Golden Sand, Calm Waters and Dramatic Dunes: 5 Family Beaches in Europe
What makes a great family beach? Clean water for swimming, clean sand for sitting, sunning, playing or walking, and naturally occurring amusements like gullies, tide pools or rocks for climbing. Access to decent food and bathrooms and even showers are also a plus and, thankfully, relatively common in Europe, where I’m based. And, of course, stunning scenery and nearby towns with lots of activities certainly help.
For the past two decades, I’ve lived in Spain — part of the peninsula that’s been the Florida of Europe since the days of the Roman Empire — and have gotten to know quite a few European coastal areas. Now that these seaside trips include a husband and two kids, my repertoire has expanded considerably.
Below is a selection of my family’s personal favorites, from the calm, clear waters of Ålbæk, Denmark, to the white sands of Spain’s Balearic Islands.
Playa de Frejulfe
Lush, verdant Asturias on Spain’s northern coast is the country’s dairy land, and since the less-fertile coastal areas were traditionally left uncultivated, there are fragrant pine (and, surprisingly, eucalyptus) forests that roll right up to the sand dunes of the region’s beaches.
Frejulfe beach in western Asturias is a sentimental favorite of ours as it is only about six minutes by car from my husband’s parents’ home near the town of Navia. For a decade, our kids only knew the broad crescent of the beach as the place where we’d bundle up in late December to walk off Christmas meals. But when the pandemic curtailed international travel, we got to experience the summer joys of Frejulfe — in bathing suits instead of coats and hats.
Like most Asturian beaches, Frejulfe comes with small waterfalls, caves and a narrow brackish river that snakes through the sand into the sea, giving smaller children who don’t like waves a safe place to frolic. Because of the neighboring forests, there is always plenty of driftwood to construct elaborate tents adorned with beach towels.
Depending on the tides, rock formations at the cove’s edges provide fertile territory for spying anemones, starfish, crabs and the occasional tiny sea horse.
Some beaches, like nearby Fabal, are reached by steep staircases or precarious paths that would be hard, if not unsafe, for smaller children, but Frejulfe has easy access and a large parking lot, not to mention a bustling chiringuito (beach shack restaurant) and surf classes for older children.
Nearby, restaurants fill the fishing villages of Puerto de Vega and Luarca — locals love El Barómetro in the latter for seafood and rice stews. There are also ancient Roman and Celtic settlements; endless hiking paths along the coast; waterfalls up in the hills; and the stunning beach of Las Catedrales, named for its massive flying buttress-like rock formations, about 30 minutes west in Galicia.
Cap Ferret and Arcachon
Cap Ferret, a peninsula with a string of charm-forward hamlets tucked into the woods and dunes, has the wild Atlantic on one side and the more sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon (essentially a large bay) on the other. It offers everything you could want for a family beach holiday with French flair — winding lanes for biking, a wharf lined with seafood restaurants (the area is famous for oysters), a lighthouse and exquisite shops tucked amid the tree-shaded lanes selling stripy boatnecked shirts and vetiver-scented candles. All of it is wrapped in a ribbon of impeccably clean and broad golden sand beaches kissed by fresh Atlantic breezes.
Because we visited at Easter, when the weather could be less reliable, we stayed in Arcachon, a pretty belle epoque resort town a delightful 15-minute ferry ride across the bay on the southern shore of the Bassin. Arcachon also scored with my children, especially the quirky colorful Art Nouveau architecture and fabulous family-friendly restaurants. (“France is known for the best pizzas,” noted my food-critic son, Freddie, as we sat down at Ragazzi da Peppone on Arcachon’s main drag.)
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For all five kids in our group, the star attraction was the vast spa at our hotel — Les Bains d’Arguin — which, au contraire to the image one may have of an uptight European spa, offered a children’s hour every evening when we could all soak and frolic in the therapeutic water amid the jets and hydro-massage stations.
As we headed out of town on our return home, we stopped to climb the Dune du Pilat, a massive sand dune at the mouth of the Arcachon inlet. By far the tallest and largest “structure” in the area, it offers sweeping views of city, sea and forest — an area sadly devastated by recent wildfires. Upon seeing speck-like figures at the other end of the dune, my daughter, Frida, said, “It looks like the Great Wall of China,” and indeed it did.
Ålbæk Strand and Råbjerg Mile
Massive dunes provide wonderful playgrounds for children who can climb them, roll down them or try futilely to run in the soft sand. Between Ålbæk and Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark is Råbjerg Mile, known to my family as “the wander dune,” because it is considered a “living” dune and is slowly drifting across the peninsula. Like the Pyla in Arcachon, its scale and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see extension are staggering.
The Danes in this area have been dealing with migrating sands forever, living as they do at the meeting point of the deep and churning North Sea and the far shallower and calmer Baltic. The sand just keeps washing up on the west coast and drifting east, having once buried a nearby church. At Grenen, the tippy-top of Skagen where the two seas flow together, the accumulating sands have Denmark growing toward Sweden.
There is nary a wave in the crystalline waters off the beach called Ålbæk Strand — just a couple of miles south of Råbjerg Mile and a perfect spot for young children to frolic in the sea. Being so shallow, the water, though still bracing, gets far warmer than one might expect in Scandinavia. And the beach seems to stretch for eternity, so there’s lots of nature to explore amid the dunes and woodlands. Ferries shuttling between Norway, Denmark and Sweden can be seen cruising across the horizon.
For a break from the sun, the nearby town of Skagen is fairy-tale pretty, its narrow lanes lined with adorable yellow and red houses nestled into lush gardens, the legacy of the area’s transformation from hardscrabble fishing village to bohemian arts colony in the late 19th century, to upscale seaside resort in the 20th. The picturesque port buzzes in the morning when the day’s catch arrives and stays busy through lunch when food and beer stalls set a festive outdoor dining scene. Hotels, like the charmingly historic Ruth’s offer wonderful accommodations, but given the relatively high cost of eating and drinking in Scandinavia, it’s worth considering a short-term rental so not all meals have to be in restaurants.
And the town’s small museums, like Skagen Museum and Anchers Hus, serve kid-friendly portions of culture, much of it redolent of local life and legend while the cafe and bakery Baghaven serves a delicious garden lunch as well as fun summer outdoor concerts.
Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina
In recent years, the jet-set love affair with Comporta, the ever-chicer and ever-more-expensive summer destination south of Lisbon, has left the wilder Atlantic coast farther south largely overlooked. I was solo on my first visit to the area in 2007 and as I drove south toward Zambujeira do Mar, the coastal road kept offering such stunning glimpses of sandstone coves lapped by teal waters that I couldn’t help periodically pulling over for 10-minute swims off deserted beaches like Praia do Tonel.
I fell so hard for those beaches that we’ve now circled back twice, stopping in different places each time. Family-friendly beaches with parking and easy paths to the beach, perhaps even a lifeguard in season, include Praia do Carvajal and Praia de Odeceixe. Though other and newer accommodation options exist, we have a soft spot for the Herdade do Touril, a quaint farmhouse hotel with a great pool and a fabulous breakfast.
Driving back to the hotel one night after an amazing (and amazingly cheap) dinner at the supercasual A Azenha do Mar, in the tiny beachfront town of Azenha do Mar, the road dipped into an area of strawberry fields so fragrant it was like having a second dessert.
A nice complement to a beach adventure here is to head south to Sagres, now a groovy surf town where Henry the Navigator once had his sailing school in the Fortaleza do Sagres during Portugal’s age of exploration.
An unexpected upside to the pandemic was our discovery of the joys of arriving to the beach by boat. In June 2020, with international vacation travel virtually banned around the globe, my husband realized that the economic laws of supply and demand for private boat rentals in the Mediterranean would be inverted (plenty of boats, but few passengers), so we booked a trip that had always seemed too extravagant and hired a boat for a five-day cruise around Formentera, the smallest and most pristine of Spain’s Balearic Islands.
We boarded in Ibiza and within minutes of making the 20-minute crossing to Formentera, we were anchored and snorkeling in stunningly clear turquoise waters, elbowing each other underwater to point out schools of fish and the odd baby octopus. Eventually we walked up on shore, a strip of powdery white sand so narrow it took only minutes to cross, and re-entered the sea on the other side. There was nothing but nature surrounding us.
We took such a meandering route back to the boat that by the time we climbed aboard, nearly four hours had passed. As a child, I used to spend hours at a time in the ocean, but this was the first time my kids had done so, tirelessly swimming tremendous distances and then wanting to do it again after lunch.
That first stop, Ses Illetes, is typically (and deservedly) ranked the most beautiful beach in Formentera and often in all of Spain. A short boat ride south, there are restaurants like Beso Beach, famous, fun, delicious and wildly expensive, set in the dunes.
Some of the other island beaches are isolated smaller coves, but Formentera’s southern coast also provides a wide crescent of beautiful beaches. With a few resorts like Gecko Beach Club and private villas, the beach is more built up, but we found the sea life was even richer and more varied, and the cruise south along the deserted eastern flank of the island offers a view of impossibly vertical bluffs that Freddie, compared to the Cliffs of Insanity from “The Princess Bride.”
For those not wanting to commit to overnighting on a boat, there are accommodations on Formentera and day trips or longer cruises can be arranged from the larger ports on Ibiza.
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