SARASOTA, Fla. » After years as a head-turning bridesmaid in the best-beach rankings, Sarasota’s Siesta Beach is finally the bride.
The wide slice of brilliant white sand and warm, emerald water on Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast was named the best beach in the United States in an annual survey by Florida International University professor Steven Leatherman, who is also known by the nickname “Dr. Beach.” The survey was released today.
BEST BEACHES OF 2011
1. Siesta Beach, Sarasota, Fla.
Duke Kahanamoku Beach, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, was No. 3, and Waimanalo Bay State Recreation Area was No. 9. They were the only Hawaii beaches in this year’s top 10.
However, that doesn’t mean Leatherman dislikes Hawaii beaches. Beaches that reach No. 1 are barred from future lists, and 12 Hawaii beaches have been rated No. 1 in the list’s 21 years, including Hapuna and Lanikai beaches, Hanauma Bay and Hanalei Bay.
Florida beaches have won eight times. Coopers Beach in Southampton, N.Y., won last year.
Leatherman insists that eliminating each year’s national winner from consideration in future surveys hasn’t diluted the quality of his annual rankings.
“The good thing about the United States is we have hundreds of beautiful beaches,” he said. “I can die before I run out of beaches.”
Siesta Beach, 40 acres of almost pure quartz crystal sand on the Siesta Key barrier island, was runner-up in Leatherman’s rankings the past two years and was third in 2008.
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“The sand is like sugar,” said Leatherman, director of FIU’s Laboratory for Coastal Research. “Some people can’t believe it. You have to bring sunglasses because it’s so bright. It’s supersoft, superfine. They claim to have the finest, whitest sand in the world, and I can’t argue with that.”
Leatherman ranks beaches on 50 criteria, including the look and feel of the sand, water quality, weather, facilities and crowds. A top score is 250. Siesta Beach landed in the 230s, losing minor points because the vista is heavy on condos to the north and south of the county park.
A No. 1 spot on the list typically brings a 15 percent to 20 percent boost in visitors for the beach destinations.
Siesta Beach got big points for shallow water and gentle currents.
Leatherman touted Gulf Coast destinations Siesta Beach and St. George Island State Park despite last year’s BP oil spill, which soiled parts of the western Florida Panhandle coastline. Siesta Beach and other strands on the state’s west coast remained untouched by crude, but BP crews are still scouring places that were affected for scattered tar balls, even though the vast majority of damage has by now been cleaned up. St. George Island, in the eastern part of the Panhandle southwest of Tallahassee, didn’t get any oil, but Leatherman knocked it off last year’s list because it was in the “line of fire” before the gusher was capped.
Separate from the top-10 list, which is in its 21st year, Leatherman has a project called the National Healthy Beaches Campaign. Campaign member beaches pay $800 a year to be evaluated monthly on 60 self-reported criteria and receive advice on maintaining environmental quality through “proactive management,” Leatherman said. He emphasized that beaches do not pay to be evaluated for the top-10 best beaches list, and that he visits top-10 candidates incognito to collect sand and water samples for study.