled into lush gardens, the legacy of the world’s transformation from hardscrabble fishing village to bohemian arts colony within the late nineteenth century, to upscale seaside resort within the twentieth. The picturesque port buzzes within the morning when the day’s catch arrives and stays busy through lunch when food and beer stalls set a festive outdoor dining scene. Hotels, just like the charmingly historic Ruth’s offer wonderful accommodations, but given the relatively high cost of eating and drinking in Scandinavia, it’s price considering a short-term rental so not all meals must be in restaurants.

And the town’s small museums, like Skagen Museum and Anchers Hus, serve kid-friendly portions of culture, much of it redolent of local life and legend while the cafe and bakery Baghaven serves a delicious garden lunch in addition to fun summer outdoor concert events.

Lately, the jet-set love affair with Comporta, the ever-chicer and ever-more-expensive summer destination south of Lisbon, has left the wilder Atlantic coast farther south largely neglected. I used to be solo on my first visit to the world in 2007 and as I drove south toward Zambujeira do Mar, the coastal road kept offering such stunning glimpses of sandstone coves lapped by teal waters that I couldn’t help periodically pulling over for 10-minute swims off deserted beaches like Praia do Tonel.

I fell so hard for those beaches that we’ve now circled back twice, stopping somewhere else every time. Family-friendly beaches with parking and straightforward paths to the beach, even perhaps a lifeguard in season, include Praia do Carvajal and Praia de Odeceixe. Though other and newer accommodation options exist, now we have a soft spot for the Herdade do Touril, a quaint farmhouse hotel with an awesome pool and a superb breakfast.

Driving back to the hotel one night after an incredible (and amazingly low-cost) dinner on the supercasual A Azenha do Mar, within the tiny beachfront town of Azenha do Mar, the road dipped into an area of strawberry fields so fragrant it was like having a second dessert.

A pleasant complement to a beach adventure here is to move south to Sagres, now a fab surf town where Henry the Navigator once had his sailing school within the Fortaleza do Sagres during Portugal’s age of exploration.

An unexpected upside to the pandemic was our discovery of the fun of arriving to the beach by boat. In June 2020, with international vacation travel virtually banned across the globe, my husband realized that the economic laws of supply and demand for personal boat rentals within the Mediterranean could be inverted (loads of boats, but few passengers), so we booked a visit that had at all times seemed too extravagant and hired a ship for a five-day cruise around Formentera, the smallest and most pristine of Spain’s Balearic Islands.

We boarded in Ibiza and inside minutes of constructing the 20-minute crossing to Formentera, we were anchored and snorkeling in stunningly clear turquoise waters, elbowing one another underwater to indicate schools of fish and the odd baby octopus. Eventually we walked up on shore, a strip of powdery white sand so narrow it took only minutes to cross, and re-entered the ocean on the opposite side. There was nothing but nature surrounding us.

We took such a meandering route back to the boat that by the point we climbed aboard, nearly 4 hours had passed. As a baby, I used to spend hours at a time within the ocean, but this was the primary time my kids had done so, tirelessly swimming tremendous distances after which wanting to do it again after lunch.

That first stop, Ses Illetes, is usually (and deservedly) ranked essentially the most beautiful beach in Formentera and sometimes in all of Spain. A brief boat ride south, there are restaurants like Beso Beach, famous, fun, delicious and wildly expensive, set within the dunes.

Among the other island beaches are isolated smaller coves, but Formentera’s southern coast also provides a large crescent of gorgeous beaches. With a couple of resorts like Gecko Beach Club and personal villas, the beach is more built up, but we found the ocean life was even richer and more varied, and the cruise south along the deserted eastern flank of the island offers a view of impossibly vertical bluffs that Freddie in comparison with the Cliffs of Insanity from “The Princess Bride.”

For those not wanting to commit to overnighting on a ship, there are accommodations on Formentera and day trips or longer cruises may be arranged from the larger ports on Ibiza.

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