Volcanoes. Lava flow. Turquoise water lapping against dark, glossy, metallic sand. Are we vacationing on Mars? Saturn? Where are the sugary white sands, the golden dunes and gently blowing sea oats?
Black sand beaches challenge our preconceptions of what a beach should look like. Black sand is created by the violent interaction between hot lava and seawater. Many black sand beaches are not ideal for sunbathing or other traditional beach activities (black sand absorbs more heat than a traditional white sand beach, and it can be coarse to walk on barefoot), but they do offer travelers a different type of escape -one characterized by dramatic, otherworldly views and a landscape of richly contrasting colors. Black sand beaches provide the type of surreal exoticism one equates with fantasy and science fiction.
10. Langkawi Island, Malaysia
The sand at this Malaysian beach isn’t all black. The coastline is comprised of a strange amalgam of black sand and white sand, and scientists are baffled about the geological peculiarity. Locals, on the other hand, have believed for centuries that the black sand’s origins are related to the legend of the Garuda, a mythical half-man-half eagle, and the beautiful Chinese princess that he attempted to kidnap. The legend states that the Garuda loved the princess, but the princess’s heart belonged to a Roman prince. A battle broke out on Langkawi Island between the Garuda and the prince, and the black sand is supposedly the remnants of that war. While Langkawi Island beach isn’t the most photogenic (the streaky blend of different colored sand makes it appear dirty), it certainly has the best creation myth.
9. Anse Chastanet, St. Lucia
While the Caribbean is world-renown for its sugary white beaches, many of the small volcanic islands in the Lesser Antilles have black sand beaches, including Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Lucia. The easiest way to create a black sand beach is to have a volcano nearby, and St. Lucia has several dormant cones, the most prominent (and famous) being the Pitons. Fine grains of black sand cover much of St. Lucia’s southwestern shoreline, which is the site of the most recent volcanic activity. Anse Chastanet features dark, smoky black sand, and while the sand isn’t as jet-black and dramatic as other black sand beaches -there are flecks of white and gold sand mixed in -it still challenges one’s idea of what a beach in the Caribbean should look like.
8. Point Venus, Tahiti
There are several black sand beaches on the islands throughout the South Pacific. Tahiti, the largest island in Polynesia, has some of the most notable. Most of the black sand beaches are concentrated on the island’s northern and eastern coasts. Point Venus, near Papeete, is Tahiti’s most famous black sand beach. Supposedly, Capt. James Cook observed the “transit of Venus” in 1769 from a point between the beach and the river that cuts the peninsula in two, and that’s how the beach earned its name.
7. Santo Domingo Beach, Albay: Philippines
Due to its volcanic activity, Albay’s is home to several black sand beaches. The towns of Bacacay and Tiwi are known for their beautiful swaths of black sand. However, the best black sand beach in the region is Santo Domingo. The sharp contrast between the pitch-black sand and crystal blue water of Santo Domingo Beach is exotic and otherworldly. When Mt. Mayon is silhouetted against white clouds, the juxtaposing colors of sand, sea and sky have a sublime and hypnotic effect, a raw poetry that creates a distinct sense of place.
6. Cahuita Beach, Costa Rica
Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations. However, only around 100 actually show signs of volcanic activity, while five are classified as active volcanoes. The northwest Pacific region of Costa Rica is where most of the black sand beaches are found. Coco, Flamingo, and Portete beaches all feature pebbly black sand and are popular destinations for ecotourists. However, Cahuita Beach, otherwise known as Playa Negra, is the country’s most famous swath of black sand.
Cahuita Beach is located 27 miles south of Puerto Limon. The ocean is rough along most of the 3.5 km beach, featuring big waves for surfers, but there are also several small bays where the water is smooth and good for swimming. Horseback riding tours are common on the beach. Playa Negra has been awarded the Ecological Blue Flag several times, an honor that cites the beach’s clean water and proper administration.
5. Black Sand Beach: Prince William Sound, Alaska
Black Sand Beach is ¼ mile long and during much of the year icebergs are deposited and stranded on the sand. The beach is surrounded by tidewater glaciers, ten thousand foot peaks, waterfalls, green hillsides, and more exotic wildlife than a National Geographic special. Located 60 miles from Anchorage, Black Sand Beach is a popular place for sea kayakers to camp during the warmer months, as the tidewater glaciers are a 5-minute paddle from the beach. Part of the reason kayakers love Black Sand Beach is because the surrounding geography protects them from the wind.
4. Kehena Beach, Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands are home to some of the world’s most famous black sand beaches. Located on the Big Island’s Puna district, this narrow beach is not only comprised of fine black sand, but it is one of the only clothing optional beaches in Hawaii. Locals call it “Dolphin Beach” because of the frequent appearance of spinner dolphins offshore
Kehena Beach was formed in 1955. Lava flowed down the sea cliffs and into the ocean, and at the eastern end of the beach there’s a rocky point of land that represents the tip of the lava flow. The beach is shaded with coconut palms and ironwood trees. During high surf, Kehena Beach is known to have strong rip currents and undertows.
3. Black Sands Beach, California
Palm trees. Bikinis. Black sand? California may seem like an unlikely place to find a black sand beach, but the aptly named Black Sands Beach, located in the town of Shelter Cove on Northern California’s Lost Coast, is a spectacular nine-mile strip of protected black sand. Surrounded by the Northern California backdrop, which includes King’s Peak (4087 ft.) and two million acres of Redwood forest, the beach is hidden and intimate, yet at the same time dramatically expansive. California’s 80-mile stretch of Lost Coast is lightly traveled, and therefore Black Sands Beach doesn’t attract a large crowd. Coastal hikers stop and take photos, but most tourists don’t swim although swimming is permitted. In the winter, however, when the Pacific swells are bigger, Black Sands Beach becomes a popular surfing destination.
2. Vik Beach, Iceland
Icelandic legend says that a magician swam to the island in the form of a whale with the goal of bringing the isolated island under his spell. However, when the magician reached Iceland’s rocky shores, he discovered the North Atlantic Island was already inhabited by elves, trolls, and spirits who fiercely defended the volcanic mountains, glacial ice sheets and lush green meadows.
In the south coast of Iceland, Vik sits directly under the Mýdalsjökull glacier, which lies atop the Katla Volcano. The flat, black beach south of the village was created by hot lava flowing into the frigid ocean, causing it to fragment into little pieces. In 1991, Iceland Magazine declared Vik Beach one of the 10 Best Island Beaches in the World, and with its surrounding plateaus, switchbacks, steep cliff faces, basalt archways, and a cluster of sea stacks called Reynisfjall, it’s easy to see why. Vik Beach is located 110 miles from the capital of Reykjavik, and while the hamlet has less than 300 inhabitants, it has a large population of clown-billed puffins –Iceland’s most famous bird.
1. Punaluu Beach, Hawaii
Featuring jet black sand, a palm-lined freshwater fishpond, and cool ocean water due to the freshwater springs in the area, Punaluu is a classic Hawaiian black sand beach. The sand was created when the molten lava from Kilauea Volcano flowed into the cool sea causing the lava to break apart into tiny fragments that later washed up on the beach. The beach is ideal for swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, fishing, and turtle watching. Yes. Turtle watching. Hawksbill turtles and Green sea turtles use Punaluu Beach as a nesting site and feed on the limu seaweed that grows offshore. Although Punaluu’s famous jet-black sand is beautiful, it’s illegal to take it off the beach. If you want a souvenir, buy a postcard instead.