Advantages "We joined the navy to see the world…."
Disadvantages "And what did we see? We saw the sea." (Irving Berlin)
“I must go down to the seas again,
To the lonely sea and the sky.” (John Masefield)
Water, it might be argued, is not entirely monotonous to look at. The sea has moods, which it expresses in the colour of its complexion. Sometimes, it can be a tranquil turquoise, sometimes an inscrutable indigo, sometimes a grudging greeny-grey. Occasionally, it rears up in wilful white humps and spits spume.That, though, is about the extent of its variety. Sea views only really become interesting when they include other things to see besides the sea. Shipping, for example, seabirds, whales or dolphins and, above all, shores. Artists understand this. Even Turner seldom just painted the sea, usually focussing his compositions on a glimpse of coastline or a boat or two. Seascapes that include ships are not really sea views at all, but pictures of ships. Anyone who has ever been on a voyage knows that as long as there is land in sight people will be out on deck gazing at it; as soon as it disappears they turn their attention inboard. Once on its own, the sea is tactfully ignored. Extended scrutiny would only draw embarrassing attention to its lack of charm.
Fortunately, the sea’s deficiencies are more than made up for by the visual appeal of the shores. By a kind of paradox the sea, though boring in itself, acts as a catalyst to transform almost any view of land. It does so not just by adding an extra feature, but by adding movement and mood to an otherwise unmoving landscape. Coastlines are fascinating, offering wonderful vistas that come in many shapes and sizes:
Since this review was first prompted by memories of the Amalfi coast, let us begin atop one of the many limestone crags that decorate that region, gazing down to where jagged headlands and islets thrust up through the Tyrrhenian waves. When the sea is at peace and the waves are stilled, the water becomes almost luminous, the colour of the rock beneath seeming to amplify its limpid blue.Limestone is a rather good material for this kind of shorescape, combining light-reflective colouring with a soluble tendency to let the sea shape it into hollows, blow-holes and caves. Among many locations, you find it also around Malta; on the Dalmatian coast, where the mountains rear up to overshadow the Adriatic; in the Calanques inlets south of Marseille; and on the Crimean coast of the Black Sea. “Blue caves” and “blue grottos” abound in such places, providing local boatmen with employment carrying tourists out to marvel at them. The sea is too rough for outings of this kind at Punakaiki on the wild west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and the limestone there is of a darker hue, but still fascinating for its curiously moulded “pancake” form. I’d definite recommend taking a look next time you’re in that area.
It doesn’t have to be limestone, though. Without getting too geological, there are plenty of other rocks that have their own appeal. If you’re visiting the northern coast of Brittany, take the trail round the little cape west of Perros-Guirec known as the Sentier des Douaniers (“customs-officers’ footpath”, though you’d be unlucky to encounter any on your way). The predominant rock here is granite – “rose granite” officially, though the colour is more a ruddy ochre that a floral pink. Either way, it’s hard, unyielding stone, but millions of years of storms and tides have crashed and carved it into bizarre configurations, and continue imperceptibly to do so every day. Along the way can be found innumerable places to pause and watch the water at work, surging over rough outcrops before gurgling back through time-smoothed fissures, while you imagine fanciful interpretations for the sculpted shapes thus formed.
In England we tend to think of cliffs as sheer white chalk headlands of the kind to be found awaiting bluebirds at Dover – or the Seven Sisters, or Beachy Head, or shot through with strata of flint as at Etretat in Normandy – and very impressive they can be, from a distance. The trouble is that when they are so white and overbearing they draw the eye up away from the sea, and away from its movement and its sound. In my view, chalk cliffs are most impressive when they break up and intermingle with the waves, as with the Needles at the pointed end of the Isle of Wight.In any case, cliffs don’t have to be large and chalky, or even faux chalk as with the compacted clay strata at Cape Drastis on Corfu. Take a look at the basalt headland in Northumberland on which the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle stand, not hugely high, but hugely atmospheric. At first glance the dark cliffs that rise from the pounding sea seem sheer, though thousands of kittiwakes have found purchase enough to nest on tiny ledges, their cries as they wheel around audible even above the wind and the breaking rollers on the rocks below. More majestic volcanic cliffs are to be found along the Costa Vicentina in southern Portugal, where the upheavals of millions of years have contorted the rock into natural sculptures, or on the north coast of Madeira, though here they are softened by green growth that manages to find a foothold almost as precarious as that of the kittiwakes at Dunstanburgh. Elsewhere too, examples abound. The sandstone and shale cliffs of Moher in Ireland are also said to be magnificent by those who know them, but I have unimaginatively decided to limit this review to sea views that I have seen personally, so I can’t include them here.
Rather like the sea itself, beaches on their own don’t make for great views. Flat and sandy – or, worse still, pebbly – where’s the grandeur or subtlety in that? Beaches need props or surrounding scenery to make them interesting: sea life or rocky outcrops on the foreshore, a backdrop of tangled vegetation or steep slopes behind. The best of all beaches nestle in coves, and you have to pick your way down to them by steep footpaths, catching views from different angles as you descend. This gives you a chance of finding them deserted on arrival too; other people seldom improve the scenic quality of anywhere.
Son of a Beach
If only it were not so absurdly overcrowded, Britain would be a good place to find such beaches – in Cornwall, for example, and in many places down the west coasts of Scotland and Wales. A family favourite of ours for many years was Druidston Haven in Dyfed, which has a small hotel of great character on the clifftop at which to stay, but no other habitations for some miles. Even though such refuges can still be found here, it’s probably better to go overseas. The Costa Vicentina again springs to mind, or the north-west Pacific coast of the USA, Oregon in particular, where you can often find sandy bays surrounded by rugged rocks, with only a few sea lions and pelicans for company.
If you’re really determined to see the sea from a beach, the best time to do so is at dusk, when you can enjoy to the full the reflected glory of the setting sun. For this, you obviously need a west-facing beach, and ideally one in the tropics, where, for reasons that escape me, the sun looks larger than in more temperate latitudes and its setting colours more intense. Never book an easterly-oriented beach hotel, unless you want to miss the best moment of the day, which is sipping a sundowner while you watch the heavenly body imitate the heavenly drink. (Note to any puzzled or outraged Australians reading this: in British usage, a sundowner is the first alcoholic beverage of the evening, not a tramp.)I have been fortunate enough to see some stunning setting-sunscapes in my time: in Fiji, in Sri Lanka, in the Galapagos. But best of all is the sunset as observed from the beachfront of the East Winds Inn at La Brelotte Bay in St Lucia. This is not just because the beach is quiet and secluded, and fringed with palm fronds to frame the view – though it is. Nor is it just because Caribbean sunsets are particularly resplendent in the kaleidoscopic range of their colours and the cloud formations that tend to rear up from the evening horizon into an otherwise clear sky to lend shape and shadow to the display – though they are. It is also because as many of the hotel’s cocktails – or beers, or glasses of champagne – as you desire are covered by the all-inclusive tariff, and because you know that the French chef will be preparing something truly delicious from fresh local ingredients for dinner afterwards. How many other views can compete with that? *
“….and only man is vile.” Having mentioned Sri Lanka, I am reminded of these misanthropic words, which were penned by a certain Bishop Huber, a missionary in Ceylon, about his diocese. When it was pointed out to him that this was rather poor PR, he sought to put a safe distance between himself and any vengeful islanders by pretending he’d meant Java all along. In fairness to the nasty old hypocrite, he did have a sort of point. Human beings sometimes muck up nature’s work beyond all recognition or endurance, as on the Costa del Sol.
“Where every prospect pleases….”
At other times, though, man’s efforts add as well as subtract. One thinks again of the Amalfi coast, with villages clinging like limpets to cliffsides, or Cornish fishing villages hiding crab-like in the fissures of tiny coves. Despite man’s best efforts to make them so, seaside resorts need not be ugly; take a look at Sveti Stefan on the Croatian coast. Even industrial ports can have a perverse kind of charm. Viewed from the surrounding hills, would Swansea Bay be more or less impressive without the city and Port Talbot steelworks? It might be more beautiful, but at the same time offer less of interest to engage the eye.Nor does every natural coastal prospect please. Bayous, marshes and mangrove swamps hold little appeal, for me at least, even in the unlikely event that they prove to be uninfested with mosquitoes, snakes or crocodiles. And at the opposite extreme, rocky shores where arid desert confronts an equally inhospitable ocean – perhaps in northern Chile or Namibia – such seascapes I would expect to find in hell, if hell has a coastline.
Well, after all that I really haven’t come up with a best sea view, have I? It’s a bit like asking for one’s favourite book or favourite film; it is simply unfair to exclude so many worthy contenders by opting for a single favourite. But I do feel I ought to make some kind of recommendation, so here is one – or rather, a sequence of several – and after all that globe-trotting, it can be found comfortably, if a bit parochially, close to home. It is the short but extraordinarily varied coastline of the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, from the flat dune-backed beach of Studland round to the limestone arch of Durdle Door. In my original version of this review I attempted to describe it, and failed, because I was conscious that the review was already long and the description was rushed.
Shore to please
So I shall now make it the subject of a separate review, once I have sorted out some photographs and contrived some words to go with them. And it will give me another chance to grapple with the mystery of why sea views – or rather, shore views – are so hypnotic. Is it just the mesmeric motion of the waves as they finally find their way to land, simultaneously stimulating and soporific? Is it that we are reminded that all terrestrial life originated in the ocean, including our own? Is there a kind of comfort to be found in the knowledge that the sea has been pounding shores since long before men set foot on land, and will doubtless still be doing so long after we are forgotten? Somehow, the timeless taste of salt spray in the air and the chorus of wind and seagulls put in perspective the transience and triviality of our everyday concerns, something that is always worth pondering.
* For more about the delightful East Winds Inn, see:
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