Aus­tralia's global beach am­bas­sador on what makes a great beach

The Guardian Australia - - News - Brad Farmer

As a child, a day at the beach was pure bliss and the salty, splash­ing, bucket and spade days went on to form the great­est of last­ing mem­o­ries. Now, as an adult, each time I go to the beach – any beach – the ephemeral ex­pe­ri­ence on this thin strip of sand where land meets sea still fas­ci­nates and de­lights me as a cel­e­bra­tion of the senses.

I have my favourites of course, many from those care­free, hal­cyon days as a sun-kissed kid. But are they the “best” beaches of Aus­tralia’s hon­our roll of 11,761 beaches and does it re­ally mat­ter?

Driven by a pas­sion for beaches and surf­ing rather than by some ca­reer de­sign, at 24, I set about writ­ing my first book, a guide to the best Aus­tralian surf­ing beaches, in 1984. It was the first time any­one had doc­u­mented the best 1,200 of about 3,000 sur­fa­ble beaches across six wave-lashed states.

While I learned much about beaches and those salty surfers who live the beach life ev­ery day, it was not un­til many years (and thou­sands of beaches) later that the de­bate over what con­sti­tutes Aus­tralia’s very best beaches – the best of the best – had to be put to a de­fin­i­tive rest.

Best and favourite beaches (quite dif­fer­ent things) is a sub­ject that gar­ners a fair bit of de­bate – ev­ery­one has an opin­ion, es­pe­cially among Aus­tralians. We are the fore­most beach­go­ing, coast-hug­ging na­tion in the world and our beaches have be­come em­blem­atic of who we are in so many ways.

In the year 2000, a good surf­ing mate of mine, em­i­nent coastal sci­en­tist Prof Andy Short, and I fi­nally and de­ci­sively agreed to col­lab­o­rate on pro­duc­ing the bench­mark of Aus­tralia’s Best 101 Beaches. Af­ter all, be­tween us, we had vis­ited, re­searched and doc­u­mented first­hand ev­ery Aus­tralian beach. (A tough gig which has Short and Farmer listed as en­joy­ing the “best job in the world” even if my en­deav­ours are largely hon­orary).

We were and re­main in a uniquely qual­i­fied po­si­tion to make the call and pro­vide some long over­due ra­tio­nale on what con­sti­tutes a best beach. Andy (the cal­cu­lat­ing an­a­lyst) and my­self (the in­ter­pre­tive in­tu­itive) em­barked on our umpteenth lap around the is­land na­tion and two years later agreed on the “best of the best” beaches. While we two “ex­perts” de­lib­er­ated for weeks and months, of­ten parked up with a balmy sea breeze, over a glass or three of red wine, we listed and pub­lished for the first time Aus­tralia’s best beaches with­out com­ing to blows.

Choos­ing best beaches is rather like judg­ing a se­lec­tion of fine Caber­net Mer­lot or co­conut-sprin­kled lam­ing­tons at the Royal Show. There’s a cri­te­ria to fol­low but of­ten sub­jec­tive bias blurs judg­ment over the strict ob­jec­tive ad­her­ence to the rules, even if Andy and I had in fact scribed the cri­te­ria our­selves.

Aus­tralia is one big beach and no other coun­try has such a di­verse coast­line. With only 28% of the coast ac­ces­si­ble by sealed road, that leaves many beaches yet to be dis­cov­ered by rough roads, 4WD, chop­per or boat, as Andy and I have had to re­sort to. There are 10,654 main­land Aus­tralian beaches. If we in­clude the beaches of our 30 largest is­lands (and Aus­tralia has 8,222 is­lands in to­tal) – at last count, Aus­tralia has 11,761 beaches. Imag­ine hav­ing to judge that many lam­ing­tons!

At one ob­scure beach some years ago, I vividly re­call ask­ing one proud cou­ple just why their beach should be in­cluded in Aus­tralia’s best (with some self-in­ter­est hav­ing writ­ten the his­tory of the vil­lage). They looked quizzi­cally at the be­mused re­searcher in self-ev­i­dent dis­be­lief and quipped back: “Well, it just is.” Cather­ine Hill Bay, a clas­sic beach by any mea­sure, made the cut af­ter all. Treach­ery Beach camp­ground near Seal Rocks (New South Wales) be­came the choice for me­dia mogul Lach­lan Murdoch and chil­dren on the rec­om­men­da­tion of this PA. Yes, beaches here are egal­i­tar­ian places where mil­lion­aires drop their suits along­side blue-col­lar work­ers. Beaches lay us bare.

And here be­gins the beach ex­perts’ co­nun­drum. De­spite what you’re told and sold by des­ti­na­tion mar­keters, not ev­ery beach lives up to the pic­tureper­fect post­card images on­line. That’s why many of us make the safe pil­grim­age to the same coastal favourite year af­ter year. But that’s chang­ing with the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia and a re­al­i­sa­tion of just how re­fresh­ing un­touched beach en­vi­ron­ments are.

The judg­ing cri­te­ria of water and sand qual­ity, fa­cil­i­ties, sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment and ac­ces­si­bil­ity and recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties is still largely at the root of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Reli­able non-com­mer­cial plat­forms such as Tourism Aus­tralia are rapidly in­tro­duc­ing hith­erto un­known lo­ca­tions, through so­cial me­dia images and tags. Where we want to im­merse our­selves (lit­er­ally and cul­tur­ally) is shift­ing from the pre­dictable to the far-flung and “au­then­tic” na­ture-based beaches.

Such is Aus­tralia’s global rep­u­ta­tion that more than 75% of in­bound tourists nom­i­nate vis­it­ing beaches as their num­ber one choice of ex­pe­ri­ences. While they might dive into Trop­i­cal North Queens­land, whirl through Surfers Par­adise or By­ron Bay, join the pa­rade at Bondi, we’re all be­com­ing more savvy and want to widen our hori­zons to off the radar lo­ca­tions where the con­ser­va­tion of com­mu­nity char­ac­ter and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing marine in­ter­ac­tions holds much more or­ganic at­trac­tion than any found at, say, Gold Coast beach­side theme parks. Parks of the eco­log­i­cal kind are the new theme.

Some beaches you’ve never heard of have been added in re­cent years as I re­fresh the an­nual list of best beaches. Cossies Beach on the Co­cos-Keel­ing Is­lands was re­mote and name­less, so I named it af­ter Sir Peter Cos­grove, who, like Charles Dar­win in 1836, was rap­tured by its beauty. Hid­den Hor­rocks Beach La­goon in WA is an­other such ex­am­ple of stun­ning debu­tantes to the A-list, for its un­pre­ten­tious, Aus­tralian vil­lage charm.

By shift­ing per­cep­tions on what makes a “best beach”, I’ve tried to show­case the vast types of beach en­vi­ron­ments we have, and di­rect peo­ple to lo­ca­tions that make their ex­pe­ri­ence more mem­o­rable. I en­cour­age you to re­search on­line and choose your des­ti­na­tions wisely.

You may have read the news that one fa­mous Aussie beach was closed (an Aus­tralian first) as it was “full”, as claimed by Hyams Beach lo­cals and coun­cil. Such is the power of so­cial me­dia and self­ies sug­gest­ing Hyams had our whitest sand (in­cor­rect: that hon­our goes to Lucky Bay, WA) and it was a “must-see” for those so close to Syd­ney.

I rec­om­mend choos­ing your beaches dis­cern­ingly, based on all the el­e­ments you’re look­ing for in a beach. For many of us, in­creas­ingly, that means a wi-fi-free dig­i­tal detox, weath­ered char­ac­ters with yarns as deep as the salt in their veins and a pris­tine nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. These low-key, un­der­the-radar beaches are of­ten the ones that cre­ate last­ing for­ma­tive mem­o­ries for our chil­dren and the beach child in all of us.

Brad Farmer is Tourism Aus­tralia’s global beach am­bas­sador and co-au­thor of Aus­tralia’s Best 101 Beaches with Prof Andy Short

Pho­to­graph: Xin­hua/Alamy Stock Photo

Aus­tralia is one big beach and no other coun­try has such a di­verse coast­line.

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