Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Finding the grandest sand

Hawaii again tops oceanographer’s annual ranking of best U.S. beaches

July 15, 2001


Nine years after it was smashed, swamped and pockmarked with debris, Poipu Beach has rebounded to be named the best beach in America.

The popular sun-and-fun spot on the south end of Kauai in the Hawaiian islands won the top rating in the annual survey by "Dr. Beach," a pseudonym for a Florida oceanographer.

"Poipu Beach Park on Kauai was ravaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, but has now recovered to its former splendor," said Stephen Leatherman, who when not ranking beaches is a Florida International University professor.

Leatherman has compiled his list since 1991, looking at 50 criteria to judge 650 beaches in the United States.

"It's very difficult to make the Top 20," Leatherman said.

Of Poipu, Leatherman waxes scientific-poetic in his description.

"This coral beach is known for its light golden sand, which blends nicely with the crystal-blue water," he said. "It is perfect for a range of activities because of its unique 'tombolo' shape, wherein flat water gradually grades into a pulsating surf. One of my favorite activities is snorkeling with the beautiful tropical fish in the protected waters."

Out of the 650 beaches, Hawaii and Florida regularly sweep the awards. This year is no different.

Hawaii had six beaches on the list, including Kaanapali on Maui (No. 3), Hanalei Beach on Kauai (4), Hamoa Beach on Maui (7), Makena State Park on Maui (12) and Hanauma Bay on Oahu (15). Florida also had six beaches in the top 20, though the overall rankings were lower than Hawaii's.

No California dreamin'

While Hawaii's beaches are famous worldwide, Leatherman's list has generated controversy over the years for its tendency toward stacking the rankings with beaches from his home state, while California's famous spots are nearly always left off.

The Beach Boys may not sing about Cape Florida State Recreational Area or Fort De Soto Park, but Leatherman's number-crunching puts them above the famous sing-along stops of Malibu, Sunset, Huntington, Laguna and La Jolla in California.

This year, the only California beach to crack the Top 20 is Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara.

"How can that be?" Nancy Steiner, a 30-year resident of Malibu, said with a laugh. "I mean, I have a biased opinion, but no Malibu? We need to get him out here so he can see for himself."

Leatherman says he's not cooking the numbers to intentionally tout Florida or tilt against California.

"I have a cousin in Huntington Beach," he said. "I love to visit California's beaches."

But when it comes to getting beyond reputation and into the realm of water clarity, air temperature and such, the Golden State can't even manage a bronze medal or two.

Leatherman looks at physical factors such as sand softness, wave size, and strength and slope of drop-off.

Next come biological factors: What color is the water? How clean is it? What's the air temperature? Are there tons of bugs biting your behind?

Finally there's the human factor: Are there lifeguards around? Is the view obstructed? Are there good, clean bathrooms nearby?

When all the objective criteria are applied, the Golden State doesn't rate.

"The California water is a bit nippy," Leatherman said. "Also, there is the continuing problem of stormwater runoff and the beach closures. Some Southern California beaches are being loved to death the most popular beaches are not the best beaches."

Every beach on the 2001 list does benefit from Leatherman's one admitted statistical sleight of hand.

If a beach wins the top slot, it's retired from the competition. So there are 10 beaches including seven in Hawaii that can't compete.

Without the retirements, the list could get pretty boring, with a place like Kapalua, Leatherman's top choice in the original list, going on to win year after year. Though ringed by development compared with 10 years ago, Kapalua, Leatherman admits, is still a winner.

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