I run away to the beach each year to stare at the ocean. While this list is a work in progress, I tried to spotlight the transcendent beaches where I felt my spirit reenergized.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh opined in Gift From the Sea that “the beach is not a place to work; to read, write or think. One is forced against one’s own mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore.”
I too go the beach to be “flattened by the sea,” where my past life (just a eight hour car or airplane ride away) is “erased by today’s tides.” This is indeed the gift from the sea. Temporary amnesia.
I have seen the ocean in all the ways it disguises itself as different—whether the surf of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, the seclusion of Playa Coson, Dominican Republic, the isolation of Isla Holbox, Mexico, the fury of the volcanic Big Island, Hawaii, the summit views at Acadia National Park, the shelter of Lido Key, Florida, or the wild shores of Chincoteague, Virginia and Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina—yet it always feels the same. Ocean. Sky. Infinity.
I didn’t see the Atlantic Ocean until I was 11 years old. Pressing my bare feet in the hot sand, I gazed in wonder at the eight-feet waves flinging themselves on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. I instantly knew that the seashore was probably the most transcendent place in the world.
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What is it about watching the ebb and flow of the waves that hypnotizes? My mind simply becomes a blank slate staring at the ocean. Every thought and every worry is erased.
Research also shows that the color blue is associated with the sensations of calm and peace, according to the host of The Daily Helping Podcast.
“Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state.”Richard Shuster, PsyD
All my senses are activated—the scent of the ocean breeze, the feel of warm sand squishing between my toes, the sound of seagulls, the sight of aquamarine water, and the taste of seawater accidentally swallowed when my raft capsizes.
Staring at the horizon, I glimpse infinity, where ocean meets sky. My mind no longer obsessively turns over those nagging relationship problems or work issues. I can sink into pure relaxation as if I timed the off switch to my mind.
With my love of beach vacations in mind, I decided to go back and choose my transcendent beach getaways in the last decade.
Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
This stretch of Costa Rica’s beaches—located on the Pacific Coast—ranks among the world’s top beaches. Surfers come down here and never return. The beach towns are filled with American hippies who will never leave. And the sea and sand are divine.
Since I mostly have the beach to myself, I can swim, read or take long walks along the coastline. I enjoy wading in the tidal pools and climbing over the huge rocks. Playa Saint Teresa also features a thick forest of palm trees where I can rest when I overheat.
Imagine the sea stretching for miles. Feel the sugary soft sand slip through your toes. Marvel at the surfers who seem to glide on top of the huge waves. There is a reason why Costa Rica’s unofficial slogan is “pura vida,” meaning pure life.
Playa Coson, Dominican Republic
Playa Coson unravels like a tawny ribbon, sprawling toward verdant green mountains. Located in the Dominican Republic, it is part of a necklace of glittering white beaches in Las Terrenas.
While everyone knows of Punta Cana, its celebrity cousin in DR, Las Terrenas is an ex-pat enclave. Originally discovered by French tourists in the 1970s, the Italians soon followed. Now it is a popular European escape. To rephrase Dominican Republic’s tourism slogan, Playa Coson has it all. I came to watch the sea.
When we finally reach Playa Coson, we find an old-fashioned swing hanging from a palm tree. There are several children standing in line for their turn to fly towards the sky. It reminds me so much of being a kid. There was no greater fun in the world than to ride a rope swing across a lake and then let go.
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Holbox (pronounced hole-BOSH) is located three hours north of Cancun. It has yet to be destroyed by the rampant development that threatens so many biologically diverse environments. It is a hot spot for whale watching.
Isla Holbox is one of three islands that form a sapphire-jeweled Island necklace in the Yucatan Peninsula. You won’t see any high-rise hotels. Holbox is a two-story fringed beach hut getaway. It is also car-free.
Home to flamingos and pelicans, this Mexican Island is located in the state of Quintana Roo on the north coast of Yucatan Penisula. It is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve.
Every night the locals and visitors gather to watch the sunset.
The island is also the bewitching home of pelicans and flamingos. The juxtaposition of the sea glass green waters contrasted by the pink flamingos.
I do not see highrise (or even midrise) beach condos. Dolphins call these islands home. You can turn yourself into a gull and just float on a beach hammock.
Big Island, Hawaii
Discover the Big Island, the youngest and largest island in Hawaii, by unwinding at a luxury resort on the Kohala Coast and spending unprogrammed days oceanside.
The “Big Island” of Hawaii was the birthplace of King Kamehameha I as well as the ancient Mauna Loa volcano. It is a desolate place if you are surveying the lava fields cruising down Highway 19 enroute to my hotel on the majestic Kohala Coast.
I don’t know whether it is from the salty smell of the ocean, the rippling breeze in the foyer, or just the perfume of orchids in the air, but I am on island time … instantly. My recommendation is to head straight down to the beach to find a recliner. You’ll be surrounded by large volcanic rocks which form a semi-circle in the beach cove. The gentle waves will soothe you.
While you can hike around the hotel resort and golf course, I recommend leaving the property to follow the lava paths around the bay.
National Seashore, Cape Lookout, North Carolina
No trip to North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks is complete without taking the ferry to visit the undeveloped barrier islands of Cape Lookout. A National Park Service (NPS) beach, it features 343 shoreline miles and 12,063 marine water acres.
I breathed in the bracing salt air, a perfume that I wish I could bottle and wear during the cold months of winter. Gulls shrieked in the skies. I saw the wild ponies swimming in the ocean at Shackleford Banks.
This is the raw beach experience where you need to bring your recliners, towels, umbrella, and picnic hamper. There is no waiters delivering pina coladas to your cabana. But if you relish time for collecting shells, watching horses, birding, and fishing, you will discover nirvana.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore
Closer to home for me is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore. If I didn’t have to drive across the 4.3-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which connects Maryland’s Eastern Shore region to the urban Western Shore, I would probably visit every summer. But this bridge terrorizes me.
The NPS entrance is located two miles east of Chincoteague via Maddox Blvd. on the Virginia side of the national seashore. There is a $20 vehicle charge. If you visiting for multiple days, you should buy a NPS pass. (Check out the discount rate for a Lifetime Pass!)
Established in 1943, the Chincoteague Refuge is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The lands and water are set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants. The beach stretches for miles and you’ll only see the occasional pocket of sun worshippers.
You might spy wild horses that live on Assateague Island during your visit. But I can’t locate even one pony despite walking two miles down the beach as well as hiking the 1.9-mile Woodland Trail on Sunday afternoon. (But I did get to see the mares and foals at a paddock area when I returned to the refuge at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. They prance and chase each other. All the wild horses receive veterinary care.)
Acadia National Park is a mental as well as a physical destination. It’s a place I now return to in my mind whenever I want to relive my summit moments—the 360-views of ocean, mountains, and trees—I experienced hiking in June.
Acadia is not a physical single place, but a state of mind. But for most residents and visitors, it is a portal to an entire island experience.
Most people probably do not know that Acadia is actually a French-Canadian culture that spanned the Atlantic Maritime provinces and eastern Maine. Explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano christened the entire Atlantic coast north of Virginia as Arcadia in 1524. The name originates from an Ancient Greek word.
Howth sucked the breath out of my mouth when I first climbed over the summit to see the panoramic view of its peninsula. Located less than 30 minutes outside Dublin, it is a haven for nature lovers.
The placid grey sea stretched for miles below me. The last rays of the fiery setting sun jabbed the sky, a boxer punching its taut surface. The green terrain rolled precipitously down until it vanished into the sea. Giant slabs of grey rock punctuated the surface. I felt so small battling the wind.
I followed the path of rock slabs to begin my initial descent. Far below, the village crouched. The miniature houses and stores reminded me of a Lego village. But I discovered the Irish Sea is my biggest distraction on this hike. I couldn’t resist stopping at every juncture to admire these wild waters.
Lido Key, Florida
I came in search of sea, sand, and sunshine. These three items are manufactured on Lido Key, a 15-acre island located 4.4 miles from Sarasota, Florida. There’s really nothing else to do here but be a shell seeker.
The lack of distractions—no art museums, botanical gardens, or theaters—is exactly what I wanted to find on Lido Key. My vacation is spent exploring the nature reserves in the morning and lying on the beach in the afternoon.
South Lido Park is a one-hundred-acre nature reserve surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Big Sarasota Pass, Sarasota Bay, and Brushy Bayou. You’ll see snowy egrets, brown pelicans, and osprey.
Lido Key is an odd bird—part nature, part Italian-inspired design. Circus magnate John Ringling originally purchased the island and built the causeway from Sarasota. His John Ringling Estate on Bird Key was nicknamed the Winter White House. But he was forced to sell off Lido Key during the Depression when his financial empire crumbled. The island eventually went to weed until it was purchased in the late ’50s.
Transcendent Beach Time
I hope you find your transcendent beach escape, whether it an annual family vacation or a farflung escape to a tropical island. The important thing is to seek the sea. As Lindbergh wrote, “one should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach-waiting for a gift from the sea.”
“The sea possesses a power over one’s moods that has the effect of a will. The sea can hypnotize. Nature in general can do so.”Henrik Ibsen