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Dr. Beach's top 10 beaches
May 22, 2003 — Life's a beach, at least for Stephen Leatherman. A professor of environmental studies at Florida International University in Miami and director of FIU's Laboratory for Coastal Research, Leatherman studies beaches for a living. The best beach in the U.S. this year, according to "Dr. Beach"? Hawaii's Kaanapali. Leatherman's annual top 10 list includes three other Hawaiian beaches: Hanalei Bay, Makalawena Beach and Hanauma Bay. Other beaches making the list: Fort DeSoto Park, Fla.; Ocracoke Island, N.C.; Caladesi Island State Park, Fla.; Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.; Cape Florida State Recreational Area, Fla., and Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Leatherman considers 50 criteria, including sand quality, water temperature, litter, wildlife and water color. He also bases his rankings on interviews with naturalists, park rangers and scientists. Here Dr. Beach shares brief descriptions of each beach, and the reason each beach made the list.

1. Kaanapali, Hawaii

"Kaanapali is the best known beach in Maui, with a string of hotels along its four-mile long strand of white coral sand. It's a beach lover's delight with year-round sunshine and emerald green water. Coconut palms fringe the beach that curves around the shore; it is divided into two sections by a point of lava rocks that creates variations in wave conditions along the long beach."

2. Fort DeSoto Park, Fla.

"This beach, which frequently appears in my Top 10, is set in a natural wilderness, but still close to all the amenities of nearby St. Petersburg Beach. This Pinellas County park is spread over five islands and encompasses about 900 acres. The park is known for its birding, but it is also a great area for camping, biking, and fishing. It is fun to explore the park relics, including gun emplacements and ammunition rooms, of old Fort Desoto on Mullet Key."

3. Ocracoke Island, N.C.

"Ocracoke is a special place; it is my favorite getaway beach. Here you will find some of the finest, wild beaches in the country, and the water quality is at the top of the charts. Don't come here expecting to play golf or planning to stay at a resort destination hotel; there is no Ritz on the beach, or fast food joints for that matter. The main pursuits are swimming (best at Airport Beach area), shelling (especially on the north end), and general beachcombing along the 16-mile long shore. It's also fun to ride bicycles through the historic village of Ocracoke, located on the south end of the island. And don't forget Black Beard once roamed here."

  Previous national winners

4. Hanalei Bay, Hawaii

"Hanalei is featured on travel posters and praised in old Hawaiian songs. This bay is so large that it's long, continuous strand of sand is divided by names into several beaches. Swimming is excellent in the crystal clear waters all year, but it is especially good in the summer when the seas are calm. The white coral sand has a reddish hue, and the beach ever so gently drops off into deeper waters. Many people like to jump into the water from the long Hanalei Pier, which also serves as the entry point for scuba divers exploring the spectacular reefs offshore. This beach is famous for its sea turtles."

5. Caladesi Island State Park, Fla.

"At Caladesi, you're in an urban area, but you can look out at the beach and not see a single building. This is a great day tripper beach with a good mixture of sand, water and wildlife. The waters at Caladesi Island State Park are nearly placid, because they're protected by Honeymoon Island to the north. Wooden boardwalks take you across the sand dunes and past the palm trees so that you can explore some of the inland trails or get a bite to eat at the snack bar on this offshore island which is only reachable by boat."

6. Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.

"East Hampton's Main Beach is the overall best beach in the Northeast as this area epitomizes the perfect blend of nature and the built environment. This is partly due to the vast wealth of the summertime residents; more importantly, the beaches are protected by a conservation easement dating back over 300 years which prevents unwise development."

7. Makalawena Beach, Hawaii

"This beach is a treasure and a surprise to find. There is an oasis of white sand, palm trees and gorgeous water all surrounded by black lava flows. It makes you want to say 'Wow!'."

8. Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

"Hanauma Bay Beach Park provides the best snorkeling in Hawaii in the safe, calm waters protected by an offshore reef. This is the top place in the country to go swimming with fish. The small, palm-studded beach is situated in the crater of a ocean-breached volcano, making for an idyllic place to spend the day sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving. The white coral sand is accentuated by the azure blue water and underwater coral in the nearshore area."

9. Cape Florida State Recreational Area, Fla.

"Cape Florida SRA regularly makes this list. With its clear, emerald-colored waters and gentle surf on a fine, white coral sand beach, it is the best swimming beach in the Southeast. A large sand shoal offshore knocks down the waves, and rip currents are nonexistent except perhaps during stormy weather when only a fool or dedicated surfer would be in the water anyway. The water drops off so gradually that the beach is safe for small children."

10. Cape Hatteras, N.C.

"This shoreline is completely untouched except for eight villages (locally called hamlets) built at the wider areas along this narrow barrier island. The National Park Service controls the beaches and dunes, so there is a 72-mile corridor of unbroken seashore to enjoy. This is a nature lover's coast; a place to have a beach to yourself and wander along the shore for miles without seeing a soul. Beachcombing is best after storms, when the ocean throws up part of its bounty upon the shore. March to May is a fine time to come, but late winter northeasters can sometimes kick up (actually quite an experience in its own right); September to October is my favorite time to visit because the water is still warm and swimmable, barring an approaching hurricane."

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