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The greatest seaside escapes are usually the ones that nobody else knows about: the ones down the mile-long sandy trail, the ones at the bottom of the rickety steps, the ones you inflate your dinghy and paddle out to. But even the most well-known places can feel intimate if you time it right. Plan a trip to one of these European seaside escapes in September or October (when the weather is still good and the crowds dwindle) and you will see what is so great about them.

Cinque Terre, Italy
Rooted in antiquity, Cinque Terre's five towns date from the early medieval period and barely anything about these five crazily constructed Ligurian villages has changed in over three centuries. Buildings aside, Cinque Terre's most unique historical feature is the steeply terraced cliffs bisected by a complicated system of fields and gardens that has been shaped over the course of nearly two millennia. The most accessible village by car, and the only Cinque Terre settlement to sport a tourist beach, is Monterosso, which is the furthest west and least quintessential of the quintet (it was briefly ditched from the group in the 1940s). Guarding the only secure landing point on the Cinque Terre coast, Vernazza is the quaintest of the five villages. Its tiny harbour is framed by the Chiesa di Santa Margherita, while the ruins of an 11th-century castle look out to sea.

Santorini, Greece
Even the most jaded traveller succumbs to the spectacle of Santorini's surreal landscape and dramatic sunsets. The startling sight of the submerged caldera, almost encircled by sheer lava-layered cliffs and topped by a dusting of towns, should not be missed. The village of Oia on the northern tip of the island offers excellent, unobstructed sunset viewing and the east side of the island has black-sand beaches at popular resorts such as Kamari and Perissa.

San Sebastian, Spain
The coast road from Bilbao to San Sebastián is a glorious journey past spectacular seascapes, with cove after cove stretching east and verdant fields suddenly ending where cliffs plunge into the sea. Casas rurales (village or farmstead accommodation) and camping grounds are plentiful and well signposted. The tiny hamlet of Elantxobe, with its colourful houses clasping to an almost sheer cliff face, is undeniably one of the most attractive spots along the entire coast. It is impossible to lay eyes on San Sebastián and not fall madly in love. For its setting, form and attitude, Playa de la Concha is the equal of any city beach in Europe.

Corsica, France
Crowned by saw tooth peaks, mantled in forest cloaks of green oak, chestnut and pine, and shot through with rushing rivers and tumbling cascades, Corsica is one of the most dramatic, diverse and downright gorgeous islands in the Mediterranean. Fine stretches of sand can be found at Spérone and around the Golfe de Sant'Amanza. Best of all is the horseshoe bay of Rondinara and tree-fringed Palombaggia, which you will see gracing postcards all over Corsica. You could not leave without exploring the waters around Bonifacio - thought by some scholars to have featured in Homer's Odyssey. The largest (and most visited) island of the group, Île Lavezzi is known for its natural pools, deserted beaches and swimming holes.

Kvarner Gulf, Croatia
Protected by soaring mountains, covered with luxuriant forests, lined with beaches and dotted with islands, the Kvarner Gulf is home to four of our top Croatian beaches. At the southern end of Krk Island, Baška has the island's most beautiful beach, a two km-long crescent set below a dramatic, barren range of mountains. Cres Island is home to beaches and crystal-clear coves at Lubenice, accessible by a steep path through the underbrush, and Beli. Finally, Paradise Beach on Rab Island is a sandy stunner with shallow waters and the shade of pine trees.

Amalfi Coast, Italy
Stretching about 50km along the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi is one of Europe's most breathtaking. Cliffs terraced with scented lemon groves sheer down into sparkling seas; sherbet-hued villas cling precariously to unforgiving slopes while sea and sky merge in one vast blue horizon. The pearl in the pack, Positano is the coast's most photogenic and expensive town. An early visitor, John Steinbeck wrote in 1953: "Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone." More than 50 years on, his words still ring true.

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