In Florida, we caught up with Dr. Beach, better known in real life as Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory of Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
He has been ranking America's ocean beaches since 1991, taking into account 50 criteria, some of which the average beachgoer understands (like whether a beach has bathrooms) and some we don't, such as the state of a beach's sand stability, water quality and wave action.
A: I have people who tell me they plan their vacation around the list. Can you believe that? I know that visitation does go up when we name a beach No. 1. But I tell the beaches that if they do a lot of development after that or change the character of their beach, they can fall off the list.
Q: What is so special about Caladesi Island, your current No. 1 beach in the United States?
A: It is a real getaway. You don't go there to play golf or stay at the Hilton; unless you are on a boat, you can't stay there at all. It's in an urban area, but you get out to the island and it's remote. It has clean, clear water and bright, soft sand, native mangroves, great kayaking. You've got a snack bar and good access to ferries.
Q: Do you take into account things like rattlesnakes? Caladesi Island has signs warning of rattlers.
A: I don't give demerits for rattlesnakes. Snakes don't like coming on beaches.
Q: Over the years you have named far more gulf-side Florida beaches on your list than Atlantic side. Why?
A: The gulf side has better sand and is much safer because of smaller waves. They are very safe beaches.
Q: What is the difference between Florida's Gulf Coast sand and Hawaii sand?
A: The Gulf Coast beaches are quartz crystal, ground down to what we call terminal size, the smallest possible. That sand has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. It's bright and white and fine. The sand in Hawaii _ except for the black beaches _ is all coral sand. It's ground up coral from the reefs. It varies in color. None of it is super white like Florida, but it's beautiful.
Q: The way your list works is, once a beach is No. 1, it can't be on the list again. Doesn't that mean that after 17 years, the best 17 beaches in the United States aren't on your list anymore?
A: Yes. Some of the earlier ones might be better overall. And I do keep a national winners list, although most papers don't publish it. Fortunately, the U.S. has hundreds of great beaches. A perfect beach score in my criteria is 250 points. I've yet to find a perfect beach. But I don't fear a shortage of great beaches.
Q: And what about the Great Lakes? There are great beaches there, too. Why not review them?
A: I'd like to. I've been thinking about it. It's difficult to do because I would have to change my 50 criteria, because the Great Lakes don't have some of the things they look at. Like sharks. Or jellyfish. Those are good things not to have, of course. One of the issues is, I rate swimming beaches, and warm water is one thing I measure _ so Florida and Hawaii have an advantage. But I've seen a lot of nice beaches in Michigan.
Q: You've probably been asked this a million times, but what's your all-time favorite Florida beach?
A: I guess it would be Cape Florida beach at the tip of Key Biscayne. That's because it's near my house in Miami. I can be there in half an hour.
DR. BEACH'S RANKINGS