IMAGE: NORTH BEACH AT FORT DE SOTO PARK
Laboratory for Coastal Research
North Beach at Fort De Soto Park in Florida topped researcher Stephen Leatherman's 2005 list of best U.S. beaches.
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2005 10:39:42 AM ET 2005-05-25T14:39:42

Having evaluated hundreds of sites across the country on dozens of criteria, a noted researcher on Wednesday released an annual report awaited by sunworshippers, travel publishers and chambers of commerce: His "Top 10" list of best beaches in the United States.

Topping the list was North Beach at Fort De Soto Park, located southwest of St. Petersburg, Fla. In fact, the state had three beaches on the list, tying with Hawaii for the most.

Stephen Leatherman, the Florida International University researcher who's been issuing the reports since 1991, described North Beach as "a natural jewel on the finger of a sun-drenched city."

"It’s a long, wide, sugar sand beach with great shelling and thriving natural dunes," he said of the beach, located on an island in Tampa Bay.

Leatherman's "Top 10" beaches, in order, are:

  • Fort De Soto Park - North Beach. St Petersburg, Fla.
  • Ocracoke Island. Outer Banks, N.C.
  • Hanalei Bay. Kauai, Hawaii
  • Caladesi Island State Park. Clearwater, Fla.
  • Fleming Beach. Maui, Hawaii
  • Coast Guard Beach. Cape Cod, Mass.
  • Coronado Beach. San Diego, Calif.
  • Cape Florida State Park. Key Biscayne, Fla.
  • Main Beach. East Hampton, N.Y.
  • Hamoa Beach. Maui, Hawaii  

Criteria balance recreation, ecology
Director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Leatherman weighed 50 criteria in reviewing 650 major public beaches along the U.S. coast.

Video: Expert's 'Top 10' beaches The criteria ranged from factors important to sunbathers — like the coarseness of sand — to those of concern to health and environmental experts — like sewage and algae content in the water.

How well local officials manage a beach, balancing the environment and recreation, is also a key criteria.

"A huge part of good beach management is about involving the public and offering a meaningful connection with the environment," Leatherman said, adding that the Pinellas County officials who manage North Beach do "an extraordinary job of caring for their place."

First list was non-scientific
Leatherman stumbled onto an annual list after a reporter contacted him in 1989 and he quickly rattled off 10 beaches that he liked. He later realized that was hardly a scientific approach and quickly made amends.

"Criteria? I didn't have any criteria," he writes on his Web site. "All of this hoopla made me think about how seriously Americans take ratings. Everyone wants to know what is best. We rate everything from hotels and restaurants to graduate programs in universities, so why not beaches?"

Apart from his annual list, Leatherman also founded a National Healthy Beaches Campaign, whose mission is to create "a balance between the recreational use of our nation's beaches and maintaining the environmental quality and safety of this prized resource."

Background on the beach list and research is online at www.drbeach.org/drbeach/.

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