A DRIVE TO THE BEACH can be a wonderful thing. A drive on the beach can be a highlight of a traveller’s life. Of course, we’re not talking about drunken spring-breakers in open-top Jeeps on some Florida hotel strip. Instead, we mean wilderness areas that require careful — and often challenging — driving to reach shoreline sights that would be otherwise inaccessible.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons not to drive on a beach. Soft sand sinks cars, and incoming tides can finish the job quickly. It can be hard on the local ecology, so in the few places it is permitted, strict rules must be followed. And since you’re going to have to let some air out for traction, you’ll need to reconsider those 22-inch rims and low-profile tyres.
Corolla, North Carolina, US. This beach is famously home to the Corolla wild horses, descended from the mustangs of Spanish explorers, and a properly equipped 4x4 can spend a good day following them up the north end of the famed Outer Banks. Corova, to the north, is even a bit more isolated, if less horse-dense. With permits, and for most of the non-bikini months, there are places to drive all up and down the Outer Banks. (Note: Corolla is not pronounced like the Toyota sedan, but as CARE-uh-luh.)
Fraser Coast, Queensland, Australia. They call it the Great Beach Drive, and that’s more than just a marketing ploy. It’s a ute adventure along 31 miles of beach, and it’s actually a shortcut between Noosa and Maryborough, which would be 100 miles on the macadam (or bitumen, as they call it down under). The beach route will take you a bit longer, though, as you’ll have to watch out for high tides and migrating whales, as well as all the natural beauty of two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
Muzhappilangad, Kerala, India. This isn’t a long beach drive — just three miles — but it’s on what some call India’s most beautiful beach, a crescent protected by giant black rocks that keep the surf gentle. This is good, because all manner of motor vehicles will be sharing your watery lane, from local families in SUVs, to hotshots practicing Tokyo drifts in their Subarus, to local yourth riding motorcycles where the waves lap the sand. (Note: This destination is not pronounced like the North Carolina beach town, but as Kah-RAH-la.)
Padre Island, Texas, USA. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in the United States, and because Texas considers all beaches public highways, it may be the longest stretch of highway without a Starbucks. For 60 of its 70 miles, Padre Island National Seashore allows vehicle traffic on the beach beside the usually docile Gulf of Mexico, and brave drivers can search for rare and endangered species as well as lost treasure from Spanish galleons. Be sure to wear your seatbelt; this is a public highway and all traffic laws apply.
Natal to Fortaleza, Brazil. At 450 miles over 92 beaches, the trip can take three days or three months, depending on just how much you like camping among quaint fishing towns, towering sand dunes, and perfectly picturesque bays. You can rent a dune buggy for short trips, or haul in your own 4x4. If you’re really enjoying the trip, you can continue north to dune-shrouded Jericoacoara, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Sólheimasandur beach, Iceland. This is a black sand beach under the gray Icelandic sky. Out of that sky in 1973 fell a US Navy DC-3, and its slowly decaying wreckage still lies there, waiting for tourists to torture rental cars so that they may capture haunting (and album-cover-ready) pictures. (Update: Inconsiderate drivers have forced local landowners to bar access to the wreckage, as of last March. Nice job, tourists.)
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. And while you're at it, join the BBC Autos community on Instagram.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.