Friday, May 25, 2001

If life’s a beach,
Poipu’s the best
place to be, in the
eyes of ‘Dr. Beach’

An isle beach has won
the top honor in eight of
the last 11 years

Star-Bulletin news services

Once again, a Hawaii beach has been ranked best in the nation on the annual list by "Dr. Beach," Florida researcher Stephen Leatherman.

This year's honors go to Poipu, Kauai, a remarkable achievement in that the beach there was devastated by Hurricane Iniki in September 1992.

The expert has given Hawaii's beaches the top honor in eight of the last 11 years. The others include Kapalua, Maui; Hapuna, Big Island; Lanikai; Hulopoe, Lanai, near Manele Bay; Kailua on Oahu; Wailea, Maui; and Mauna Kea Beach (Kaunaoa) in South Kohala. He also lists Waikiki and Mauna Kea among the top 10 "beaches with nightlife."

Under Dr. Beach's rules, a beach cannot win twice.

The beach, renowned for its golden coral sand, crystal-clear blue water and pulsating surf, is one of six Hawaii beaches to rank in the top 20 of this year's survey.

Leatherman said Poipu Beach is great for swimming, snorkeling and body surfing and offers crystal blue water with a visibility of 90 to 100 feet for divers. "The beach itself is a golden coral sand," he said. "It's beautiful."

Advised of the selection, Kauai County Parks Director Mel Nishihara said, "We're elated."

Poipu County Beach Park is the most heavily used on Kauai with 386,000 visitors annually. It is maintained by a single caretaker, J.C. Carvalho, with volunteer help from resorts and area residents.

Leatherman, a Miami resident, leads Florida International University's hurricane studies program. He is an international expert on beach erosion and has testified many times before Congress. He has written 15 books and hundreds of scientific articles.

Yet it is his annual beach list, which comes out Memorial Day weekend, that makes him famous. Unlike a lot of academics, who loathe publicity and deliberately act as dull as seaweed, Dr. Beach relishes the limelight and plays it for laughs.

On the Friday before Memorial Day when he announces his list, he appears on a number of national television programs, from the Today Show to CNN, to read it. As cameras roll, he sits under an umbrella, bare feet caressing a fine beach. Mister Wizard, meet Jimmy Buffett.

Oprah Winfrey once opined that he had one of the best jobs in the whole world.

His work requires loping through sand, slurping ice cream and wearing a bathing suit. Sometimes he has to snorkel and lie on a blanket. Yes, somebody has to rate the best beaches in America.

He earned his doctorate from the University of Virginia. He taught at Amherst and later at the University of Maryland. For a federal erosion project, he visited every major beach in America, all 650. He has 10,000 maps and many more slides.

He used them at Maryland in his popular college class "Coastal Environments: Or Beaches I Know And Love." More than 270 students enrolled every year. "They called me Dr. Beach because they couldn't remember my name."

In 1989 Leatherman was packing for a trip to China when the telephone rang. It was a reporter from the travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, asking for a list of America's best beaches.

Without thinking too much, Leatherman reeled off the names of 10 good beaches.

Months later, his phone rang again. It was somebody from the Sanibel Island Chamber of Commerce, ecstatic that their Florida beach had made the magazine's list.

"What list?" asked Leatherman.

The phone rang again.

It was a reporter asking why Daytona Beach had failed to make the list.

His phone has been ringing ever since.

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