Author: JoAnna Haugen

Defining Paradise: Why is it All About the Beaches?

I recently visited Roatan, a Caribbean island located off of the mainland of Honduras. Though Hurricane Ida had just moved through the area and the waves lapping up on the shore were more than a bit choppy, I stood on the beach in the light of the sun. A strip of large palm trees lined the beach and a row of reclining chairs beckoned. Just beyond the tree line was a beach bar, complete with bartenders wearing khaki shorts and button-down, short-sleeved shirts decked out in tropical patterns. The most pressing matter at hand was whether I needed to apply another layer of sunscreen.

A month later I found myself bobbing in the warm Pacific waters off of the coast of Huatulco, Mexico. Beach shacks serving fresh seafood and stacks of colorful kayaks sat just past the large sandy beach. Young girls tossed their towels out and lay clad in tiny bikinis and oversized sunglasses, sucking up the sun’s rays. I wandered along the water line. The waves breaking at my feet felt like bathwater. I stopped to write “I Was Here” in the sand then watched the water erase it, one gentle wave at a time.

Was Roatan stunningly beautiful? Did Huatulco fit the ultimate beach destination definition? Absolutely. And to some people, these places would be considered paradise.


It’s a word derived from Latin, Greek and Iranian roots which made its way into the English language through the French word paradis. It’s a concept as old as the Bible and has a place in countless religions around the world. It’s a place associated with a positive, harmonious and timeless existence where peace, happiness and contentment reign. It is, in many ways, considered a utopia — a place of perfect existence where anything ugly, negative or obstinate is not welcome.

Mention the word paradise today, though, and a backdrop complete with palm trees, pristine beaches and a fruity alcoholic beverage topped off with a little paper umbrella probably comes to mind.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, paradise became a slick marketing term used to describe sunny locales, tropical getaways and anything over 75 degrees Fahrenheit with a beach. Hawaii, Fiji, St. Maarten … they are all, by the book, paradise. It’s an easy cognitive shortcut to describe a warm, sunlit, oceanfront place where we can wander around in sarongs decorated with tropical fish and drink piña coladas with little thought of anything else.

Even in recent months, the Marriott invited travel bloggers to visit nine different properties peppered across destinations such as Aruba, Grand Cayman, Cancun and St. Kitts. The point of the trip was to promote the company’s (appropriately named) Paradise by Marriott Caribbean and Mexico collection, and the bloggers followed through by posting photos of frothy drinks topped off with slices of pineapple and stories of snorkeling in the ocean.

But why is that paradise? If paradise is another way to verbalize a feeling of utopia, and the definition of utopia describes a place of peace, happiness and contentment, then my ideal paradise is more appropriately defined in Zion National Park or on a hiking trail far from anything. In fact, I would argue that everyone’s paradise is different and that each one has value as the epitome of utopia. Leave the beach where it is … my mom would rather be in a Midwestern garden. Try convincing my rock climbing girlfriend that she’d rather be sunbathing than scaling a rock in Utah. A few close friends living in Portland would be hard pressed to spend the day splashing around in the ocean when they could be snowshoeing in the mountains. And give my husband a people-free, hard-to-reach locale and he’s happy … though beachfront resorts need not apply. For many people, paradise is far from the belt that wraps itself around the equator. It’s found on mountaintops and desolate wilderness, in cold weather and possibly in rain, through the desert and in the heart of rainforests.

I can appreciate the desire to define a beach scene as something other than water and palm trees, but when we pigeonhole a term such a paradise into meaning simply a place with shore, sand and sunshine, we take away its power to be so much more to so many people. A seaside getaway is desirable, to be sure, but for some of us, the power of paradise makes us cringe when we’ve found our utopia miles from the ocean and tropical drinks.

photo by roybuloy