No sharks, noise or grime--and no Ocean City--for best beaches

May 27, 1991|By Liz Bowie

No mosquitoes, no sharks, no dog poop, no noisy radios, no getting up at sunrise to stake claim to a grimy piece of sand.

No freezing cold water, so New England was out. No wild surf, so Southern California was out. No overdevelopment, so Ocean City, Md., was out.

Using rules like these, a University of Maryland geologist has rated America's 650 ocean beaches.

He found the gems in places with strange-sounding names such as Kapula, Napoopoo and Bahai Honda. You need a plane ticket and a wallet full of cash to get from here to pearly sand so light it never gets hot, water so clear you can see your feet in it and waves so gentle you can swim forever.

All of the geologist's top 10 choices are in Florida and Hawaii, a fact that has not endeared him to the loyal beach-goers of the Northeast and California. Since the listing came out, Dr. Leatherman has been condemned, teased and acclaimed.

If you are looking for something closer, he said, Assateague, a 35-mile stretch of national seashore, did rank in the top 10 of Northeast beaches. And North Carolina, with its hundreds of miles of undeveloped barrier islands, came in third behind Florida and Hawaii as the state with the best offerings.

Tiny Ocracoke Island, just beyond the southern tip of Hatteras Island in North Carolina, was ranked 17th among the nation's beaches. And one New York beach, East Hampton on Long Island, was ranked 18th.

A professor and ruddy-faced "beach bum" with sun-bleached hair, Dr. Leatherman seems to belong on beaches. He did his graduate work knee-deep in Assateague's dunes. And as a professor known to his students as "Mr. Beach," he specializes in beach erosion, a job that requires many grueling hours on spectacular beaches.

To do the survey, Dr. Leatherman put together a questionnaire he sent to 21 colleagues who work and live in states with coastal beaches. They filled out the questionnaire, ranking their beaches on a host of characteristics and sent it back to Dr. Leatherman, who compiled the data.

The results didn't please New Englanders. They don't see why their wonderfully scenic beaches were left off the top 20.

"We have the best beaches in the world," said John J. Gaines, president of the Narragansett, R.I., Chamber of Commerce. Dr. Leatherman's response was "Brrrr." Water temperature up there too cold.

Southern California's beaches -- immortalized by the singing of the Beach Boys -- also were conspicuously absent.

"Obviously, he didn't factor in volleyball," said Jon Hastings, publisher of Volleyball Monthly in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "We have great sand, soft wide beaches, lots of people." There is also a volleyball net every 10 feet. "We like it that way," he said.

Southern California beaches may be popular, Dr. Leatherman said, but they have large waves and powerful currents that can be dangerous for the average person who isn't a surfer. In addition, the beaches are over-developed and over-populated. "The beaches are packed. Everybody has a boom box. There is all this litter."

These are beaches with body builders and more bikinis than most. "We aren't rating beach forms," Dr. Leatherman said.

In Florida, site of 15 of the nation's top 20 beaches, tourist boards have reacted with a mixture of cockiness and gratitude.

"The beaches are gorgeous. It squeaks when you walk on it" because the sand is so soft and light, said Darrel Jones, rTC executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Council in Florida's Panhandle. "We have a couple days when the breeze gets up to 8 miles an hour."

If Florida is the land of perfect beaches, New York and New Jersey are where you will find everything you are most likely to want to avoid, according to Dr. Leatherman.

Those two states have six of the worst 10 beaches in the nation, including Belle Harbor, Pikes Beach and Coney Island, all in New York, and Monmouth, N.J.

Coney Island may be the place that created one of Dr. Leatherman's favorite hot dog sandwiches, but now "it is a waterfront slum," he said.

What else did the geologist take off points for?

Sewage was a bad thing. "When you get in the water, and toilet paper wraps around your neck, you know you have a problem," he said.

He doesn't want algae, red tides or rotting fish either. "Some beaches just don't smell good. When I go down to the beach, I want to suck in the air, rejuvenate my body and soul, not cough it all back," he said.

He's also down on tar balls. He once checked in to a top hotel in Key Biscayne in Florida and was issued a tar-ball remover. "Give me a break," he said. He couldn't believe the town had such a famous beach.

Some beaches have what he calls "misfits" next door to them, such as nuclear power plants. "Most people don't like swimming next to a nuclear power plant," he said. "The water is a little warmer there. You glow in the dark."

What the professor thinks makes a good beach has a lot to do with natural characteristics. The coral beaches in tropical climates are preferable to quartz beaches, he said, because crushed coral is less dense and less likely to get hot and burn your feet.

Quartz beaches sometimes appear with black streaks that people mistake for oil. In fact, the streaks are produced when storms carry off the quartz particles and leave behind the heavy minerals such as magnetite.

Some of the most stunning spots on Earth are half-moon-shaped beaches caught between two high cliffs covered with lush foliage, the type most likely to be found in some remote part of Hawaii.

Mr. Hastings lived next to the nation's No. 1 beach -- Kapula, Hawaii -- for several years. His reaction: "If you have a six-figure salary, it is pretty nice."

But Dr. Leatherman is a pragmatist.

"Hawaii has some of the best beaches in the world, but it is not my favorite . . . because I can't reach it. Assateague I can get to and enjoy."

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