Growing up in Maine, my brothers and I used to spend summer days as often as possible at Reid State Park, about halfway up the state. Reid has one of the country’s most beautiful beaches, a couple of miles of sand bordering a freezing-cold Atlantic. When I later worked on my doctorate at UC San Diego, we would often walk out to Wind ‘n Sea in La Jolla for the corresponding experience in the Pacific. Both of these conformed to what I think most Americans think of as a beach experience: You arrive with your equipment – cooler, blanket, towels, picnic basket, umbrella, frisbee – and you find yourself an appropriate spot on the sand and park yourself there for the rest of the day.
This is not how it works in Italy. Not, at least, always. For one thing, the vast majority of “beaches” in Italy are not sandy. Most are rocky or pebbly. Italians aren’t particularly into sandy beaches, and in fact many prefer to spend time by the sea at the “scogliera”, or on elevated rocky parts of the shore from which they can dive into the water.
In addition, most of the Italian shoreline is private property. Each seaside municipality must designate a small stretch of shoreline for public access. Here, you can indeed do exactly what you might do at a beach in the US: But those publicly accessible areas are crowded, very crowded. In Capri, for example, it’s so crowded at the 50-foot-long public beach by the lighthouse that one simply cannot stretch out; one is often forced to stand up for the sheer lack of physical space.
The alternative is to pay money to rent a space on the beach from a “stabilimento”, literally a bathing establishment. A cute beachboy wearing little sets you up with umbrella, mats, chairs, and towels (in fancier places, you can also rent a cabana). You can bring your own provisions in the way of food and drink, but the stabilimenti always have food for sale as well in the form of snack bars or even quite elaborate, upscale restaurants. Often, the place will have a swimming pool on offer, even though it’s literally 10 feet from the sea. Sometimes, you’ll find tennis courts as well.
These stabilimenti are wonderful fun, and people are very friendly. But it’s not empty there, either. In July and August, they’re packed. It’s jolly, and it’s very Italian. (All Italians certainly behave as if they’ve never heard of either skin or lung cancer.)
Our point is that if you want a classic beach vacation, with or without the kids, Italy is not the place to come. Go to the Caribbean, to Mexico, to Australia, to the Canary Islands. Go to Florida for God’s sake; it’s far cheaper. Italy is not for the beach.
Are we saying don’t go to the seaside in Italy? Absolutely not. The ambience of places like the Cinque Terre, Positano, Capri, Forte dei Marmi is delightful for the breeze, the boutiques, the sophisticated atmosphere, and the unforgettable scenery. Often, such places are full of cultural activities on offer like Pompeii or Pisa. Plus, there are other outdoor activities to be pursued within the seaside context: boating above all – in many places you can rent one, with or without a skipper, from a dinghy to a sailboat to a yacht – but also waterskiing, snorkeling, cruising (and swimming from off the boat), golf, tennis, hiking, and climbing.
But a true classic beach vacation? No. And an empty beach? Perhaps in January.