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Spectacular sands

Beaches, including local ones, are rated on beauty, and that's swell.

June 24, 2007|Mary E. Forgione

WHOM are you going to believe: the doctor or the editors? DrBeach.org and Travel + Leisure magazine recently released their picks for America's top beaches. The list you follow depends on your own criteria, but you can pick and choose from each.

Dr. Beach's No. 1 pick this year: Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

"You can walk for 14 miles and see nothing but beach, sand dunes and water," says Wit Tuttel of the North Carolina Department of Tourism of the long, skinny island known for its remote location. Except for wild ponies and a historic village, soft, golden sand dominates this part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, reachable by ferry or small plane.

Dr. Beach (a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research) has been keeping a list of beaches since 1991. He embraces tough environmental criteria as well as aesthetic factors, such as stellar sand and water color. A California beach has never made it to No. 1 (Hawaii dominates, with a little competition from Florida), but Coronado Beach in San Diego ranked eighth this year -- the only beach in the state to make the cut. (For the full list, go to www.drbeach.org.)

Travel + Leisure takes a more laid-back approach that focuses on the beachgoing experience, not just the setting. The state fared better in this lineup, which included one Southern California site.

Senior editor Nina Willdorf explained the magazine's criteria in making selections. "Does it have a great lobster roll, a place to rent volleyballs, a newly renovated hotel nearby?" she said. Twenty beaches made the grade (go to www.travelandleisure.com for the unranked list), including four in California profiled below by their respective categories.

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THE BEACHES

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Zuma Beach

Malibu

Swimming

If you see one of those car commercials with the idyllic beach setting (and Point Dume in the background), you're looking at Zuma Beach. This was the only local star to make the Travel + Leisure list. Two miles of white sand and great swimming await at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. "It's a beach so huge that you're not on top of each other," says Rebekah Evans, executive director of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce. "Locals go because it's a great place to exercise, a great place to walk, a great place to find your own spot." Just off Pacific Coast Highway (street address is 30000 PCH). Open sunrise to sunset; parking is $7 daily.

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Butterfly Beach

Santa Barbara

People-watching

We don't know about the body-beautiful factor, but it is right across from the Four Seasons Biltmore resort in Montecito. Besides, it's a social hangout for 20- and 30-year-olds, according to Shannon Brooks of the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission. The half-mile beach is good for swimming: Waves aren't too big, and it has little seaweed and few rocks. And it's a great walking beach, especially at low tide when you can trek from East Beach to Butterfly. To get to the sand, take Highway 101, exit at Olive Mill Road and head toward the ocean; park on the street -- and start walking.

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Pfeiffer State Beach

Big Sur

Nature escape

The key to this beach, not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur or Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks (which are nearby), is that it's a break from the rocky coast. "Having a big sand beach in this area is a rarity," says Stan Russell of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. There's also a "keyhole" in one of the rocky outcroppings that makes it good for sunset photos. No water, food or other amenities, so bring your own. From Highway 1, take Sycamore Canyon Road (a turnoff a quarter-mile south of the Big Sur ranger station) for two miles to the beach. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; $5 fee. Info: (805) 434-1996, www.campone.com.

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Horseshoe Beach

La Jolla

Secret sands

Yup, it's so secret that there's no sign pointing to it. And mostly locals (read surfers) call it Horseshoe; others know it as Whispering Sands. This sliver of a beach is horseshoe-shaped and marked by reefs on each side. It's more of a cove than a beach, says Hilary Townsend of the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau, who had to hunt it down when the magazine contacted her. How do you get there? Not by car, but on foot. Look for an unmarked stairwell off Coast Boulevard near Prospect Street and be prepared to do some rock scrambling on the way to this teensy cove.

-- Mary E. Forgione

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