Murlough nature reserve, Dundrum, County Down
A network of paths and boardwalks crisscrosses this 6,000-year-old dune system leading on to expansive sand flats and the shingle beach. The unusually high dunes are nearly four miles long and lie across the head of Dundrum Bay, with views of the Mourne mountains in the near distance. There is plenty of room here to hunker down among the marram grass, open a flask and, in summer, watch butterflies and moths (more than 620 species) and look for lizards. Common and grey seals are also frequent visitors.
Stay Portaferry Hotel (doubles from £80 B&B, family room from £120) at the head of Strangford Lough is a half-hour drive and a short ferry journey away.
Runswick Bay, North Yorkshire
A jumble of whitewashed cottages overlook a curl of golden sand and the open sea in this former herring-fishing village. A sheltered bay between Whitby and Staithes, it is a popular destination for rock poolers, walkers (it’s on the Cleveland Way) and fossil hunters. Many of the homes are now holiday accommodation and perch one on top of the other, linked by paths and walkways rather than streets. The Royal Hotel, at the heart of the village, offers homemade cakes and coffee alongside a simple but tasty bar menu and local Black Sheep bitter on draft.
Stay Castle House (sleeps six, three nights from £500) at the top of the village has sweeping views of the bay from a comfortable window seat.
South Shore, Brownsea Island, Dorset
Reached by ferry from the moneyed shores of Sandbanks, Brownsea Island is a pocket of safe wilderness in Poole harbour. Famous for its red squirrel population and as the site of Baden-Powell’s first Scout camp, its mixture of woodland, heath, ponds and lagoons suits a day of exploration and adventure. From the cafe and visitor centre at the quayside, head to the less-visited pebbly south shore. Tuck yourself into the sandy banks that line the beach and enjoy views across the harbour to the Purbeck Hills in the company of oystercatchers and dunnocks.
Stay National Trust-owned Custom House on the quay (sleeps four, three nights from £622) offers an immersive Brownsea experience.
Seacliff, East Lothian
Accessed via a private road (with coin-controlled barrier), this beach near North Berwick, takes a little finding. The effort is worth it: the great sweep of sandy beach punctuated by rocky outcrops is framed by the romantic outline of Tantallon Castle on one side, and looks out towards the volcanic gannet haven that is Bass Rock. Dogs are allowed all year round and can run free. A tiny harbour hewn from the rock by a local laird is said to be the smallest in Scotland.
Stay There are sea views from the House at the Beach in North Berwick (sleeps 8 from £820 a week, short breaks from £120 a night for two).
Sunny days see daytrippers surging into the car parks at Formby beach. Most come to see the red squirrels in the pine woodland or to bask on the beach nearby. Walk a little further along, however, and you are rewarded with open space and flat sand: perfect to run with a kite, let a dog off the lead and gulp lungfuls of clean air. The miles of dunes and woodland bordering the beach hop with natterjack toads and other wildlife.
Stay Camp in a bell tent (sleeps two adults and up to three children, from £95 per night) with its own firepit and deck in the woods at the edge of working farm a half-hour drive from Formby beach.