Island park's recovery earns it Top 10 beach

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St. George Island has once again made the list of the best beaches in America in a prestigious 30-year-old annual list created by a South Florida professor of coastal science.

Specifically citing the beach at Dr. Julian Bruce St. George Island State Park, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, rated the 2,023-acre park as number four on the list.

“This long barrier island, far from urban areas, is a favorite destination for beachgoers, anglers and bird watchers as nature abounds,” he wrote. “Besides swimming in the crystal-clear water, I enjoy beachcombing and shelling. While St. George Island suffered a big hit in 2018 by Hurricane Michael, the area has substantially recovered, especially the sugary fine, white sand beach.”

Leatherman, nicknamed “Dr. Beach,” has reviewed, evaluated and rated beaches and coastal areas throughout the world since 1991.

“In addition to his annual ranking of America's Best Beaches, he works tirelessly to increase awareness about the dangers of rip currents and to promote no smoking at beaches,” reads his bio at www.drbeach.org.

St. George Island State Park is one of two Florida beaches to have made the Top 10, the other, coming in at fourth, Caladesi Island State Park, offshore of Dunedin, which last week re-opened, with ferry services operating with reduced capacity.

Two Hawaiian beaches make the list, including the top-ranked Hapuna Beach State Park, on the Big Island, Duke Kahanomoku Beach,, in Oahu, was pegged as sixth.

Two North Carolina beaches, both in the Outer Banks, made the list, Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, number three, and Lighthouse Beach Buxton, number five.

Cooper’s Beach, in Southampton, New York, was rated in second place. Coronado Beach in San Diego, California, was eighth, Beachwalker Park, on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, ninth, and Coast Guard Beach, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 10th.

After receiving his doctorate from the University of Virginia, Leatherman directed the coastal research laboratory at the University of Maryland, and the National Park Research Unit at the University of Massachusetts, and was an assistant professor of geology at Boston University.

He has authored or edited 16 books, including on the subjects of sea level rise, barrier islands and overwash, which is the flow of water and sediment over a coastal dune or beach crest during storm events.

Leatherman writes on his website that a 1989 call from a travel magazine writer, who wanted a listing of the top 10 U.S. beaches, led to his annual list.

“Later that summer I received a free copy in the mail of this glossy travel magazine, which listed the beaches in the order that I named them. I didn’t think much about it until the telephone began to ring,” he wrote.

“First I heard from the ‘winners,’ such as Sanibel Island and Kapalua on Maui. The Lee County Convention and Visitors Bureau people said that they were so excited and were issuing a press release about Sanibel’s high rating,” Leatherman wrote. “Many state tourism officials inquired about the list, especially regarding why other beaches did not make the cut. The media people at Daytona Beach were the most emphatic about the whole thing. 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. Their savvy newspaper writers wanted to know what criteria were used to rate the beaches.”

Leatherman said he did not have criteria at that time, and so he developed them. “All of this hoopla made me think about how seriously Americans take ratings everyone wants to know what is best. We rate everything from hotels and restaurants to graduate programs in universities, so why not beaches?” he wrote

“I developed 50 criteria to rate each beach, and it took me two years to complete the survey of the 650 major public recreational beaches in the United States. Fortunately, I had conducted two national surveys of our coasts, and this experience made it possible for me to undertake this first-ever professional beach rating,” Leatherman wrote.

“When the university released the list on Memorial Day weekend in 1991, I was off on another trip to Venice, Italy. My assistants tried to field the calls, but the phone was ringing off the hook. I received a desperate call from the university public relations office to catch the next flight home as nearly every newspaper in the country was running the story and wanted to interview me. TV producers and radio hosts were trying to book me for their shows, and here I was out of the country,” he wrote.

“The media blitz continued for almost a month. Since 1991, I have released the list of America’s Best Beaches on Memorial Day weekend, marking the beginning of beach season,” he wrote.

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