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California's most surreal beaches

Featuring purple sand, shadowy benefactors, Hollywood superstars, nudity, and mechanical sunbathers, here are the weird, the whimsical, and the woefully underappreciated beaches of California.

Rockaway Beach, Pacifica

Rockaway Beach viewed from the coastal bike path

Rockaway Beach viewed from the coastal bike path

Hearing a beach described as having “chocolate sand” might sound like the unlikely fulfilment of every Willy Wonka inspired daydream you’ve ever had but, even though it’s not edible, Rockaway Beach does not disappoint. The beach’s chocolate brown sand is due to limestone erosion mixing with volcanic greenstone, giving this patch of Pacifica coast a rather haunting, vaguely delicious, atmosphere. If you prefer your sweets in a more traditional format, try the Chocolate Mousse Cake at Oceano Hotel and Spa.

Pismo Beach, Oceano

Pismo Beach pier on a sunny day

Pismo Beach pier on a sunny day

Visitors can make the most of Pismo Beach’s soaring sand dunes and scenic coastline by zooming through them either in an ATV or on a horse. Drivers are allowed to park their RVs right on the sand and pitch camp but for a seaview with excellent parking that doesn’t involve the need to check when high tide is, check into the Shore Cliff Hotel.

Victoria Beach, Laguna Beach

The Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach

The Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach

The highlight of Victoria Beach is, without doubt, the Pirate Tower. A 60ft medieval-style spiral staircase built in 1926, the tower was designed to allow the man who lived above the beach to access the sea from his clifftop house. Another of the tower owners used to dress up as a pirate (giving the tower its nickname) and hide coins and sweets for the local children among the rocks. Oh, and Bette Midler also used to own the tower. If you fancy harnessing the surreal glamour of Victoria Beach, check out the picturesque Ranch at Laguna Beach.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach is one of the more secluded beaches in Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach is one of the more secluded beaches in Big Sur

At first glance Pfeiffer Beach looks like the site of an environmental disaster but it quickly becomes clear that, actually, this is one of prettiest beaches you’ll ever visit. The metallic, purple sheen of the sand at Pfeiffer was caused by the erosion of nearby hillsides, leading to manganese deposits on the beach. This beach, like most Big Sur attractions that aren’t Highway 1, is notoriously difficult to find, so stay nearby and make the most of local knowledge at Glen Oaks Big Sur.

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Sea-smoothed glass pebbles at Fort Bragg

Sea-smoothed glass pebbles at Fort Bragg

The Glass Beach at Fort Bragg was once one of California's most popular dumping grounds. Decades after this practise was banned the dumped glass has been washed smooth by the sea, creating a dazzling, Dragon’s nest-type stretch of beach. This isn’t the only glass beach in the world but it is the best-known and most picturesque. Make the most of the gorgeous scenery by checking into the Beach House Inn which comes complete with panoramic coastal views.

Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino

The bowling balls at Schooner Gulch Beach

The bowling balls at Schooner Gulch Beach

Part of the evocatively named Schooner Gulch Beach, the Bowling Balls of Mendocino are two parts fantasy, one part oddity. Apparently the spherical, bowling ball-style boulders (neatly lined-up along the shore) were created when the softer mudstone covering them began to erode, leaving compressed balls of much tougher rock below. But we’d much rather subscribe to the theory that this beach was once home to an amateaur giant’s bowling league. After you’ve checked out the evidence for yourself spend some time relaxing in the ocean view jacuzzi at Wharf Master’s Inn.

Black Sand Beach, San Francisco

The Black Sand Beach is also a popular spot for surfing

The Black Sand Beach is also a popular spot for surfing

Black sand and nude sunbathing might sound like an odd combination but give it a whirl at San Francisco’s south-facing Black Sand Beach. While not officially designated as a nudist beach, many locals consider Black Sand to be a clothing optional location and when you see the breath-taking sea views, the desire to get back to nature makes a lot of sense. The black sand of this beach creates a striking contrast to the Golden Gate Bridge although getting there does include a stiff hike up and down the cliffs. Catch your breath at Cavallo Point on the way back.