According to Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach,” there are approximately 650 major public recreational beaches in the United States. Only one, though, can be No. 1.
What strand of sand earns that designation? This year, the honor goes to Coronado Beach near San Diego, which tops Leatherman’s 2012 annual list of the Top 10 Beaches in the country. Released on Friday, the full list includes:
- Coronado Beach, Coronado, Calif.
- Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
- Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
- St. George Island State Park, St. George Island, Fla.
- Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii
- Coast Guard Beach, Eastham, Mass.
- Waimanolo Bay Beach Park, Oahu, Hawaii
- Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Fla.
- Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, S.C.
- Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, N.C.
The annual list, which Leatherman has compiled since 1991, is based on 50 criteria, ranging from natural conditions (sand softness, water temperature, wave size) to human-related factors (for example, noise, trash or public safety).
Stretching from the iconic Hotel del Coronado to Silver Strand State Beach, this year’s winner rose from second place in 2011 and third place in 2010.
“It’s flat and hundreds of yards wide so it’s great for walking and playing,” said Leatherman, who has spent much of his career researching and monitoring beaches as director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
“It has a fantastic Mediterranean climate. The water quality is excellent, and there’s a great lifeguarding program so it’s safe for families,” he told msnbc.com.
For Leatherman, the annual list is part of a lifelong passion for coastal environments, an interest that stretches from his childhood in Charlotte, N.C., where his parents built him a backyard sandbox, to the publication of his latest book, “Field Guide to the Water’s Edge” (National Geographic Books, $21.95), earlier this month.
It’s also an outgrowth of his decades of research on coastal erosion, storm damage and beach safety. On this year’s list, for example, Cape Hatteras dropped from No. 5 last year to No. 10 due to the damage caused by Hurricane Irene last August.
“There’s still an inlet or two that the storm opened up,” said Leatherman. “They’ve put up some metal bridges but there are going to be delays for people trying to get there.”
On the other hand, Hamoa Beach made the list after falling off it last year due to access restrictions implemented by an adjacent hotel. With those restrictions relaxed, the secluded beach outside Hana made a two-year jump from No. 9 to No. 5.
Meanwhile, if recent history is any guide, beach-bound San Diegans may need to prepare for an influx of visitors as local promoters will no doubt use the designation in their marketing materials for the coming year.
That was certainly the case with last year’s winner, Siesta Beach, in Sarasota, Fla. (To avoid repetition, beaches are “retired” after their tenure in the top spot.) According to Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, the area waged a full-on media blitz, including nabbing the domain name NumberOneBeach.com.
The results, she said, included an 18.2 percent increase in revenue per available hotel room (revPAR, as it’s called, a standard lodging-industry metric), a nine-month increase in visitor spending of 17.5 percent over the same period a year earlier and a 647 percent increase in visits to the CVB’s website.
Some of that increase, said Haley, may also be attributed to the fact that a year had passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which put a damper on tourism throughout Florida and the entire Gulf region in 2010.
Nevertheless, she offers one more bit of support for the significance of being named the nation’s top beach.
“I’ve had a couple of local little old ladies say, ‘Stop promoting Siesta Beach!’ ” she told msnbc.com. “That’s when you know it’s working.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.
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