The sea has always been a crucible of the imagination. For millennia, we’ve looked to seas for trade and conquest, exploration and excitement. Our childhood fantasies and cultural histories are filled with pirates and Vikings, shipwrecks, sea monsters and Sindbads. The sea is deep and dangerous, but wildly exciting and vibrant with possibilities.
For travellers, seashores are a fabulous compendium of civilisations in mixed marriages of architecture, languages and cuisines. And who doesn’t appreciate the siren lure of seascapes? Your first squint at an approaching island, your first arrival in an exotic port, sunset over a lagoon, drooping coconut trees, rearing fiords: all send the travel adrenaline surging. The throb of a ship’s engine beneath your feet – or better, the slap of a sail – is an irresistible invitation to adventure.
There are many seas to explore – over a dozen smaller seas in the Mediterranean alone – each with their own particular allure. We asked our most experienced travel writers for their favourites. BJ
THE CANTABRIAN SEA
It’s not what’s on the Cantabrian Sea that’s beautiful. This is no place for cruise ships or motor yachts, no dream destination for oligarchs or the uber-rich. Hollywood starlets don’t flock to the Cantabrian.
Party islands do not exist here. What’s beautiful about the Cantabrian Sea, this brooding body of water that laps the shores across the north of Spain, is what’s in it. Seafood.
Some of the world’s finest seafood – anchovies that are hand-filleted and tinned in the town of Ondarroa; turbot that’s grilled over hot coals in Getaria; ruby-red carabinero prawns on the menu at world-renowned Etxebarri; and the mussels and clams, the tuna and cod, the oysters, the squid, the crabs and more that all find their way into the pintxos bars of San Sebastian – is harvested from these very waters.
This is a gastronomic treasure that has helped shape the culture of the settlements that surround it, and it’s that that makes the Cantabrian Sea beautiful; it’s that that makes it so attractive.
This sea, after all, is no oil painting. It’s not crystal clear like the Aegean; not bathtub-warm like the Caribbean. Instead it has a streak of tempestuousness – much like those who reside on its shores – an uneasy tranquillity that’s overwhelmed sometimes by passion, when its heaving bulk threatens to crush the stone ramparts of towns like San Sebastian, storming into them from the Atlantic, sending up towers of salty spray than soak the city streets.
Mostly though, the Cantabrian is just there, sometimes brooding under grey skies, other times sparkling beneath a bright sun. And always, it holds that delicious bounty.
Call into any restaurant along Spain’s north coast or in the south-west of France, and you’ll experience these culinary treasures. In the Spanish province of Galicia, with its coastline riven with “rias” (small, steep-sided bays), the specialty is pulpo a feira, or octopus with paprika and olive oil. In neighbouring Asturias, it’s caldereta, a rich stew of fish, lobster and crab. In Cantabria, local anchovies are highly prized.
No one, however, utilises the treasures of the Cantabrian Sea quite like the Basques. Here they cook txipirones, or baby squid, in their own ink; they serve txangurro, or spider crab, on slices of fresh bread as hors d’oeuvres; they barbecue fish with just the kiss of flames; they eat fresh percebes, or goose-neck barnacles; they tin mussels and clams; they grill tiny baby eels; they poach the cheeks of hake in a dish called kokotxas. In other words, they take wonderful produce, and they do wonderful things.
And it’s not as if these dishes are difficult to find. You simply wander into any bar in San Sebastian, or Hondarribia, or Biarritz, or Ondarroa, or Saint-Jean-de-Luz, or really anywhere that overlooks the sea in the Basque Country and prepare to feast on a catch that was hauled from those waters probably just hours before. BG
800 kilometres by 150 kilometres
Spain and France.
Though the Basque cities of San Sebastian and Biarritz are the most famous, thanks to their world-class beaches and amazingly good food, Spanish coastal hubs such as Gijon, Santander, and A Coruna are also worth calling into.
SEE THE SEA
This is a body of water best viewed and enjoyed from dry land. Rent a car and drive the 800-kilometre coastline of northern Spain, dropping into any seaside town that takes your fancy. See spain.info
Should I ever – perish the thought – be cast adrift on open waters, please let it be on the Baltic Sea. For one thing, the waters of the Baltic are almost entirely enclosed by protective peninsulas and bays, and therefore remarkably gentle; just what a castaway needs. For another, the Baltic – which laps at some of Europe’s most northern shores – is decidedly compact, which gives you good odds of hitting land sooner rather than later.
However, the real upside of being potentially cast adrift on the Baltic Sea is that there are so many wonderful places that you might wash ashore.
Chances are, your first landfall would be on an island, given that the Baltic has so many of them. Numbering in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, they are scattered like freckles across the sea. Some are large, most are small. Some are inhabited, many are not. Most of them, however, are ridiculously picturesque.
Whether you wind up in the Stockholm archipelago or the West Estonian islands, get set for sandy beaches, pristine forests, and lush meadows strewn with flowers. If you’re lucky, you won’t even have to sleep on the shore.
You might be invited to share someone’s log cabin overlooking the water or – if you wind up in a holiday haven such as Germany’s Rugen island – score a room at a luxury seaside resort.
You might even find yourself in an autonomous archipelago, such as Finland’s sleepy Aland islands. With 6500 islands and a population of just 28,000, the Aland islands nonetheless have their own flag, parliament and even car license plates – although the locals rely more on bicycles than on cars.
Of course, you might wash ashore on the mainland. Here again there is plenty of choice. Nine countries border the Baltic, including Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark. Some of the Baltic’s cities are world-famous: think elegant St Petersburg, all canals and imperial palaces, and cool Copenhagen, with its tree-lined streets, cosy cafes and world-class restaurants.
There are, however, plenty of lesser-known gems to discover, from the Swedish city of Visby, once a Viking stronghold, to Lubeck, one of Germany’s medieval masterpieces and the capital of the Hanseatic League. The most powerful trading organisation of the Middle Ages, the League had outposts as far afield as Lisbon, London, Norway and Russia, and once took on Denmark in a war.
Tick off some big cities, sure, but also take a day or two to relax under the midnight sun. Paddling through an isolated archipelago, stopping to pick blueberries on an uninhabited island before enjoying a lunch of freshly grilled fish at a local inn: that’s one of the true treasures of the Baltic. UJ
1600 kilometres by 193 kilometres
Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden.
Gdansk, Poland’s most glamorous city, has plenty of eye-catching architecture, but the dazzlingly ornate buildings lining Dluga Street take some beating. St Petersburg, with canals, palaces and one of the world’s mightiest museums, remains Russia’s most beautiful city. The Latvian capital of Riga, from its medieval heart to its unparalleled collection of art nouveau buildings, remains one of Europe’s hidden gems.
SEE THE SEA
For active explorers, kayaking through an island archipelago is an unforgettable experience. For those who love a little luxury, try a cruise such as Ponant’s eight-day Historic Cities of the Baltic, which takes in Copenhagen, Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm. See en.ponant.com
Thousands of years of history that continue to influence the entire world are crammed into and around the Aegean. Alexander the Great rampaged through here, Socrates and Aristotle pondered, St Paul gave sermons, Cleopatra smooched on the shoreline. Greeks, Romans, Hittites, Lydians, Byzantines, Persians and Ottomans are among the who’s who of empires that bequeathed a bedazzlement of archaeology and architecture.
As a pensive university student, Greece was my first solo travel destination. It seemed the place to start investigating my European heritage and the foundations of western thought and literature.
It was utterly thrilling to stand on the Acropolis, in the theatre steps at Epidaurus, inside the brooding, beehive royal tombs at Mycenae. I plundered my way through museums loaded with gold masks, statues and amphorae. I fell in love with the landscapes too.
Weather-beaten islands hid valleys of magical silvery olive groves where bubbling streams nourished carpets of wildflowers. Blue-domed chapels stood above whitewashed villages that slid towards the sea.
I loved these tiny chapels, where candles flickered and sloe-eyed saints peered from walls in gold and green. I loved the scent of lemon and thyme on hillsides surely haunted by fauns; the craggy backdrops of purple mountains; storks in messy rooftop nests.
A year later I returned to the Aegean’s Turkish coastline, another junkyard of ancient ruins. Rock tombs grimaced from the cliffs at Fethiye, temples crumbled at Didyma, at Aphrodisias triumphal arches and mosaic work were home to flapping black crows.
Only in the Aegean could such fabulousness be so casually displayed. Everywhere along the coast provided a ramble among fluted minarets, Roman gateways and tumbledown Ottoman houses.
I became seduced too by Islamic hospitality, the wailing call to prayer, sticky pastries, thick coffee. I was beyond Europe and it was a revelation of otherness. I count my first visit to Turkey as a seminal moment, sealing my desire to travel.
There seemed a special sign in fishing port Kas – admittedly slightly beyond the Aegean proper – where I saw a yacht called The Magus, title of my favourite novel of the moment. Its English owner had sailed the Mediterranean for years, and as the harbour glimmered smoky in the moonlight I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do. If these first two solo journeys had gone awry, how different my life might have been. But the Aegean fed my imagination and propelled me into a travelling life, and I could go back a hundred times and still be entranced, and still unpeel more layers of history and charm.
It isn’t all marvellous, of course. Northern European package tourists stampede to the sun, creating awful resorts such as Kusadası and Marmaris, full of fish-and-chip shops and pesky trinket sellers.
Chinese honeymooners now invade Santorini, though it remains one of the world’s most spectacular islands. Veer away from holiday centres, though, and you can still find farmers hoeing tomatoes in valleys overlooked by snow-capped mountains, and beaches where turtles breed, and the stone skeletons of vanished civilisations abandoned in the hot sun. BJ
Delos at the Aegean’s centre is 37° 23′ 36″ N, 25° 16′ 16″ E.
610 kilometres long and 380 kilometres wide.
NEED TO KNOW
The ancient Greek’s Arkhipelagos or Chief Sea became the Italian Archipelago. It was only in the 16th century that this came to refer to the Aegean Islands rather than Aegean Sea, and from there transformed into our English word for any scattered island group.
Only two countries border the Aegean, Turkey to the east and Greece to the north, west and south.
Athens (or Piraeus port on cruise itineraries), the epicentre of European thought, is littered with elegant ruins. Lovely former Greek capital Nafplion features neoclassical buildings topped by a whopping Venetian castle. Bodrum, Turkey’s coolest resort, mixes fishermen with fashionistas on a cobalt-blue harbour lined with palm trees and afloat with yachts.
SEE THE SEA
Greece has poor public transport apart from intercity coaches, so consider driving the coast. Ferries and hydrofoils ply between islands, many also connected by plane. In Turkey, frequent friendly minibuses and coaches run between even the smallest towns. Star Clippers has seven-day, mid-2019 Cycladic Island itineraries on sailing cruise ship Star Flyer priced from $2900pp twin share. See starclippers.com
THE CORAL SEA
My family went to the Coral Sea when I was 12, and we haven’t been the same since. With what she scrimped from a job she used to raise four boys, my mother had just enough to charter a sailboat out of Airlie Beach. My youngest brother was barely nine and when the seas got rough, we tied a rope around him, in case he slipped through the rails.
I remember long, blue-sea days shifting from island to island. Water Of Love by Dire Straits wore a hole right through my brain: we played it every night at anchor.
When we grew up and left home, so did mum. She sold the family house and bought a 12-metre Californian sloop and sailed right on back to the Whitsundays. My brother ditched his place not long after… and raised two kids on the Coral Sea. He runs a day sailing business out of Airlie Beach.
When I visit mum these days I know she hopes I don’t have a return flight to plan around. The Coral Sea’s got a mind of its own, you see, and the winds rarely blow to Virgin or Jetstar’s reckoning. She never sets an itinerary – we go the way the wind takes us, and anchor each evening in a bay sheltered from it … with the least amount of neighbours.
It gets under a person’s skin, this sea. One year, I ran away from the city to live on an island in the middle of it. I meant to stay a month … and lasted nearly a year. It’s different all over too: it can be as baby-blue as a Tahitian lagoon, but I’m as partial to how it looks when a southerly’s howling and it’s all royal-blue and white chop. There are islands in the middle of it as rugged as the outback – all granite rock and red-orange dust; in other parts there’s thick, green rainforest growing right up to it.
Whales migrate up and down it every season: rare types too … like Dwarf Minkes, which congregate off Cooktown every June (the only place on the planet you can swim with them). And you’ll see the world’s largest living structure beneath the surface (the Great Barrier Reef). The Coral Sea can deliver a mighty cyclone when it puts its mind to it, but in its gentlest moments – like when we’re gathered on deck in those quiet moments after the sun sets – there’s nowhere you’d feel safer on Earth. CT
142 to 169 degrees east, and 10 to 30 degrees south
2200 kilometres long, 2400 kilometres wide
The Coral Sea incorporates the Queensland coast, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the southern Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Cairns, Port Douglas and Airlie Beach provide the best vantage points to explore the Coral Sea in Far North Queensland, while Noumea in New Caledonia and Port Vila in Vanuatu are ideal departure points.
SEE THE SEA
Hire a car and traverse the Far North Queensland coast, stopping at the Coral Sea’s most iconic (and picturesque) step-off points, like Airlie Beach, Mission Beach, Cairns, Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Charter a yacht, or opt for a sailing cruise at one of the world’s top boating destinations, the Whitsundays. See airliebeachdaysailing.com.au, sunsail.com, whitsundayescape.com
THE ARABIAN SEA
My love for the Arabian Sea began to blossom before I ever even laid eyes on it. Having never set foot in India before, my husband took a job in Mumbai and travelled ahead, both to find us an apartment and to decide whether we could actually live there.
Five years later, I still remember those fuzzy cross-continental Skype calls and my husband’s giddy tone as he told me, “some of these flats overlook the Arabian Sea!”
The Arabian Sea. The name itself invoked such exoticism, such adventure, such wild possibility. Never mind that by the time I arrived in Mumbai, the apartment we had secured overlooked a parking lot rather than water. Or that the little scoop of sea we could spy from the far corner of our balcony, if we stood on our tippy-toes, was so polluted we were told we may contract a fatal illness if we ever swam in it.
My blind affection for this body of water – bounded by the Indian peninsula to the east, the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa to the west – was set the moment its name oozed into my ears.
Quickly, the sea became the axis around which our Mumbai days turned. Sunrises were spent tracing its curve along the waterfront to the iconic Gateway of India, where we’d watch battered ferries and fishing boats bob in water transformed from gloomy to gilded by the rising sun.
At the other end of the day, we’d wander down buzzing Marine Drive to Chowpatty beach which, come sunset, transformed into a seaside carnival. Surrounded by fairy floss and balloon sellers, we’d sit on the sand envisioning Oman beyond the horizon and watching locals wade into the shallows – fully clothed, bright-eyed and full of salty delight.
After months of being teased by a stretch of the Arabian Sea we could never immerse ourselves in, we ventured further afield to places where we could. Long weekends in Goa spent surfing, swimming and soaking up the susegad (laid back) vibes of beaches in Arambol, Madrem and Morjim. A trip to the small beach town of Varkala in Kerala, where I paddled out among the sea’s golden waves uncurling beneath a new dawn. Each time I plunged into those waters, they became a deeper part of me. NK
14 degrees North, 65 degrees East.
3.86 million square kilometres with a width 2400 kilometres.
The Arabian Sea coastlines of India, Oman, Pakistan and the Maldives are particularly enticing. And although those in Yemen and Somalia are also beautiful, current political situations mean they’re out of bounds.
Serene Kochi (or Cochin), one of India’s loveliest ports on the Malabar Coast of Kerala, is an enticing mix of cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, Dutch palaces and heritage hotels. Oman’s ancient port of Mutrah in Muscat is a must-see, fringed with squat latticed white buildings and mosques backed by mountains, as is Male, the colourful, crowded heart of the Maldives.
SEE THE SEA
Various cruise lines weave the Arabian Sea into their itineraries. Celebrity Cruises runs a 14-night Arabian Sea and India holiday including Cochin, Mumbai, Goa and Muscat, from $2449 per person. See celebritycruises.com
THE SOLOMON SEA
Bracketed by New Britain to the north, the mainland of Papua New Guinea to the west and the Solomon Islands to the east, the Solomon Sea comes from the far reaches of fantasy, overlooked by the 21st century.
Flying fish are erupting from the sea. Exploding from the cleaving blade of our vessel and stitching the water in great leaps, three, four, five rippling puddles before the Solomon Sea swallows them up again. It’s just after dawn and the velvet sea holds a mirror to bulbous monsoon clouds that gobble the rising sun and spit out random shafts of light.
On board my vessel all is calm and serene. We travel in air-conditioned splendour, sleep in plush suites, quaff Champagne and petit fours. When we return from shore excursions there are iced towels for our sweaty faces, offered from a silver tray by a man in crisp nautical whites, yet all around us is a place of raw and savage splendour.
Papua New Guinea has the richest ethnography of anywhere of comparable size. More language groups than Africa. A topography so severe that no road crosses its mountainous spine between north and south, and the coastlines and islands of the Solomon Sea provide an easy window on this cultural bouillabaisse.
At Tufi, we board our vessel’s Zodiacs and travel deep inside a steep-sided fiord mantled with vivid greenery. In the armpit of the fiord we transfer to outrigger canoes where women with tattooed faces and men with flowers in their hair paddle us along a canal bordered with nipa and pandanus palms to a clearing where they dance and sing to the music of hand drums.
On Kitava in the Trobriand Islands, a grass-skirted, thatch-roof, hibiscus-hung slice of tropical heaven, adolescents with glossy bodies polished with charcoal and coconut oil perform a hip swinging, pelvis thrusting romp.
An impromptu market unfurls its goods on the grass – ebony bowls inlaid with mother-of-pearl and canoe prows decorated with cowrie shells, prized by museums looking to beef up their ethnographic collection. Afterwards we walk to a village along a path lined with coconut palms and big frangipani trees with white, scarlet and golden yellow blossoms.
I’m doing early morning yoga with the on-board masseuse, happy baby pose, feet in the air as we glide between islands haloed with cloud around their forested peaks towards Samarai.
Once a trading post, now a mouldering community of former white-man houses with flapping corrugated iron and flaking asbestos, Samurai is a study in falling-apartness. A post-colonial horror, but the school throbs with hundreds of kids and what was once the native hospital is alive with the cries of the newly birthed.
It’s another world. Or is it? At Alotau, in the jaws of Mine Bay, we are entertained by dancers from nearby Fergusson Island. The men wear necklaces that end in a curving pair of pigs tusks. Their left eye sits in the middle of a black triangle spotted with white dots. They are a fearsome spectacle, and as they wait while we seat ourselves, one of their party videos us on his iPhone. MG
8o20’S, 152o45’E (approximate centre)
720,000 square kilometres, about 1100 kilometres east to west and 650 kilometres north to south
Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands
With the exception of Honiara, ports where vessels can tie up at a wharf are virtually non-existent. Favoured cruise stops include Milne Bay, the Trobriand Islands, Samarai and Tufi, where vessels will stand at anchor and ferry passengers ashore.
SEE THE SEA
Cruises ships are increasingly visiting the Solomon Sea but there are good reasons to prefer a smaller vessel such as one of the Ponant ships rather than the mega-vessels with 1000-plus passengers. See en.ponant.com/
THE NORWEGIAN SEA
If the hull of every vessel that ever sailed etched a permanent line to mark each passage then the expanse of salty water stretching west of Norway would be an eagle’s nest of criss-crossed thatching and hatching.
Its tides flow into and out of the fiords of this Nordic nation’s long and complex coast which, for eons, has seen comings and goings, trading and raiding, year-round fishing and the launch of many a mission of international plundering and exploration.
Hundreds of nautical miles from that shore I fell in love with the part of earth’s liquid blanket we name to contain what cannot be restrained called the Norwegian Sea.
Two European summers ago, after decades of natural attraction to Scandinavia and recent discovery of an ancestral connection, I flew into Arctic Norway to sail south from Tromso to Bergen. My excitement to be there was dampened only by a longstanding indifference to ship travel – I get queasy, chilled, feel caged – but it was all smooth sailing and lashings of local seafood under the midnight sun in a spacious vessel as the Norwegian landscape slipped by and under my skin.
The Norwegian Sea – part of the North Atlantic – also washes up on the Faroe and Shetland Islands, the east coast of Iceland and the southern end of Spitsbergen. Just under four kilometres at its deepest, fish such as herring and whitefish and the almighty cod thrive in the confluence of its cold currents and the warm Gulf Stream. On the surface it has some powerful whirlpools called maelstrom.
All seas are tragic and this one is no exception. Centuries ago people believed Kraken the ship-sinking monster lived off the coast of Norway. Nineteenth-century literature warned you would fall off the end of the earth out there for sure.
Along with the countless wrecks and drownings and disappearances of fishers and sailors, Fatal Monday saw 300 men in 100 or so separate boats perish on a single day in 1821.
A year later I was drawn back to the Norwegian Sea with a chance to set foot on Iceland and on Norway’s far flung volcanic outcrop of Jan Mayen. I’d be travelling once again by ship. On the wild and woolly crossing from Jan Mayen to the mainland I started to get nauseous but, rather than pop a pill, rugged up maritime-style and stood on the foredeck with a few others.
When it wasn’t ploughing through a grey-blue swell the bow of the expedition vessel was on the slow rise before crashing down to cut the sea. The swell increased and the wind blew stronger and the deck slowly emptied but I was feeling better and stayed. Staring out to the horizon I wondered if I was riding the sea grooves of any of my ancestors.
Eventually, forced back inside after all the decks were closed, I careened into my cabin giddy with the newfound knowledge I had the heart and guts for seafaring after all. I’d obviously just never found the right sea. EC
68.8774° N, 3.1397° E
1.1 million square kilometres
Norway, Iceland (and also Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Britain’s Shetland Islands)
Tromso is northern Norway’s largest urban centre where there’s rich polar history and 100 tapped craft beers at Mack. Svolvaer, further south in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago, is where you look out for aurora and leap between the rock horns of the Svolvaer Goat. The Norwegian Sea also touches many remote places accessible only with a tender boat transfer from ship to shore.
SEE THE SEA
Hurtigruten ships have been servicing the Norwegian coast since 1893, taking tourists to Svalbard since 1896 and now venture further afield. Sail the Norwegian Sea on a 13-day Ultimate Fiord Expedition to Iceland & Greenland (from $6940pp) or take a 12-day Expedition Across the Arctic Sea (from $4630pp). See hurtigruten.com and book through bentours.com.au
The writers: Brian Johnston, Ben Groundwater, Ute Junker, Craig Tansley, Nina Karnikowski, Michael Gebicki, Elspeth Callender