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Expert's Picks

Dr. Beach's Best : Using a scientific approach to rank Hawaii's sandy strands

June 11, 1995|SUSAN ESSOYAN

For the past five years, Stephen P. Leatherman has sampled the best beaches in the United States.

But he hasn't been on vacation: Each year, the coastal geologist and director of the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research inspects about 100 beaches and ranks them on the basis of 50 different criteria, from waves and water clarity to litter and lifeguards.

Dr. Beach, as he's known, does have a bias: Given a choice between safety and scenery, he opts for safety. As a result, Hawaiian strands tend to trade top honors with those in Florida.

"On the scenic scale, Hawaii maxes out," says Leatherman, who visits the 50th state two or three times a year. "[The] beaches are very exotic, with the mountains meeting the sea, the tropical vegetation, the nice culture. . . . Where some beaches come down in my survey is [with] their big waves and dangerous currents. That is why Hawaii doesn't capture all the top spots."

His overall Hawaiian favorites?

Kapalua Beach, nestled on Maui's northwest coast, ranked No. 1 in Leatherman's 1991 national survey, his first foray into the beach parade. (Once a beach is chosen as the nation's best, Leatherman retires it from competition for 10 years, "to give other beaches a chance," he says.)

A serene white-sand beach framed by two arms of lava reaching into the ocean, Kapalua is "great not only for swimming but for snorkeling," Leatherman says. He also singled out its clear water, thick sand, lush greenery, safety and high-quality hotels, the Kapalua Bay Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

Hapuna Beach, on the Big Island's Kona Coast, topped his rankings in 1993. Its appealing stretch of white sand, great body surfing and swimming and ample facilities make Hapuna the best-loved beach on the Big Island.

The opening of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel last year hasn't altered Dr. Beach's opinion. "The hotel is off the beach on the cliff side, which to my way of thinking is the way to go," he says. "It doesn't crowd the shoreline."


Kailua Beach on Oahu's windward side is the top-ranked Hawaiian beach in 1995, No. 3 nationally, with Kapalua and Hapuna no longer in the running. The two-mile stretch of sandy shore tempts everyone from toddlers to windsurfers. "It's a great beach for swimming," Leatherman says. "The sand is really fine and soft. The University of Hawaii School of Architecture holds its sandcastle-building contest there every year because the sand is so great."

Other Hawaii beaches on Leatherman's list of top 10 U.S. beaches this year:

Kauanaoa Beach, in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island's Kona Coast, sports a gorgeous bay with a gentle slope into the ocean. "The landscape is very stark," Leatherman notes. "The contrast is incredible with all the palm trees. The beach is really clean, and I enjoy a good swim there."

Wailea Beach, a series of sandy white crescents along the shore of Wailea Resort in southwest Maui, offers a tranquil alternative to Waikiki. "It's very picturesque, very relaxed," he says. "I was impressed with the beaches' quality. It's a well-maintained area. They have a little walkway on the edge with some really nice hotels behind it and good entertainment." Hulopoe Beach, next to the Manele Bay Hotel on Lanai, dazzled the beach veteran. "I was just amazed," Leatherman says. "I was really taken with the raw beauty of the place. It's a very wide beach, from the water back to the trees. The sand drops off gradually. It's good for swimming and body surfing, very safe. And there are some tide pools on the side."

For visitors looking for a specific kind of Hawaiian experience, the Beach Doctor singled out winners this year in several categories.

Best Scenic Beach: Lanikai, Oahu. "The water is the prettiest I've ever seen. There are two little islands off shore. It's a splendid area to go swimming."

Best City Amenities Beach: Waikiki, Oahu. "It has the incomparable view of Diamond Head, and all the amenities . . . entertainment of all types, great shopping."

Best Wilderness Beach: Kalalau, Kauai. "A world-class destination for eco-tourism." Located at the end of the rugged Na Pali trail on Kauai's north coast, Kalalau Valley is accessible only to hikers or boaters.

Best Sports Beach: Kailua, Oahu. "The sea kayaking is terrific." Best Resort Beach: Kapalua, Maui. "Exclusive and very nice . . . an excellent resort area."

Best of all, notes Dr. Beach, all of Hawaii's beaches are open to the public. "Many people don't realize that," he says. "Even in the fancy resort areas, there is public access, parking."

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