Search for perfection in seaside vacation leads to Florida Life's A Beach

May 01, 1994|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

Florida is home to more than half of the nation's Top 10 beaches -- including Grayton Beach, the best spot in America for sun, sand, surf, safety and solitude, according to an annual rating by a leading beach expert.

Located beside the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida Panhandle, Grayton Beach replaced Hapuna, Hawaii, on the 1994 Best Beaches Survey by Stephen Leatherman, director of the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research.

"Grayton Beach is kind of the perfect beach, if there is one. It's a well maintained state recreational area, has good facilities for visitors, sugar white sand, a lake nearby and beautiful, clean aquamarine water," says Mr. Leatherman, a geologist who has been dubbed "Dr. Beach" by his colleagues.

Mr. Leatherman has studied beaches for more than 20 years, visited all 650 of the nation's public beaches, and written or edited nine books about beaches. He has released a springtime "Best Beaches Survey" for the past five years.

Each beach is rated on 40 criteria, including width, softness of sand, water temperature, color and clarity, number of sunny days, pollution, crowdedness, noise, wave size and currents, seaweed and jellyfish, and lifeguards.

The professor concedes the survey reflects his preference for natural, nearly deserted beaches over crowded, highly developed ones.

"The most popular beaches aren't necessarily the best beaches," says Mr. Leatherman, whose office door has a sign proclaiming "Science Can Be a Day at the Beach."

Beaches in Hawaii or Florida have always topped Mr. Leatherman's list. In declaring Grayton Beach this year's winner, he cited its wide stretch of soft sand, warm water, good fishing, and its lack of condominiums, crime and pollution.

Seven of this year's Top 10 beaches are located in Florida, and three are in Hawaii.

Mr. Leatherman dismisses California beaches as overcrowded and polluted. He said the Pacific water on the U.S. West Coast is often too chilly, even in summer, and the big waves and strong currents are dangerous to average swimmers.

Unlike in his past surveys, Mr. Leatherman did not publish a list of America's worst beaches this year. However, he says, most beaches face growing problems with erosion, development and pollution.

Ninety percent of all beaches are eroding -- "on all three coasts," he says -- with the biggest losses of sand along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Meanwhile, he says, the coastline is being urbanized at twice the rate of the rest of the nation.

The professor cautions beach communities that they risk "killing the goose that laid the golden egg" if they succeed too well in promoting themselves to attract tourists.

New York's Jones Beach is the nation's most popular beach, with up to 10 million visitors a year, he says. From the air, he says, the sand can barely be seen.

AMERICA'S BEST BEACHES

Here are the Top 10 beaches according to the 1994 Best Beaches Survey conducted by Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research of the University of Maryland.

1. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, Florida Panhandle.

2. Kailua, Hawaii

3. Caladesi Island State Park, Florida (near Dunedin)

4. St. Andrews State Recreation Area, Florida (Panama City)

5. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida (near Port St. Joe)

6. Kaunaoa, Hawaii

7. Crandon Park, Florida (near Key Biscayne)

8. Ulua, Hawaii

9. St. George Island State Park, Florida (Panhandle)

10. Fort DeSoto Park, Florida (just south of St. Petersburg)

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