A crescent-shaped beach on Maui got the top slot Thursday on the list of best beaches issued annually by a Florida professor known as Dr. Beach.
Kapalua Bay Beach topped the list released by Stephen Leatherman, a professor of coastal science at Florida International University in Miami.
Leatherman’s list also includes Hapuna Beach State Park, coming in eighth.
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The other beaches on the top-10 list are Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, coming in second, followed by Grayton Beach State Park in the Florida panhandle; Coopers Beach, Southampton, N.Y.; Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.; Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks, N.C.; Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin-Clearwater, Fla.; then Hapuna on the Big Island, with Coronado Beach, San Diego, in ninth place and Kiawah Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, S.C., coming in 10th.
Leatherman said Kapalua is one of his “favorite beaches. It’s just an idyllic place to visit. What’s interesting is a lot of beaches are beautiful but can be dangerous because of big waves. This beach has two arms of (hardened) lava flows, ancient lava flows, which protect it, so it’s a really calm waterway. You don’t go there for surfing; you go there for swimming. The water is warm year-round.”
Kapalua is also lined with palm trees, has white coral sand and colorful tropical fish, and is perfect for snorkeling. Leatherman says it’s easy to reach from the main road by driving through a golf course, but parking is limited.
Leatherman has been compiling his annual list of top 10 beaches every year since 1991. He uses 50 criteria to evaluate beaches, with the most important categories being water cleanliness, safety (meaning no rip currents or drownings) and management of the beach environment and its facilities. He also looks for fine, soft sand and gives extra points for beaches that prohibit smoking. He doesn’t collect water from every beach in test tubes himself, but he does use data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grade the beaches on water quality.
Leatherman’s list has its origins in a class he taught at the University of Maryland. A student was writing an article for a travel magazine and asked him to come up with a list of the 10 best beaches based on his expertise as a coastal scientist. He began producing his official annual list in 1991 using his 50 criteria and his vast knowledge of U.S. ocean beaches. “I had visited every (ocean) beach in the U.S. for a Department of Interior study … so that gave me the background data set to work from,” he said.
His goal in producing the list each year, he says, “is to reward those beaches which maintain the high quality and the safety areas but also to encourage other beaches to do the same.” He looks for beaches that “balance nature with the built environment.”
But how come so many states with beloved beaches — in places like Maine, the DelMarva Peninsula, the Jersey shore, the Pacific Northwest and other coastal areas — never make the list, while the same names keep turning up year after year?
Leatherman says it’s all about the math in his categories. Beaches lose points for water that’s too chilly, sand that’s too coarse, condo towers instead of dunes, riptides and drownings, erosion and limited public access.
Leatherman adds that he doesn’t make money from the list. He just finds it “interesting to do” and hopes that the standards he promotes will encourage other beaches “to do the right thing and improve their quality.”