The Most Glorious Beach in the World (1998)
"My favourite beach?" asks Dr. Miles O. Hayes of Columbia, South Carolina. "There's no doubt that the most beautiful beaches in the world are the beaches in South Carolina. You should go to Kiawah Island. Beautiful clean white sandy beaches."
Amused by his own boosterism, Hayes laughs heartily. He is an internationally recognized coastal geologist who advises governments and corporations about beach clean-ups all over the world. But he is a patriot too. His office is in the capital of South Carolina, he has taught at the University of South Carolina, and in a sense he *designed* the beaches of Kiawah Island, near Charleston. When the Kuwait Development Corporation was planning to subdivide the island, they commissioned Miles Hayes to create regulations which would preserve those sweeping beaches in all their natural glory.
So Hayes can hardly be expected to praise beaches elsewhere — but then, to my surprise, he does.
“Actually my favourite beaches are in Alaska,” he says. “ The beaches in Cook Inlet and the beaches down off the Copper River delta are absolutely the best. Also I really like the beautiful white beaches in Oman — the exposed beaches on the Indian Ocean, where the beaches are composed of little shells called forminifera tests. Those are my favourites."
When I met Miles Hayes, I was researching a book called *The Living Beach* (Macmillan, 1998). I spoke to scientists, surfers, engineers, cottagers, conservationists, politicians. In passing, I asked them about their favourite beaches. To my surprise, I found that many people have three favourite beaches.
The first is a patriotic beach, a beach that belongs to one’s own community. When you ask me about beaches, I instantly conjure up Pondville Beach, a lovely strip of sand three miles from my Cape Breton home. A Vancouverite is likely to think of Spanish Banks. My Australian sister-in-law chooses Narabeen Beach, north of Sydney. A Thai may select Phuket Beach, while a Scandinavian is likely to choose a beach on the Baltic or the North Sea — though the Norse voyager Thorfinn Karlsefni was awstruck by what he called Furdustrandir, the Marvellous Shores, a 45-mile stretch of dark yellow sand in Labrador now known as the Porcupine Strands.
A second group of favourites are the beaches of childhood, where the sun always shone and we basked in the love of our parents, the beaches where we learned to swim and sip beer and steal kisses, the beaches of our personal lost Edens.
"I have a favourite beach in memory, which is the beach I grew up on," says Wallace Kaufman, co-author with the controversial geologist Orrin Pilkey of The Beaches Are Moving: America’s Vanishing Shorelines. "It was a little scrap of beach off Long Island Sound, and when I was a kid and had all the usual problems kids have, I used to go there summer, winter, spring and fall. I used to dig up every inch of that beach looking for everything from bait to old bottles, and relics of old past bulkheads and piers and what have you. Of course it's polluted and so on, but in memory that's my favourite beach.”
A cousin of mine who grew up in northern Saskatchewan instantly chose a beach on the Churchill River where the sand was purple. He hadn’t been there for 30 years, but when we next met he had been back on a canoe trip, and he handed me a bottle of royal-purple sand. My own childhood beach is at Point Roberts, Washington, just south of Vancouver, where my family has owned a summer cottage since 1947. Like many people, I remember the cottage much more fondly than the house in town. Cottages draw families together; emotionally, the cottage is often the family’s true home.
"I'm just a shade more than half a century old, and I can only recall two summers that I've missed coming here, ever since I was born," says Allan Robertson, a Halifax management consultant, sitting at the family cottage on Melmerby Beach, near New Glasgow, NS. The Robertsons have been at Melmerby for five generations, as have many of their neighbours."It's the one thing that's been constant in our lives. Stephanie and the kids and I have lived in Barbados, Sri Lanka, all over — but we always come back here for two or three weeks at least. Things can change throughout the world, and yet this remains a little oasis of calm. I'm so familiar with everything that there's no pretence, there's no shell, there's no uniform that one wears. It's just — home. Total comfort."
The third group of favourites might be called the ultimate beaches, the beaches of fantasy — wild strips of shoreline, often remote, which promise perfect moments of solitude, perhaps shared with a loved one. But most beaches in the developed world are tamed and sea-walled, crowded with people, rimmed with hotels and condos. And those who know the best wild beaches are increasingly unwilling to talk about them. "If I had a favourite beach, I wouldn't tell you," says conservationist Dick Ludington of Chapel Hill, NC. "My favourite beach is one with no people. Any beach with no people."
People will go to great lengths to find such beaches. One intrepid beachnik posted on the Internet an account of a trek through Southern Africa which involved “crossing bush, pampas, and minefields to find the perfect beach. We found it — in Porto D'Oro, Mozambique.” Guards with AK-47s patrol the beach, and the scenic lighthouse is ringed with land mines, but the coral reefs, sand dunes and phosphorescent sand are spectacular.
Increasingly, however, genuine wild beaches are hard to find except in cold, remote locations. Graham MacKay, a cartographer, lives in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, near some of Canada’s finest holiday beaches. Yet MacKay found his favourite on St. Paul Island, a windswept rock between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, the last resting place of scores of wrecked ships. Nobody ever lived on St. Paul except the now-vanished lighthouse keepers. But it has, MacKay says, “a little sandy beach about fifty feet wide, with a sheer rock wall behind it. The water is cold as hell, but it's totally intimate and completely private.”
And Wallace Kaufman’s current favourite is in the Russian Arctic. “I suppose that's because it typifies everything that I like about every beach,” he says, “basically the sense of space, the cleanliness of it, the self-cleaning aspect of it, the wildness of it, all the power that's involved there. Once you're on the beach looking out, your mind can go around the world."
Wild, natural beaches do enlarge the mind. They are among the few places on earth where geological change occurs so fast you can actually see it. They are less a place than a process, a ceaseless dance between the sea and the land. And yet, reassuringly, something about the beach is always the same.
The beach, said Thoreau, is “naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man.” A fine wild beach gives one a certain serene perspective, a sense of the insignificance of today’s tumult amid the endless processes of the universe. And a beach which gives us that indefinable calm, wherever it may be, is the most glorious beach in the world.
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