Devon has some of the UK’s finest beaches, catering for everything from romantic strolling to surfing.
The north coast is fringed with wild and windswept swathes of sand, some up to three miles long, but there are sheltered treasures here, too, including Victorian tidal pools and hidden inlets accessible to those who dare. The south coast has calmer seas, genteel seaside towns, turquoise waters and a good choice of beach cafés serving fresh fish, just-baked cakes and locally produced ice creams. Here’s our pick of the best places in Devon to take a dip.
Ranked by TripAdvisor travellers as one of the world's best beaches, this three-mile swathe of golden sand has oodles of space for spreading out, even in the height of summer. Patrolled by RNLI lifeguards from Easter to September, it’s the ideal place to learn to surf, paddleboard or kayak in safety. There’s a good choice of shops, pubs and cafés, most notably The Captain’s Table, which is at the top end of the beach and has far-reaching views of the coastline. The parking is reasonably priced and the showers and toilets are always immaculate. Dogs are welcome – with some restrictions – between April and November.
Getting there: There are car parks at various points along the beach.
This three-mile stretch of sand has provided a backdrop for several films such as Edge of Tomorrow and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society plus music videos including Robbie Williams’ Angels. Just behind Saunton Sands is Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in England and home to more than 400 unique dune plant species, with 1,500 acres of dunes to play, hide or snooze in. For consistently good fish and chips try Squires Fish Restaurant.
Getting there: There’s a car park by the beach.
Tunnels Beaches, Ilfracombe
Accessed via a network of four tunnels hand carved into rocks in the 1820s, these shingle beaches offer tranquil bathing and sunbathing on what is an otherwise exposed coastline. Don’t miss a dip in the renovated Victorian tidal pool built into the rocks, and there’s great rock pooling for children at low tide. Information boards provide colourful history of the site, including guides to Victorian bathing etiquette. Sun worshippers should note these beaches are shaded by cliffs for much of the day. There are no lifeguards and there's a small admission fee.
Getting there: There’s a car park close to the beach.
Accessed via 220 uneven steps hewn out of a steeply wooded cliff face, only the intrepid reach this deep, double cove. Clear turquoise waters and elusive sea caves are hidden behind by lush foliage, making it feel like your own secret, well-deserved discovery. Explore sea arches, caves, island and tunnels to the west of the bay, and swim to an island lookout. Time your visit with low-tide as there isn’t much sand at high tide.
Getting there: Park in Napps Caravan Park, or at Sawmills Pub and walk up.
Conservationist Bill Oddie's favourite beach, and one of the best places in the country for rock pooling, Wembury teems with aquatic life. Get there at low tide and you’re likely to find limpets, anemones, shore crabs, pipe fish, sea scorpions, spiny star fish, Cornish sucker fish and edible crabs. A marine information centre on the beach has interactive displays and critter-filled tanks, and runs regular organised rockpool rambles. The website has a downloadable identification chart.
Getting there: There's a National Trust car park by the beach.
Set beneath wooded cliffs, this mile-long, privately owned crescent can’t be far from heaven. Safe, sheltered swimming, a floating dock, lifeguards in summer, clean seas, shops selling beach essential. Although the name may be slightly misleading – the beach is actually made up of shingle – the claim that it’s ‘South Devon’s most picturesque beach’ certainly stands true.
Getting there: Head for the large car park by the beach.
It’s hard to choose from the array of beach beauties that surround the yachtie town of Salcombe, but South Sands, a quick ferry ride or short walk from town, tops our list for being sheltered, seaweed-free and sun-kissed most of the day. It’s small – and smaller still at low tide – but has soft sand, safe, shallow swimming, blue seas and several excellent eating options, including South Sands Hotel and rustic beach café The Winking Prawn nearby. A quick ferry ride across the other side of the estuary takes you to Mill Bay and Sunny Cove, where there’s more room to spread out.
Getting there: South Sands has an on-site car park.
One of South Devon’s few surfing beaches. Bantham has mellow waves for beginners (known in surf-speak as ‘ankle slappers’) and enough rips and breaks for more advanced surfers. Look out for stand-up paddle surfers, a sedate take on the sport. The beach looks out onto Bigbury Bay and the iconic Burgh Island and has beautiful coastal walks towards Thurlestone and South Milton Sands. Gastrobus in the carpark serves gourmet burgers, hot dogs and exceptional coffee and cream teas.
Getting there: Drivers will find a large car park by the beach.
Getting to this red sand and shingle beach – via what’s believed to be an old smugglers' tunnel – is an adventure in itself. Tucked out of sight, the cove was once the haunt of nefarious types bringing contraband in and out of the country. It’s a spectacular spot, with towering red sandstone cliffs. At the entrance is Shaldon Zoo, home to a collection of critically endangered primates, including lemurs, marmosets and monkeys. Café Ode, at the top of the car park, is not to be missed, with the selection of cakes worth a journey in itself.
Getting there: There’s a car park at the top of the hill.
This is a beach filled with history – more than 600 US servicemen were sadly killed on the three-mile stretch of shingle when German E-boats attacked their D-day rehearsals. A Sherman tank on the sand commemorates the lives lost. The beach is patrolled by lifeguards during the summer months and there is a flag system in place telling you when and where it’s safe to swim. Across the road is Slapton Ley Nature Reserve, a marshy, freshwater lake that shelters wildflowers, rare birds, badgers and otters.
Getting there: Discover a car park by the beach.