The siren song of the beach beckons every summer, and we always succumb. Even though we aren’t beach lovers. The wind, the sand in everything, the traffic, the fear of sunburn. Summer wouldn’t be summer without at least an afternoon at the seaside. I grew up on that sea of grass known as the American prairie, about as far away as you can get from any sea or ocean. I was in my 20s before I saw the ocean. Now, I live a 45-minute drive from the Mediterranean. Close enough to go on short notice and come back to sleep in my own bed. Far enough that my life in July and August isn’t ruled by the traffic jams snaking to and from the beach.Our strip of the Mediterranean is lined with beaches, some quite famous: Cap d’Agde, for example, is known for its naturalist (i.e., nude) beach, so much so that if you say you’re going there people assume you are going to go naked, even though there are also parts of that beach for people whose limit on undressing stops at the tiny, strategically placed triangles of cloth known as bikinis and Speedos.
That said, at almost any beach you’ll find plenty of topless sunbathers. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Nobody bats an eye. However, very few of them are young nymphs with perky breasts, so don’t get your hopes up. On a recent trip, there were two topless sunbathers nearby. They must have been in their 70s, and their breasts dangled limply on either side of their torsos. My first reaction: “Sun cancer!” (I wear a high-necked, long-sleeved rash guard myself.) My second reaction: “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” They are good in their skin, which is a French expression for being at ease with oneself. Though in this case, it works literally as well as figuratively.Starting at Montpellier, you have Palavas-les-Flots, upscale and reminiscent of the beach at Barcelona, with high-rises nearby. Beach time segues seamlessly into shopping and nightlife. And eating, though that goes without saying, no matter where you are in France.Next comes Sète, followed by Cap d’Agde (the city of Agde is inland). The beach by Béziers–the city itself is inland and on a hill–is Valras-Plage. Just south, Narbonne, likewise inland, has Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan. These are equidistant from us, but we prefer Gruissan, whose beach is a little wilder, lined with little wooden cottages on stilts, vs. the concrete high-rises of Narbonne-Plage.
Onward to the south come Port-la-Nouvelle, Leucate and le Barcarès, which are even more hard-core beach vacation destinations. And then you get to Perpignan and its beaches, such as Argelès, then down to Collioure, Banyuls and Port-Vendres. Then you hit Spain.Gruissan, shown in all the photos here, suits us for many reasons besides being nearby. The road to Narbonne-Plage climbs then descends through the Clape mountains, which are G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. But if you are behind a camper or a bike, both of which are very common, you can’t pass them until you’re practically at the beach. The road to Gruissan isn’t as pretty, but it’s flatter and has a bike lane, keeping the traffic moving. Gruissan has high-rises, but only around the port, which is also where most of the restaurants and shops are located. The port is a bit far to walk from the beach (a good thing, insofar as you don’t see the high-rises when you’re on the beach). As the road to the beach passes by the port, we just stop the car on the way home and have dinner. The port area is very lively and fun in its own way, but there’s a quieter, quainter option: the ancient village of Gruissan. It circles around the ruins of a hilltop medieval château (protection from pirates–before pirates of the Caribbean, there were pirates of the Mediterranean). The charming, narrow streets have several good restaurants, especially for seafood. Our modus operandi is to go to the beach around 3 or 4 p.m. Usually the folks who had arrived early have left or are leaving, making it easy to find parking and a spot to spread out by the water. We avoid the peak hours for sun exposure, as well. Our “must-have” equipment has diminished over the years. We had a windbreak that I had bought when I lived in Belgium and did a beach trip to Ostende; we were freezing, and the windbreak made it a little more bearable. On that trip, I got a sunburn–on my hands only, because otherwise I was completely covered up, shivering. Here, we don’t have to worry about being cold, but it is windy. We upgraded to one of those pup tents, which are nice for shade (the wind often makes parasols fly away), keeping gear in one spot, privacy for changing, and a bigger angle of protection from the wind. Our gear also used to include many plastic buckets and shovels and molds and balls and lifesavers and waterwings and goggles and so on. Now, it’s just sun block, hats, anti-UV rash guards and lots of water in a cooler.
Beach tips: put your phone in a zip-lock plastic bag. Take a book or magazine if you want something to look at and keep your phone safe from the sand. Put your clean change of clothes in another zippered plastic bag to keep it sand-free. A straw bag to carry everything lets the sand fall out if you shake it vigorously before putting it in the car….
Any tips to add? What do you look for in a beach?