A narrow path winds its way through dense gorse bushes; the air is thick with the coconut scent from their yellow blooms.
Cliffs rise to my left, where the seabirds fulmars and kittiwakes swirl above my head as they scan the sea for food. To my right, ocean spray glitters in the sunshine and the steady sound of waves crashing on the sandy beach is punctuated by gulls’ cries.
Then I see them: dark bodies rising from the sea, leaping into the air, then landing with a splash. The bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth are the largest of their species, and at 4 metres long they are an awe-inspiring sight.
There is nothing quite like coastal walking for lifting the spirit.
As a child, my family went on holiday to ever-more remote islands around Britain, where walking the coastal paths was always an integral part of the trip. These experiences shaped who I am, and what I love, today. As an editor of British magazine Coast for the past five years, I’ve been lucky enough to constantly renew my passion for exploring the shoreline. Once, as darkness began to fall on a walk along Thailand’s sandy coast, the sea lit up. Each gentle wave glowed blue with phosphorescence. Another time, I was confronted by a large octopus as I took a cooling dip along the Catalonian coast. As tides recede, new worlds are revealed in myriad rock pools or on sands peppered with wading birds and the coiled casts of sea worms. There’s always something new to see, a fresh wonder around the next headland.
But the benefits of coastal walking are not just aesthetic. There is scientific proof that a sea view can also reduce our heart rate and improve our mood. Recent studies by psychologist Dr Lewis Elliott have drawn a direct link between coastal walking and good mental health. Britain, for example, has paid homage to all this with the creation of coastal paths. When completed in 2020, the England Coast Path will be the longest managed and way-marked coastal path in the world.
There is easy coastal walking to be had all around the world. The following selection offers everything from rugged rocks and towering cliffs to warm waters and golden sands that would soothe any soul. Dust off those walking boots and give it a go.
Abel Tasman Coast Track
Named after the Dutch explorer who anchored off New Zealand in 1642, this 60-kilometre path has golden, sandy beaches, abundant wildlife, natural rock pools for swimming and a 47m-long suspension bridge.
Great Ocean Walk, Victoria
This 241km coastal walk runs through the new Great Otway National Park. See waterfalls cascading to the sea below, koalas in manna gum groves, sea eagles, whales and dolphins. Stay in a lighthouse keeper’s cottage and visit magnificent limestone sea stacks (the Apostles).
The Channel Islands Way
This is the perfect way to discover the hidden coves and deserted beaches of glorious Guernsey, car-free Sark and deserted Herm. Depending on the time of year, you might see seals, dolphins, puffin colonies or a colourful display of wildflowers. Crossing La Coupee from Big Sark to Little Sark should be on everyone’s bucket list, unless they are uncomfortable with heights. If you have time, enjoy local lobster and oysters at La Sablonnerie on Sark, The White House Hotel on Herm or The Slaughterhouse on Guernsey.
THE ISLES OF SCILLY
Spend a day walking around each of the islands in this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. My favourite route is around wild and remote Bryher, where you’ll find the sheltered white sands of Rushy Bay in the south and rugged moorland and cliffs to the north. Make sure to stop for a pint of prawns at the Fraggle Rock Bar and see Atlantic seals as you take a boat or walk (if the tide is right) to neighbouring Tresco with its lovely tropical gardens.
Moray Coastal Trail
This relatively quiet corner of Scotland offers long sandy beaches, crystal-clear sea and a resident pod of around 200 bottlenose dolphins. When I visited last year I saw them from the coastal trail on many occasions and a pod of orcas was reported just 14km out to sea. Also expect to see kittiwakes.
Stackpole Estate, Pembrokeshire
This gentle and stunning section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path offers sandy beaches, including world-famous Barafundle Bay, on a National Trust estate. There are great places to stop for a spot of lunch, such as The Stackpole Inn, where you can also stay.
Gower Coast Path
Expect to enjoy vast, sandy beaches with excellent surf as well as dramatic cliffs in the country’s first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Well-maintained pathways follow outcrops of rocks into pretty villages. There are great cafes en route with log fires in the winter. Finish in Mumbles, Welsh home to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
IRELAND AND NORTHERN IRELAND
Wild Atlantic Way, Donegal
At 600m high, the Slieve League Cliffs (Sliabh Liag) are among the tallest marine cliffs in Europe. Along what was a pilgrims’ route 1000 years ago, the scenery is dramatic and breathtaking. Expect medium-level walking, due to steep hills. You might bump into Sarah Jessica Parker, who has a home on the coast here.
The Causeway Coastal Walk
The balsalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site are among the iconic sights of Northern Ireland, and are a highlight. You are also likely to see puffins, kittiwakes and guillemots that nest in the area around May and June. Enjoy dramatic landscapes where dense forests meet rugged coastline. Spot settings from Game of Thrones, such as Portstewart Strand.
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
La Gomera, Canary Islands
One of the most tranquil of the Canary Islands, relatively unspoilt La Gomera is a great place to see dolphins and whales from the shore. Stay in the beautiful coastal town of Valle Gran Rey, once a hippie destination where travellers seeking the road less travelled would sleep in the caves overlooking the sea. Expect medium-level walks.
Menorca, Balearic Islands
Less populated than many other Mediterranean islands, this Unesco Biosphere Reserve has dramatic rock formations surrounded by pine-fringed beaches and aquamarine sea. A coastal path circumnavigates the entire island, which was originally created for defence, but is now surrounded by wildflowers and offers panoramic views.
The Amalfi Coast
See the remains of Pompeii and undertake the “Walk of the Gods”, widely considered to be one of the most stunning coastal walks in the world. Visit picturesque villages surrounded by lemon groves, and sample local cheeses and wines. Pass through the Bay of Naples and walk up Mount Vesuvius – unless you suffer from vertigo, of course.
Cinque Terre National Park
Traditional, colourful fishing villages tumble down to turquoise sea that is warm and perfect for moonlit swims after a day of walking. Eat perfect pasta and watch swallows flitting in the sunset from terraces surrounded by lemon groves and pine forests. This is absolutely classic, bucket-list coastal walking.
The Lycian Way
This continuous coastal path is 500km long and was designed and waymarked by Englishwoman Kate Clow in 1999. The adventurous can camp wild, but there are also plenty of friendly, family-run pensions and boutique hotels en route. Take in the extraordinary sight of Mount Chimaera, where flames from natural gases flicker up through rocks on the ground; also visit the ancient Lycian city of Olympos.
Brittany’s Emerald Coast
Explore the fishing ports and medieval villages of the Breton coast on this relatively quiet route away from the tourist hordes. This coastline offers unspoilt landscapes where rivers join the sea, with a chance of spotting otters, kingfishers and an array of seabirds. Pink granite cliffs and rocks add to the unique character of the seascapes and paths weave from quiet beaches into shady forests. Eat local seafood accompanied by traditional cider.
For the more adventurous, this moderate-level circular walking tour begins in Keflavik and takes in the dramatic coastline of Iceland, with glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic land–scapes and geysers. Explore hot springs, lava fields and glacial lakes. See vast bird colonies at Cape Dyrholaey and use the day set aside for a whale-watching trip.
Hana-Waianapanapa Coastal Trail, Hawaii
Pass an ancient Hawaiian temple on this remote walk through volcanic scenery, which covers part of the King’s Highway, a lava path created in the 1800s. Black sand beaches sit against a backdrop of lush, tropical vegetation, where you’ll see sea stacks, blow holes, caves and natural tide pools. Look out for humpback whales and spinner dolphins.
Wild Pacific Trail, Vancouver Island
Despite being less than 10km long, this easy-level coastal path is on many a bucket list due to the awe-inspiring scenery surrounding it. Watch out for eagles as you weave between rainforest and rugged coast, where huge waves crash on to the shore.
Cape Town and the Garden Route
In South Africa, be inspired by a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. On the mainland, see jackass penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. Visit between August and November to watch whales breaching from the shoreline.
Cape Verde Islands
Five species of turtle are among the possible sightings from the stunning coastlines of Santiago, Sao Vicente and Santo Antao – three islands in this Atlantic archipelago 563km west of Senegal. The former Portuguese colony offers a combination of African and European culture, dramatic landscapes and remote sandy beaches.
If you’re looking for some relaxed walking in a tropical paradise, with turquoise seas and white sandy beaches, this is the destination for you. In between walks exploring the island’s coast and central highlands, swim in a natural beach pool at Bathsheba, enjoy local rum and salsa dancing and snorkel over the reefs, with turtles, flying fish and dolphins for company.