The World's Best Urban Beaches
To find the best beaches, you usually have to get as far out of urban centres as possible. But some cities are blessed with amazing beaches of their own. These are cities with large populations, business, traffic – and long golden sandy stretches that make you feel like you’ve entered a holiday resort. Here’s my favourites:
Ipanema, Rio de Janiero
White sand and blue water frames Rio’s most famous neighbourhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema. While Copacabana enjoyed much of the world’s attention in the past, it has been surpassed by the energy of Ipanema. Ipanema Beach is signposted by the famous “postos” lifeguard stations, which helps find your way on a beach that is generally packed all year round. Stroll up, rent a chair and umbrella, and have your own beach waiter serve you cold beer, fresh fruit, and snacks throughout the day. Striking mountains rise further down the beach, and there’s usually a friendly game of volleyball on the go (or foot volleyball, which is terrific fun to watch). There’s also a parading flea market as polite vendors roll through selling bikinis, hats, and towels. With so much skin and beauty on display, it’s no wonder Ipanema is one of Rio’s most expensive neighbourhoods. An interesting note: topless bathing is prohibited.
Clifton, Cape Town
Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand. There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds. All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city. As a teenager I used to walk between beaches to see where the action was. Today, the most popular beach is Fourth Beach, which has the calmest waves. First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers. Third Beach is a popular gay hangout. Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love. Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.
Bondi Beach, Sydney
During my first visit to Bondi Beach, the temperature in Sydney cracked 50C. Bondi Beach, a beach that has spawned a hit TV series (Bondi Rescue) was absolutely chockers (full). The odd part was there was nigh an umbrella in sight, here in a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Sydney is surrounded by fantastic beaches, but Bondi is its flagship. A perfect 1km crescent, reliable waves for surfing and body boarding, pubs, shops and cheap eats right across the road. It attracts the city’s most beautiful people, showing off their most beautiful bodies. With Sydney’s weather, there’s always people on the beach, with crowds picking up in the afternoon post work, and young couples pushing babies on the promenade. When people fall in love with Sydney, it’s usually Bondi on their mind.
In the late 1990’s, my brother and I decided to immigrate to Vancouver. He went first, putting in his papers, without visiting the city first. I was working in England at the time, and the mountains, forests and beaches of British Columbia were very far away. I had a good job, and was second guessing Canada, until one day, my brother sent me an email with a picture from Kitsalano. He had found a two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach, and summer was in full swing. The subject was: Wish You Were Here. The sand wasn’t fine and white, but it was fine enough. People were stacked up against scattered logs. In this distance was a towering mountain, the tree tops of Stanley Park, and some of the apartment blocks of English Bay. Having grown up in a big, landlocked city, I couldn’t believe people could live in a city like this. I wished I was there too. Six months later, I arrived as an immigrant and beelined straight for Kitsalano.
Photo: jenschapter 3
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head - all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels. A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers. The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
What I love most about Venice Beach is its sheer character. Only Los Angeles could churn out the bizarre folks who seem to hang around the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk. There’s weird guy with the guitar, punky guy with the Mohawk, body building guy on rollerblades – each seemingly the star of their own mental TV show. You might catch the stars on the promenade too: Nicholas Cage, Christian Bale, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson are all residents of Venice. Regardless, there’s plenty of eye candy to look at. The streetball on Venice Beach is reported to be the best in the country, the starting block for future NBA stars. Hard bodies pump iron at the outdoor gymnasium on Muscle Beach, and there’s great surfing off the piers. If the whole thing looks like a TV show, it’s because Baywatch was set and sometimes filmed here. Who knew a show featuring actors in red bathing suits running in slow motion would become the most watched TV show in history?
South Beach, Miami
The beaches of Miami vibrate with action, and South Beach (or SoBe) is its heart. With hundreds of clubs, bars and restaurants, South Beach is the city’s entertainment district, popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a real multicultural element to the neighbourhood. Brazilians, Cubans, Israelis, people from the Caribbean, and a large contingent of Canadians too, escaping the northern winter. Famous Art Deco hotels look over the white sandy beach, one of the reasons why SoBe is also known as the American Riviera. Picture flashy cars cruising past flashy shops, while toned bodies run along the water. The atmosphere is festive year round.
Metzitzim Beach, Tel Aviv
Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city. Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns. There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach. It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas). Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs
Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona
Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre. Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world. Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists. While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement. But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it. Close to the port, it's also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.
Scarborough Beach, Perth
Perth may be amongst the most isolated major cities in the world, but it consistently ranks in the Top 10 for lifestyle and quality of life polls. That might have something do with its beautiful beaches located a short drive from the city centre, like Scarborough, 15 minutes away. The sand is white, the Indian Ocean is a clear blue, and the weather sizzling. Restaurants, hotels, ice cream shops bars and clubs attract locals and tourists, giving Scarborough a famously laid back coastal holiday town atmosphere. Families picnic in adjacent grass areas, enjoying the clear views all the way to an island 20km away. Perth has other well-known city beaches nearby, like Trigg and Cottesloe, but “Scarbie” remains a local favourite
Hot, cold, dry, wet and windy – there are some places in the world where everything is taken to the extreme. Those craving excitement might put them on the radar. Others should make a mental note to avoid these spots at all costs.
The World’s Hottest Place
Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!
The World’s Coldest Place
On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.
The World’s Wettest Place
There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.
The World’s Windiest Place
For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas. As for the windiest city in Canada? The title goes to St John’s, Newfoundland.
The World’s Driest Place
The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4x4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.
The World’s Deepest Place
James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.
The World’s Highest Place
The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you wouldn’t however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!
The Deepest Place Below Sea Level
On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.
The World’s Most Dangerous Country
Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon.
The Youngest Place on Earth
Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a newest island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.
Hand Signs Around the World
Thumbs up for the post that sets out to understand the origins of the signs and symbols we use on our hands, and how they might differ from country to country. Inspired by my visit to Portugal, where people wear necklaces telling you to $#% off. Or do they?
I grew up in South Africa, and if anyone ever placed their thumb between their index and middle finger, they were telling you, in no uncertain terms, what you should go do with yourself. It was even worse than the bird (which I’ll get to later). So imagine my surprise to see the figa, or fig, worn around necks, painted on walls, and hanging from walls in Portugal! It turns out that the figa is an ancient Roman symbol used for good luck, and to ward away evil spirits. It’s also, coincidentally, the letter T in American Sign Language. Yet because of its physical appearance, resembling a sexualized vagina, some countries including Indians, Italians, Turks, Russians, and certainly South Africans take it as a definitive insult. So while you may want to wish your Portuguese friends good luck with a figa ornament, you might want to make sure it’s not for those at a South African wedding.
“Hail Satan!” Or perhaps: “Rock on, Dude!” Or maybe just: “Go University of Texas!” A clenched fist with the index and fifth finger pointing skywards, you’ll see the Corna at most heavy metal and hard rock concerts, an almost universal sign to rock! Growing up, I remember a certain taboo with the sign since it definitely had some sort of Satanic connotations, appearing as it does in the Satanic Bible. However in Austin, at the University of Texas, the Corna is known as “hook-em horns”, used to cheer on the Longhorns, resembling their mascot, a longhorn steer.
The V Sign
V is for Victory! V is for peace, man! Or, if your palm is inwards, V is for something else entirely, depending on where you are, of course. In the UK, or other English speaking countries, the palm inwards is an insult not unlike the bird (which we’ll get too soon enough). Confusion was caused by Winston Churchill, who used both front and back V’s during the war before he was told of their correct and appropriate usage. Stick your nose between the fingers, and Italians will get your point too. Also, expect something to be lost in translation should a Canadian deaf person order two drinks at an English pub.
According to sources, here’s a hand sign that is particularly sensitive to culture and location. We know it as “go for it!” or “awesome!” or “hey buddy, can I grab a ride somewhere?” In the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa however, you’re basically flipping the bird (which I’ll get to I promise). We probably developed its western connotation from pilots during World War II, and surprisingly it appears there is no evidence it was used during gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. But it’s best to avoid using the thumbs up in countries like Afghanistan or Nigeria, where it is used, you guessed it, as a substitute for the middle finger.
The Five Finger Scrunch
Israelis use it for just about everything, but other cultures along the Med are familiar with it as well. Scrunch your fingers together, turn your palm upwards, and you get a hand signal that means, well, anything you want it to mean. “Wait a minute.” “Hurry up!” “Relax!” There’s an element of frustration in the gesture, but like many of the others mentioned, it manages to transcend language, communicating with fingers what words do not.
Palm down, point four fingers at a Korean, and you get a hand symbol steeped in inter-cultural warfare and hatred. The Japanese were known to use this symbol to regard their Korean enemies as “animals”. No word if Koreans responded with the forearm jerk.
The Forearm Jerk
Leaving the middle finger closed for a change, this insult simply requires the left hand on the folded right arm, and the right fist extended skywards. Slapping the hand down adds to the insult, which is perfectly understandable the world over, regardless of what language is spoken.
The Bird. The Flip Sign. The Zap. The unholy middle finger! There are various theories as to its origins, but the one I like best dates back to the 100 Year War in Europe. See, archers were quite deadly in those days, using their middle fingers to release arrows from their long bows. If captured, it was practice for the English (or French, depending on who you believe) to chop off the middle finger of the archer, unloading their weapon if you will. Archers that escaped, or just felt cocky, would raise their middle finger to taunt and insult their enemies, and today we follow their lead. There’s also a theory that it evolved form Ancient Greece, relating as it does to the phallus (much like most hand insults). Regardless of its origins, the bird is probably the most universally understood hand sign, although in some Arab and Mediterranean countries the index finger is used instead.
The Vulcan Salute
OK, this isn’t really a hand sign (for this planet anyway), but its origins are interesting enough. Palm forward, fingers split between the middle and ring fingers, thumb out. Leonard Nimoy, the late actor who played Dr. Spock (RIP), is credited as inventing the Vulcan Salute, although he actually saw it used as a boy one day in his grandfather’s synagogue. It is used by the Jewish priestly class, the Kohanim, the symbolize the Hebrew letter shin in a way that symbolizes the name of God. A good enough reason as any I should think to live long and prosper.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.