By CURT ANDERSON Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A 9-mile (14-kilometer) stretch of Florida sugar-white sand in an unspoiled natural setting alongside the Gulf of Mexico is the nation’s best beach for 2023, according to the annual ranking released Thursday by the university professor known as “Dr. Beach.”
The state park on St. George Island just off the Florida Panhandle drew the top honor from Stephen Leatherman, professor in the Department of Earth & Environment at Florida International University. This year’s top 10 list marks the 33rd year Leatherman has rated the best of America’s 650 public beaches around Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer.
St. George Island is frequently on the list. But this year what set it apart from others is its natural beauty, lack of development, abundant activities including fishing, swimming, kayaking, cycling, camping and an unparalleled view of the night sky for stargazers, Leatherman said.
“There’s just so many things that capture my imagination there,” Leatherman said in an interview. “It’s an idyllic place.”
The park 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, famed for its oysters. The other sections of the island contain a small village, restaurants, rental homes and motels, but not a whole lot else.
And that’s the way Leatherman likes it.
“People can have the best of both worlds there, just miles and miles of unspoiled beaches,” he said.
The island has been battered over the decades by tropical storms, most recently by Hurricane Michael in October 2018. That deadly Category 5 storm made landfall about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest in Mexico Beach, but packed enough punch to level many St. George Island sand dunes and damage park facilities such as picnic pavilions and restrooms.
“Since that time, staff and volunteers have made great strides toward getting the park back to normal,” park officials said on its website.
In 2005, a 153-year-old lighthouse on nearby, uninhabited Little St. George Island collapsed into the Gulf due to storms and erosion. It was rebuilt on the main island after volunteers salvaged 22,000 of the original bricks and found the 19th-century plans at the National Archives. The new location means people can more easily trek to the top for a panoramic view.
Leatherman uses 50 criteria to evaluate beaches including sand type, wave action, whether lifeguards are present, presence of wildlife, the level of development and crowding, and many other factors. Extra credit is given to beaches that forbid cigarette smoking, mainly because of the need to prevent discarded butts. None were seen during a recent visit to St. George Island, he said.
“I had to give them more credit for that,” Leatherman said. “I think people are coming around to the point of view that our beaches are some of our greatest recreational areas. You can go to the beach and you can do so many things.”
A second Florida Gulf coast beach, Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater and Dunedin, ranks fourth on the list this year. It’s reachable mainly by ferry and private boat, or a person could walk a fairly good distance there from Clearwater Beach depending on the tides. Despite the name, 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.
Hawaii placed three beaches on the list, more than any other state. Florida was next with two.
Here is Dr. Beach’s complete 2023 top 10:
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