Everyone has their own Memorial Day tradition — grilling or boating or visiting monuments honoring our country’s fallen soldiers. For Dr. Beach, the official start of summer means the release of his annual list of the Top 10 Beaches in America. A win is the Nobel Prize in sand. This year’s laureate: Siesta Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Powder white sand so soft and so white — almost 100 percent pure quartz crystal! Water is emerald green, clean and clear,” Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman wrote of his No. 1 pick. “Very safe beach that is hundreds of yards wide, perfect for families.”
Since 1991, the Florida International University professor has compiled the best sandcastle-building and wave-riding spots in the nation. He only considers major public beaches, which is no small feat: He surveys 650 beaches on both oceans, plus the Gulf of Mexico. He focuses mainly on family-friendly strands with easy access and amenities.
“I am not rating topless or nude beaches,” he said.
Until recently, he retired the winners to create an equal opportunity for the other beaches. (The top placers live on as archived National Winners.) “You gotta give all of the beaches a chance to be in the limelight,” he said.
However, last year, Leatherman acknowledged the fluid nature of beaches. Some improve; others deteriorate. So he mopped his slate clean and looked anew at all the beaches, including previous victors.
“I realized that, after 25 years, a lot of beaches have changed quite a bit,” he said. “It was time to start again.”
Leatherman, who lives near Miami Beach, visits every beach on the list. He also has agents, such as a surfer pal in Hawaii, who survey the land for him.
“I can’t see every beach every year,” he said, “but I get around.”
The professor approaches the task scientifically, relying on a 50-criteria model and a sliding scale of one to five. For example, a beach with cobbles, no amenities, many domestic animals, frequent rip currents and a strong whiff of seaweed or rotting fish earns all ones. A pocket beach with fine sand, aqua-blue water, no oil or tar balls and a profusion of wildlife walks away with fives. Leatherman said that he awards extra credit to beaches that practice enhanced beach safety with amenities, such as lifeguard towers and rip-currents warnings, and have banned smoking.
“I think of this as a higher calling,” he said. “I’m making beaches better and trying to up their standards.”
Florida raked in the most wins this year, with three beaches. Hawaii (two); the Outer Banks of North Carolina; the Hamptons of New York; Cape Cod, Mass.; San Diego; and Kiawah Island, S.C., also appear on the list.
Siesta Beach, which won in 2011 and clinched second place last year, earned 241 points out of 250.
“I am tough,” Leatherman said. “I am still looking for the perfect beach. I know it’s out there.”
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