Maryland's Assateague Island has made a University of Maryland geologist's list of the top 10 beaches in the Northeastern United States -- but just barely.
Thanks mainly to its clean water and wild isolation, the Assateague Island National Seashore ranked 10th on the list compiled by Stephen Leatherman, director of UM's Laboratory for Coastal Research and an internationally recognized expert on coastal erosion and geology.
Assateague was outclassed by beaches at East Hampton (first) and Westhampton Beach (second), on Long Island, N.Y.; five beaches on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and the North Shore of Massachusetts, and Popham Beach in Maine; Block Island in Rhode Island (eight) and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware (nine).
Leatherman's ranking was based on a questionnaire assessing each of 650 coastal beaches nationwide by 50 different criteria, such as scenery, sand softness, pollution, trash, waves and currents, temperature, smell, seaweeds, wildlife, pests, crowds and safety record.
The questionnaires were returned by veteran coastal scientists from government and academia in 22 coastal states.
The best beach in the nation is Kapalua Beach on Maui in Hawaii, according to Leatherman's survey, followed by the Grayton Beach and Perdido Key State Recreation Areas on Florida's panhandle.
No Maryland beach made Leatherman's nationwide Top 50 list. The closest of the Best 50 beaches to Baltimore are those on Long Island, followed by Ocracoke, on North Carolina's Outer Banks -- ranked No. 17 nationwide.
Florida, with its long shoreline, dominated the national lists, claiming 32 of the top 50 beaches. Hawaii had six of the top 50; New York had five, North Carolina had four, Alabama had three.
Leatherman said he tried to make his questionnaire as objective as possible, but concedes it could be biased in favor of less developed beaches.
"I wasn't trying purposely to do that," he said. "On other hand, the survey does include facilities; people also want some comfort too." He said future surveys will probably distinguish between developed and undeveloped beaches.
Assateague scored high for its "miles and miles of wild beach," its water and air temperature, sunny weather, cleanliness, good views, ease of access and safety record, said research assistant David Gelenter. But it lost points for its flies and mosquitoes.
"A couple of years ago the National Park Service had to spray for mosquitoes. It was so bad people couldn't get out of their cars," Leatherman said.
A beach-lover and body surfer who has visited most of the nation's beaches in the course of his research, Leatherman said he did the survey after being pestered by travel magazines and total strangers for lists of the nation's best beaches.
Its purpose, he said, was to "have a legitimate answer" and a list assembled as objectively as possible.
Asked for his personal favorites, Leatherman said, "I personally like to go swimming, so that draws me more to Southeastern or Southern beaches. But one of my favorite beaches is in Easthampton [Long Island]. The beaches are so wild out there. You get good waves but they're not dangerous, and there's warm water in the summertime."
"I like Georgia beaches, but there are no waves there; it's kind of boring. The Outer Banks of North Carolina come up very high on my list too. You can go great distances without seeing anybody. That's very rare in this country."
Geologists and beach experts say these are the country's best beaches.
1. Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii
2. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area (SRA), Florida Panhandle
3. Perdido Key SRA, Florida Panhandle
4. Hapuna, Hawaii
5. St. Joseph State Park, Florida Panhandle
6. Bahia Honda SRA, Florida Keys
7. Eastern Perdido Key, Florida Panhandle
8. Crandon Park, Florida Atlantic Coast
9. Napoopoo, Hawaii
10. Baggs Cape SRA, Florida Atlantic Coast
1. East Hampton Beach, Long Island, N.Y.
2. Westhampton Beach, Long Island, N.Y.
3. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.
4. Marconi Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.
5. Crane Beach, Mass.
6. Popham Beach, Maine
7. Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
8. Block Island, R.I.
9. Cape Henlopen, Del.
10. Assateague Island, Md.