The white-sand, crescent-shaped beach of Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii, (above, a woman dips her feet in the surf) has earned the title of best American beach in 2009, a coastal expert announced.
Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, has compiled his annual list of the top ten U.S. beaches for the past 19 years, rating coastlines on 50 criteria that include the presence of native plants, water quality, and overcrowding.
The 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) strand of Hanalei Bay--lined with palm trees and set against a backdrop of waterfalls and 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) mountain peaks--"is one of those places that people say is one of the most beautiful areas in Hawaii," said Leatherman, of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research.
Well off the beaten path, Hanalei Bay gets more rain than other Hawaiian islands and has "spectacular" plant and animal life, Leatherman added. Hanalei Bay moved up from second place in Dr. Beach's 2008 top ten ranking.
02 - Siesta Beach, Sarasota, Florida
With some of the finest, whitest sand in the world, Florida's Siesta Beach (above) came in second among this year's top ten beaches in the U.S., a coastal expert announced on May 22, 2009.
The beach's unpolluted sand and recreational opportunities--including unique underwater formations that attract snorkelers and scuba divers--led Stephen Leatherman, or Dr. Beach, to add Siesta to his annual list.
Leatherman judges beaches on 50 criteria, rating each variable on a one-to-five scale, with five being the highest. He takes off points for exotic plants, overcrowding, and too much development near the shoreline, among other factors.
On the south shore of Long Island, New York, Coopers Beach (above) is surrounded by large sand dunes dotted with American beach grass.
The beach, made of grainy white-quartz sand, was selected as the third best U.S. beach of 2009 according to the Laboratory for Coastal Research's annual Top 10 Beaches ranking.
Each year 85 percent of people in the U.S. who go on vacation visit a beach, said coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, making the shore the number one recreational destination.
04 - Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
A "veritable oasis by the sea," San Diego's Coronado Beach (above, a man searches for sand dollars) has lush subtropical vegetation, a Mediterranean climate, and a warm and mild surf, according to coastal expert Stephen Leatherman.
A local landmark, the Hotel del Coronado, was built more than a hundred years ago and offers "spectacular" architecture, he added.
Leatherman rated Coronado as the fourth best beach in America in his list of the top ten beaches of 2009. The annual ranking, now in its 19th year, has a positive impact on the managers of poorer-quality beaches, he said.
"We're recognizing those great-quality beaches, and it's something for the others to aspire to."
05 - Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Ernest Hemingway once said that Hamoa Beach (above) was the world's best beach--so it's no surprise the coral-and-lava-sand shore made it on to the list of America's top ten beaches of 2009.
Hamoa is rimmed by cliffs and covered with coconut palms and "beautiful" flowering vegetation, said coastal expert Stephen Leatherman.
In judging a beach, Leatherman first examines whether there is clean sand and water. He uses U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, for example, to determine a coastal area's water quality.
06 - Main Beach, East Hampton, New York
A 300-year-old conservation agreement has protected East Hampton's Main Beach from overdevelopment, earning it a spot on the 2009 Top 10 Beaches ranking.
Coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, who researches the annual list, takes points off for overdevelopment and overcrowding.
If beach blankets must be placed side-to-side - creating a patchwork-quilt effect - the beach is deemed overcrowded. Likewise, beaches with high-rises or buildings close to the water don't rank highly, Leatherman said.
Some resorts provide an "ecological buffer zone" between the hotels and the natural beach, he said, allowing native coastal vegetation to thrive.
07 - Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina
The barrier island of Cape Hatteras was the first U.S. National Seashore, designated as part of a program that sets aside coastal areas for preservation.
With its historic fishing villages and some of the best surfing along the East Coast (above, surfers walk through beach grass), the cape was included in the 2009 Top 10 Beaches ranking, as judged by Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research.
Coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, who researched the list, plans to launch a new program that will allow beaches to become certified as environmentally safe destinations.
08 - Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Florida
A large offshore sand shoal makes the emerald-colored waters off Cape Florida State Park ideal for swimming for humans and sea life alike (above, two Atlantic green sea turtles are released into the ocean in 1983).
The park was designated as the eighth best U.S. beach on the 2009 Top 10 Beaches ranking.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse (above, in the distance) allows for a "breathtaking view of this beautiful beach," added coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, who helps compile the annual list for Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research.
09 - Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Accessible only by bicycle or shuttle bus, Coast Guard Beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has coarse sand that creates steep slopes down to the water's edge.
Swimming is only possible during the summer, when water temperatures hover around 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 21.1 Celsius). At other times visitors can explore the old Coast Guard station atop the bluffs, which offers a sweeping view of the barrier islands and the bay.
Coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, who chose the beach as the ninth best in the U.S. for 2009, said that the overall popularity of beaches in general makes their conservation crucial.
"We're trying to [strike] a delicate balance between making the resource available and preserving the environment," he said.
10. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
South of Charleston, Beachwalker Park (above) is a public beach with plenty of recreational opportunities.
Visitors can canoe and kayak through tidal inlets - home to thousands of birds - or bike along the compact sand of the 10-mile (16.1-kilometer) barrier island.
The park was ranked tenth in the 2009 Top 10 Beaches list, compiled by coastal expert Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research.
"I'm still in search of the perfect beach," Leatherman said. "The good news is I've found a lot of good ones in the U.S."