Image: Life's a beach
Jaymes Song  /  AP
A couple takes a stroll along Hanalei Bay in Hanalei, Hawaii. Located on Kauai's scenic north shore, the 2-mile crescent-shaped beach was selected based on 50 criteria, including water and sand quality, safety, facilities and environmental management.
updated 5/22/2009 11:59:28 AM ET 2009-05-22T15:59:28

If life is a beach, Hanalei Bay must be heaven.

This remote, two-mile crescent-shaped beach on Kauai where the emerald mountains meet the sparkling sea was selected No. 1 on “Dr. Beach” Stephen P. Leatherman's 2009 list of top 10 beaches, which was released Friday.

Hanalei beat out other shores stretching from San Diego to Cape Cod.

“The sheer beauty of Hanalei Bay is breathtaking,” said Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research. “It's really an idyllic setting.”

Hanalei features postcard views from every angle and is untouched by the feverish development that has transformed the coastlines of other islands. It's cherished by both locals and tourists as the perfect spot to swim, surf, snorkel or simply escape and unwind.

“It's just gorgeous,” said Annie Meredith, who regularly surfs in the bay. “You've got green mountains, white sand, blue ocean — that's kind of hard to beat.”

The runner-up on Leatherman's list was Siesta Beach in Sarasota, Fla., followed by Coopers Beach in Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island; Coronado Beach in San Diego; Hamoa Beach in Maui, Hawaii; Main Beach in East Hampton, N.Y., on Long Island; Cape Hatteras in Outer Banks, N.C.; Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne, Fla.; Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod, Mass.; and Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island, S.C.

Leatherman based his selections on 50 criteria, including water quality and temperature, cleanliness, weather, sand, safety and facilities. And Hanalei is his personal favorite “getaway beach” in Hawaii.

“If I want to get away from it all and forget about the rest of the world, Hanalei is about the best place to go, as far as I know,” he said.

Favorite celebrity beaches

Hanalei is located on Kauai's North Shore around the corner from the Napali Coast, the most stunning corner of the state. One side offers lush valleys, dramatic waterfalls and sculpted mountains with peaks that rise 4,000 feet. On the other is the Pacific, where dolphins and sea turtles can be seen.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

The big attraction here is that it's not a big attraction. Unlike in the high-rise jungle of Waikiki, where thousands of glowing-pale tourists sprawl across the sand like eggs in a carton, there's plenty of breathing room in secluded Hanalei.

Newlyweds Dirk and Courtney McNealy, of Gainesville, Fla., noticed that there were only about 50 people along the entire two miles of beach on a recent weekday.

“Back in Florida, it seems there's 50 people in a 10-foot stretch,” Courtney McNealy said.

The McNealys chose the so-called Garden Island for their honeymoon because they wanted a peaceful retreat. Video: Kathie Lee, Hoda on best beaches

“The water is nice. The sand is nice,” Courtney McNealy said. “It's really beautiful.”

Duane Kutsch, of Richland, Wash., said he enjoyed the slower pace and the space.

“It doesn't seem so big and commercial like Oahu,” he said. “Oahu to me feels like Chicago, a huge city on the edge of the water. This still has a hometown feel to it.”

The flight to Kauai from Honolulu takes less than a half hour. The 30-mile drive from Lihue Airport to Hanalei, however, takes nearly an hour along two-lane Kuhio Highway. The roadway eventually runs down the mountainside and crosses a one-lane bridge before entering the tiny town of Hanalei.

Egos, shoes and watches should be checked at the bridge. No one's in a hurry in this ultra-mellow community.

The village is a throwback to old Hawaii. There are sprawling plots of taro, which is used to produce poi, a staple in the Hawaiian diet. Neighborhood kids sell fresh leis on the corner. Gift shops, art galleries, surf stores and casual restaurants line the main drag. The world's most secluded beaches

“Most of us who live in the city are used to the hustle and bustle. This is anything but that,” Leatherman said. “It's about as laid-back as you can get.”

In the winter, swells and rip currents pick up in the bay and lifeguards are kept busy. Hanalei and surrounding areas have several top surf breaks. This is where three-time surfing world champion Andy Irons lives and honed his skills.

Even when the surf is up, parts of the bay are protected by an outer reef, so people can still swim safely. However, visitors should be aware of conditions and posted signs and check with lifeguards.

“Because of the beauty, it's deceiving,” said Mark McKamey, who has been a lifeguard in the area for 17 years. “It's paradise so it gives them a false sense of security.”

In the summer, the waters flatten out. Locals can be seen throw-net fishing, catching opelu and akule, a Native Hawaiian tradition. World's sexiest beaches

“There's a good vibe overall,” said McKamey.

There are three parks within the bay: Black Pot, Hanalei Pavilion and Waioli. Several surfing schools offer two-hour sessions for $50-$60 and rent gear.

Nestled between two rivers, Hanalei is the largest bay on the island of Kauai.

Leatherman said one of his favorite views of the bay is from The St. Regis Princeville Resort, located on the bluff. The 252-room hotel reopens in October after nearly a year of renovations.

Hanalei first gained fame when the hit musical “South Pacific” was filmed here five decades ago, and it hasn't changed much. The sailors sang “There Is Nothin' Like a Dame” at the bay, while neighboring Lumahai Beach is where Mitzi Gaynor made famous “I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

More recently, the North Shore served as the backdrop in films from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Tropic Thunder,” which starred part-time local resident Ben Stiller, one of many celebrities who vacation or live here.

Ranked No. 2 in 2008, Hanalei will now be retired from the Dr. Beach's list. Its selection returns the top spot to Hawaii, which has won 12 times since Leatherman started the list in 1991. Florida beaches have been named tops six times, including last year with Caladesi Island. North Carolina won once. California placed No. 4 this year with Coronado Beach but has never claimed the top spot.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Hawaiian paradise

loading photos...
  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments