With Britain basking in some unexpected April heat, why not make a rapid dash to the seaside? To help you pick the best stretch of sand, we asked our experts to recommend their favourite beaches around the country. Some of the nominations are deservedly popular spots along the south and western coast of Britain, while others are of the wild and unspoilt variety, where even at the height of summer you can find a secluded spot beneath cliffs or among dunes. (If you are looking for more suggestions for wild, out of the way places, see our guide to the UK’s 20 best hidden beaches). Some of the shorelines here – those in Scotland and the Isles of Scilly, for instance – are so remote that you will need to find a base for a night or two. So for each destination we have suggested somewhere to stay locally, and – where it exists – somewhere to eat on or near your stretch of sand.
1. Watergate Bay, Newquay
Two miles of golden sand backed by cliffs and caves, where the Atlantic swells produce reliable surf and peregrine falcons, gulls and fulmars wheel overhead. Spot strawberry anemones and crabs among the rock pools, walk along the clifftop, or book a surfing or traction kiting lesson with the excellent Extreme Academy on the beach (01637 860840; http://extremeacademy.co.uk).
Eat: Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall (01637 861000; fifteencornwall.co.uk) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (booking essential). The Beach Hut bistro is less expensive than Fifteen; right on the sand, it is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (01637 860877; watergatebay.co.uk).
Stay: At Watergate Bay Hotel, overlooking the sands, which has great children’s facilities and a self-catering option. Doubles from £145, including breakfast. Read a full review: Watergate Bay, Newquay
2. Porthcurno, near Land’s End
Set beneath the clifftop Minack Theatre, this is arguably the county’s most beautiful bay: a funnel of sand caught between lichen-encrusted granite cliffs. Easily accessible, it has fine white sand and is popular with families. It’s best at low tide when you can walk to other beaches in the bay (one of which is nudist) and sit on sandbars beneath the ancient cliff fort of Treryn Dinas, surrounded by Grecian-blue water.
Eat: At the Coffee Shop at the Minack Theatre, above the beach offers coffee, Cornish cream teas, and light meals. You have to pay for admission to the site, but this includes access to the gardens. (01736 810694; minack.com).
Stay: At The Old Coastguard hotel in Mousehole, which offers a spacious bar/restaurant, and a superb location with views over the palm-filled garden sloping down to the sea. Doubles from £130, including breakfast. Read a full review: The Old Coastguard hotel
Isles of Scilly
3. Pentle Bay, Tresco
Pentle Bay induces a broad grin. You can’t help it after crossing Tresco Island’s lush interior and walking through sandy grass into a wall of dazzling colour: bleached white sand, emerald-and-turquoise ocean dotted with islands and impossibly blue sky. Everything is light, bright, almost tropical in its brilliance. It takes a dip in the briny – two degrees colder than the mainland – to confirm that you are still in Britain.
See tresco.co.uk for details of hotel and self-catering accommodation, and of Tresco Stores, a good source of picnic supplies.
4. Saunton Sands
Behind this untamed three-mile stretch of beach is Braunton Burrows, one of the largest sand-dune systems in Britain, and home to myriad rare plants and butterflies. Atlantic rollers sweep on to the vast sandy beach.
Eat: At The Sands on the Beach, sister cafe to the Saunton Sands Hotel, offers casual dining options at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and snacks (01271 891288; sauntonsands.co.uk).
Stay: At the Saunton Sands Hotel offers family-friendly accommodation right above the beach, with indoor and outdoor pool, health club, and sea-view rooms. Doubles from £140. Read a full hotel review here.
5. Blackpool Sands
Three miles south-west of Dartmouth is this sheltered and peaceful crescent of fine shingle, backed by wooded hills. It’s popular with families, and a great spot for swimming as its turquoise waters are clean and usually calm. You can hire kayaks and paddle boards.
Eat: At The Venus Café, right on the beach, serves Devon crab, baguettes and salads (01803 770209; lovingthebeach.co.uk), open daily from 8.30am-9pm until the beginning of September.
Stay: At Strete Barton House, Strete: a stylish b b in a 16th-century manor house near Dartmouth (01803 770364; stretebarton.co.uk).
6. Studland Bay
Four miles of pristine white sand, which shelves gently into milky-blue waters, with a backdrop of dunes and heathland. The northern stretch, most easily reached by chain ferry, has an away-from-it-all, desert-island feel, appreciated by the naturist sunbathers at Shell Bay; the southern Knoll Beach is popular with families.
Eat: At the National Trust Beach Café, Knoll Beach, which serves hot and cold main meals and snacks. You can dine indoors or out (01929 450500; nationaltrust.org.uk/studland-beach/eating-and-shopping).
Stay: At The Pig on the Beach hotel, which offers cosy interiors, superb breakfasts and an extensive kitchen garden, with views of Old Harry Rocks and the Isle of Wight. Doubles from £119, excluding breakfast. Read a full hotel review here.
Isle of Wight
7. Compton Bay
A rural and unspoilt stretch of coast caught between the English Channel and the grassy downs of West Wight. Walk south to Brook Bay at low tide and you may find ancient dinosaur tracks revealed on the foreshore, or spot fossils in the crumbling cliffs (see dinosaurisle.com for details of fossil walks). Access from the clifftop car parks (National Trust) is by steep wooden steps.
Eat: At The Café at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay (01983 756814; dimbola.co.uk), is set in a charming photographic museum and serves teas and lunches.
Stay: At Compton Farm Caravan and Camping (01983 740215; comptonfarm.co.uk), close to the beach, or in one of the smart yurts of the Really Green Holiday Company at Afton, a short drive or cycle away (07802 678591; thereallygreenholidaycompany.com).
8. West Wittering
It’s a long, narrow and often traffic-choked road to the Witterings from Chichester, but that’s what gives this Sussex beach its remote feel. The fine, open stretch of sand, overlooking the Solent and Chichester harbour, is spotlessly clean and at low tide there are pools for paddling. Out on the water, acrobatic windsurfers sweep past. From the far western end, you can cross a narrow ridge to East Head, a lovely and remote sand-dune spit at the mouth of the harbour. Get there early to avoid the queues and bag a parking spot.
Eat: At the well-run beach café, which serves a range of snacks and sandwiches (westwitteringbeach.co.uk).
Stay: At one of the many properties available through holidaylettings.co.uk.
9. Botany Bay
This is the most northerly of Broadstairs’s beaches, and perhaps the prettiest – a 660ft curve of sand backed by white cliffs, with chalk stacks, rock pools and safe swimming. At low tide you can walk to Joss Bay, Kent’s best surf beach.
Stay: At Crescent Victoria Hotel in Margate, which offers individually-styled rooms, a retro vibe, and fabulous sea views. Read a full review of the hotel.
The wooden bridge leading from the picturesque village of Walberswick to the beach is always crammed with children clutching crabbing lines and plastic buckets. Clamber over the ridge of dunes into the magical light of the Suffolk coast and you’ll understand why so many artists are drawn to paint this long and empty stretch of sandy beach.
Eat: At the Anchor for superior pub food, plus brunches, BBQs, and Curry Fridays (01502 722112; anchoratwalberswick.com).
You don’t know the meaning of “big sky” until you cross the wooden boards through the dunes and tip out on to this vast stretch of sand, midway along the north Norfolk coast. You can lay out your beach towels here or walk east on a path through the pine woods to the slightly more sheltered beach at neighbouring Wells-next-the-Sea. In high summer it’s easier to park at Wells and walk the other way. In any case, take a windbreak – and watch out for the caprices of the incoming tide.
Eat: At The Beach Cafe on the Holkham Estate is backed by pinewoods and near the beach. Food is homemade, using local produce, and includes hot and cold snacks, lunches, and sandwiches, as well as ice-creams and drinks. Dogs welcome (01328 713055; holkham.co.uk).
Stay: At Cley Windmill overlooking the salt marshes about 11 miles east along the coast. Read a full review of Cley Windmill.
Set against a backdrop of grassy cliffs, where the wide sweep of beach from Whitby ends, this stretch is quieter and prettier than its famous neighbour. Children play in the little becks that flow across the sand and ducks waddle across the green in charming Sandsend village. This is a great place for fossil hunting at low tide.
Eat: At The Woodlands (01947 893438) is a lovely café-cum-restaurant close to the beach; closed on Mondays.
Stay: At The Porthole, a converted 19th-century bunker built into the cliff with a private terrace overlooking the sea (01947 893500; sandsendcottages.co.uk/porthole).
Overlooked by Bamburgh Castle, this beautiful stretch of wild coastline offers clear seas and huge sands that stretch to Seahouses, three miles away. On a clear day you can see out to Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands.
Eat: At The Old Ship Inn, Seahouses (01665 720200; seahouses.co.uk/theoldeship/home.htm), an atmospheric pub with sweeping sea views; local seafood is the speciality. Or eat simply: barbecue Bamburgh bangers from R Carter Son butchers (01668 214344; bamburghbanger.co.uk).
Stay: At St Cuthbert’s House (01665 720456; stcuthbertshouse.com), an elegant 200-year-old former chapel in North Sunderland near Seahouses.
The monumental dunes here are classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and from their tops there are views of the Cumbrian mountains – and even Blackpool Tower on a clear day. Footpaths lead through the pinewoods behind to a red squirrel reserve (this is one of the last outposts in Britain), and on the vast expanse of beach you can sometimes spot prehistoric human and animal footprints. The sunsets are spectacular. Read our guide to a walk along the Formby coast.
Eat: At one of the picnic areas, or among the dunes.
Stay: At Bay Tree House b b, Southport (01704 510555; baytreehousesouthport.co.uk). Doubles from £75, including breakfast.
East coast of Scotland
15. Lunan Bay
This magnificent two-mile strand on the unheralded Angus coastline is backed by dunes and overlooked by Red Castle, a crumbling 12th-century fortress. Its pink sandstone hues match the colour of the low red cliffs and curious rock formations on the beach below. This is a great place for birdwatching, and is popular with surfers and riders. Some swear the sands have a rosy tint; certainly the shore glitters after a storm, when semiprecious stones such as agate and jasper can be found. Take care when swimming as there are strong currents.
Eat: At Gordon’s Restaurant with rooms in nearby Inverkeilor (01241 830364; gordonsrestaurant.co.uk), a place for serious foodies. It now also has five guest rooms, from £110 per night, including breakfast. There are no facilities on the beach, so bring a picnic.
Stay: At Ethie Castle (01241 830434; ethiecastle.com), on the coast near Lunan Bay, a14th-century sandstone fortress that is one of Scotland’s oldest inhabited castles – and one of its most atmospheric bbs.
West coast of Scotland
16. Sandwood Bay, Cape Wrath, Sutherland
Sutherland’s, and arguably Scotland’s, best beach is Sandwood Bay: a glorious, mile-long stretch of sparkling sand that is pounded by North Atlantic rollers and backed by undulating dunes. The beach, which is owned and managed by the John Muir Trust, is popular with intrepid types – there’s a hike of four and a half miles from Blairmore.
Eat: A picnic.
Stay: At Mackay’s Rooms, Durness, has seven stylish bedrooms, two self-catering properties and two crofts. Read a full review of the hotel.
17. Luskentyre, Outer Hebrides
Hidden at the end of a winding road on the wild north-west coast of the Isle of Harris, this long stretch of brilliant sand is washed by shallow, startlingly azure water. Farther out are the steel-grey rollers more often associated with Scotland, studded with empty, windswept islands.
Eat: At a scenic picnic spot – there are no cafes within walking distance.
Stay: At a cottage or b b booked through Luskentyre Holidays (07917 432865; luskentyreholidays.co.uk).
18. Portstewart Strand
A magnificent beach on the Causeway Coast, bounded at one end by low basalt cliffs and at the other by the River Bann. The dunes that back the two-mile-long Strand reach heights of 100ft and more, lending it an air of wildness and mystery, and the waves that crash on to the beach provide reasonable surfing. In neighbouring Portrush you can marvel at sea-sculpted shapes in limestone cliffs on White Rocks beach – the Cathedral Cave, the Lion’s Paw, the Wishing Arch.
Eat: At Ramore Wine Bar, on the harbour in Portrush (028 7082 4313; ramorerestaurant.com).
Stay: At the Royal Court Hotel (028 7082 2236; royalcourthotel.co.uk), which stands above Portrush, looking down on the town, the East Strand and the Royal Portrush Golf Course.
19. Marloes Sands
There is a half-mile walk from the car park to this magnificent National Trust-managed beach, but it’s worth it for the crystal-clear water and dramatic sandstone cliffs, the views of outlying islands, and for the fossils, rock pools, seals, surf and space.
Eat: At the Lobster Pot Inn, Marloes (01646 636233). There are also four rooms.
Stay: At a self-catering property in the area booked through Coastal Cottages of Pembrokeshire (01437 765765; coastalcottages.co.uk); summer short breaks are available, if booked at the last minute.
20. Rhossili beach
The Worm’s Head promontory marks the beginning of this four-mile stretch of golden sand. Set at the western tip of the peninsula, it bears the full might of Atlantic swells, and is popular with surfers, walkers and paragliders. Access is tricky, involving a walk down the cliff path. Look out for the hull of the Helvetia, wrecked on the beach in 1887. There can be strong undertows when the surf is high.
Eat and stay: At The Worm’s Head Hotel, Rhossili, where nearly all rooms have sea views (01792 390512; thewormshead.co.uk).