As you relax on the sugar-white sand somewhere along the 9-mile stretch of St. George Island beach along Florida's Gulf of Mexico, you can rest assured you are lying on the best beach in the United States.
At least, according to "Dr. Beach," who may have the best job in the world.
Just in time for Memorial Day, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, professor in the Department of Earth & Environment at Florida International University, has released his 33rd annual rankings of the best of America’s 650 public beaches. This year, after years of moving up and down the top ten list, the state park on St. George Island just off the Florida Panhandle is No. 1.
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“There's just so many things that capture my imagination there,” Leatherman told the Associated Press. “It's an idyllic place.”
A second Florida Gulf Coast beach, Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater and Dunedin, ranks fourth on the list this year. Hawaii beat us with three beaches in the top 10, but who's counting? (We're No. 1!)
Dr. Beach uses 50 criteria to evaluate beaches, including water and sand quality, safety and environmental management practices. Beaches receive bonus points for not allowing smoking.
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St. George Island beach is Dr. Beach's top pick for 2023
Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Parkis nestled at the far east end of the 22-mile long barrier island along the Panhandle in Franklin County, about a two-hour drive from Tallahassee. It's a favorite of Dr. Beach, regularly landing in his top ten with a brief drop after Hurricane Michael devastated the area.
It's not hard to see why, and St. George Island has made Dr. Beach's top 10 again and again over the years. Protected from development, with plenty of activities available including fishing, swimming and kayaking in the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf, bird-watching, beachcombing, shelling, camping and what Letterman called an unparalleled view of the night sky for stargazers make the beach a favorite for Tallahassee daytrippers.
The park, the longest beachfront state park in Florida, covers about 2,000 acres (810 hectares) on the east end of the island, which is connected by a bridge to the mainland across Apalachicola Bay. The other sections of the island contain a small village, restaurants, rental homes and motels, but not a whole lot else, which is a big part of the appeal for Dr. Beach.
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“People can have the best of both worlds there, just miles and miles of unspoiled beaches,” Leatherman said.
The island has gone through a lot in recent years. Tropical storms are nothing new but in 2018 Hurricane Michael hit hard and the Category 5 storm wiped out many St. George Island sand dunes and park facilities such as picnic pavilions and restrooms. But time, park staff and volunteers have helped bring it back to its former glory.
For those keeping score, St. George Island beach was No. 4 on Dr. Beach's list in 2022 and 2021.
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Caladesi Island State Park is No. 4 on Dr. Beach's list in 2023
Another frequent Dr. Beach top-tenner, Caladesi Island State Park, is 4th on the list this year, down from second in 2022.
Caladesi is reachable mainly by ferry and private boat, but a person in good shape who's watching the tides could walk there from Clearwater Beach. Caladesi isn't a true island any longer because an inlet closed off, Leatherman said.
“The white beach is composed of crystalline quartz sand, which is soft and cushy at the water's edge, inviting one to take a dip in the sparkling clear waters,” he said.
Caladesi has boardwalk nature trails and kayaking through mangroves that are home to numerous species of fish, birds and other animals. The ferry drops visitors off in the middle of the island so anyone looking for a more secluded environment need only walk a short distance north or south.
"My favorite is the kayak and canoe trails through the mangroves to see the large blue herons and other birds that frequent this wonderful natural area," Leatherman said.
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What are Dr. Beach's top 10 beaches for 2023?
- 1. St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
- 2. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
- 3. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York
- 4. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
- 5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
- 6. Coronado Beach, San Diego
- 7. Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii
- 8. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
- 9. Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
- 10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Who is Dr. Beach?
Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, has been hitting the beach all his life.
"My parents had the notion that if one neighbor has a basketball hoop and another a treehouse, then my family should also have an attraction for the neighborhood kids," he said on his website. "I had the biggest backyard sand box in Charlotte, North Carolina. I loved it. Every year I opted for a beach vacation to play in the world’s largest sandbox and frolic in the surf."
A job surveying storm-struck beaches in Cape Hatteras launched his lifelong career to become an internationally recognized authority on beach erosion, hurricane impacts, the effects of sea level rise and rip currents. Leatherman has provided expert testimony before Congress multiple times and also serves as a consultant for people or local governments looking to find the best beach for an event, track historical changes or make decisions about building, moving or tearing down beachfront properties and landmarks. He also hosted and co-produced the 1992 film “Vanishing Lands,” winner of three international film awards.
In 1989 a travel magazine asked Leatherman for a list of the top ten U.S. beaches, but he was on his way out the door for a trip.
"Pressed by the reporter, I rattled off the first 10 wonderful beaches that came to mind," he said. And then he forgot about it until the magazine came out and the phone began to ring. He heard from the winners and he heard from the places snubbed.
"The media people at Daytona Beach were the most emphatic about the whole thing," Leatherman said. "They wanted to know why their beach was not on the list because everybody knows that Daytona is one of the greatest beaches in the world, it even says so on the town water tower."
So he developed 50 criteria to rate each beach and surveyed them all. The university released the first Dr. Beach list on Memorial Day weekend in 1991 and for the next 32 years it only grew as readers shared it, argued about it, and planned their vacations around it.
Originally, any beach that won the top spot on Dr. Beach's list was retired and ineligible for subsequent years, but in 2016 Leatherman cleared the slate to allow any beach in the nation to once again be eligible for the contest and for the top pick.
"This is the end of a 25-year, quarter-century run," he said in 2015, "and every beach is eligible again next year."
Leatherman has authored or edited 16 books including, not surprisingly, "America's Best Beaches."
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Contributor: Curt Anderson, Associated Press
C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with multiplenewsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to yourlocal news organization.Read more articles by Chris hereand follow him on Twitter at@cabridges