May 28, 2001- Each year at the start of the mainland "beach season" — that is, over Memorial Day weekend — Stephen P. Leatherman, a respected marine scientist who's parlayed his research into a popular sideline, releases his latest list of "America's 20 Top Beaches."
He did it again this weekend. As usual, Hawaii and Florida are all over the place. And, as always, the Virgin Islands is nowhere to be found.
That, however, does not speak ill of the beaches in America's Paradise. Leatherman, who issues his lists using the monicker "Dr. Beach," simply doesn't include U.S. territories in his research.
"I just do the continental United States and Hawaii," he explains.
And, he adds, "I think if I put Caribbean beaches in with mainland beaches, it would skew the study. If I put the Virgin Islands in there to compete, they would be very close to the top, if not at the top — certainly the ones I'm familiar with, like Magens Bay and Trunk Bay."
Virgin Islanders might find his concern about skewing the study less than persuasive, given that Hawaii and Florida have dominated the list since its inception and no other state has made it to the No. 1 spot.
He rhapsodizes about the beauty of Hawaii's beaches "where the mountains meet the sea" with "lots of coral reefs close to shore." Nothing the territory couldn't compete with there, for sure.
The good news is that the Virgin Islands may get its go at glory soon.
Leatherman admits he's been "informally working on" an annual list of the best beaches of the Caribbean, which he would issue in the fall at the start of the tourist season. "I'm working on it as I can take trips down there," he says in a telephone interview, adding that he hopes to be ready to launch the project "in a couple of years."
Having traveled extensively, including in the South Pacific, he says, "I really look at the Caribbean as having some of the best beaches in the world."
"I've been to a few of them," he says, mentioning Antigua and Barbuda and Margarita Island in addition to the U.S. Virgins, "but I've got a lot more to go."
In his full-time job, Leatherman is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
He is the author of 13 books and over a hundred journal articles and is a noted authority on coastal erosion management and the implications of changes in sea level. He wrote the "Barrier Island Handbook," edited "Island States at Risk: Global Climate Change, Population and Development" in the Journal of Coastal Research, and has conducted and collaborated on studies for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The National Geographic Society and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 1998, he came out with a full-length book on his research of "America's Best Beaches."
Since issuing the first list in 1991, he has imposed his own rule that once a beach makes the top of the list, it can't be considered again — but each year he also cites the previous winners along with his new list.
Leatherman uses 50 criteria in evaluating beaches, awarding them from 1 (worst) to 5 (best) points on each. The criteria include low-tide width, sand type and color, water color, air and water temperature, wind, size of breaking waves, bottom conditions and slope, currents, turbidity, suspended waste matter, oil and tar balls, sewerage runoff, algae, seaweed, smell, insect pests, wildlife, domestic animals, vistas, cleanliness, surroundings, access, amenities, lifeguards, swimming safety record, beach crime, intensity and types of use, and noise level (mechanical, musical and human).
At the top of Leatherman's 2001 list is Poipu Beach, Hawaii, followed by St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Fla.; Kaanapali, Hawaii; Hanalei Beach, Hawaii; and Caladesi Island State Park, Fla. In places 6 through 20 are four other Florida sites, three others in Hawaii, two in North Carolina, two in New York, one each in California, Massachusetts and New Jersey, and one beach shared by Florida and Alabama.
His No. 1-ranked beaches in previous years were Kapalua Bay, Hawaii (1991), Bahia Honda State Recreation Area, Fla. (1992), Hapuna, Hawaii (1993), Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, Fla. (1994), St. Andrews State Recreation Area, Fla. (1995), Lanikai Beach, Hawaii (1996), Hulopoe, Hawaii (1997), Kailua Beach Park, Hawaii (1998), Kailea Beach, Hawaii (1999) and Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii (2000).
In addition to his annual list of best overall beaches, Leatherman nowadays comes up with a list for The Travel Channel of the 10 "best beaches with nightlife." In exception to his "mainland and Hawaii only" rule, Puerto Rico's off-island of Culebra managed to make its way onto this one for 2001, ranked third, in fact, behind East Hampton Main Beach on Long Island, N.Y., and Miami's South Beach. The others are two from Hawaii, two from California, another from Florida and one each from Oregon and Texas.
Dr. Beach envisions his new islands list as being "a kind of Caribbean rating for people who could go there for the winter." And of course, he adds, "I would like to put another book together on that."
More information about Dr. Beach and his evaluations can be found at his web site, www.drbeach.org. He can be contacted via e-mail at Dr. Beach.


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