'I’ve never seen sand so white in my life': 'Dr. Beach' picks Hawaii beach as best in US

Caleb Jones
Associated Press

HONOLULU – Along the west side of Hawaii's Big Island, the landscape is dominated by ancient volcanic flows and jagged shorelines. Then you get to Hapuna Beach.

There, the contrast of black lava rock, white sand and blue water means you have arrived in paradise – at least that's what “Dr. Beach” says.

“It’s like an oasis,” said Stephen Leatherman, who has ranked U.S. beaches on his annual list under the alias “Dr. Beach” for three decades.

The sand "looks super white there because of the black lava beside it,” he said. "I think the contrast makes you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen sand so white in my life.’”

Hapuna Beach State Park was ranked the best beach in the USA in Leatherman's review of sandy shorelines for 2021.

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Welcoming travelers back to Hawaii

Leatherman, a coastal scientist and professor at Florida International University, hopes his 30th annual list will encourage people to get out and leave the past year of pandemic struggles in the rearview mirror.

He acknowledged that people will have to pay extra to get tested for the coronavirus before coming to the islands. “Hawaii is a really special place, and so I think it’s worth it," he said.

Kandi Miranda, who owns Manuela Malasada and runs a food truck near Hapuna Beach State Park, was born and raised on the Big Island. She has stayed open for locals during the pandemic and is optimistic about the return of visitors.

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"There was a lot of darkness at that time, I mean everyone was closing," she said of the early days of the pandemic. “I wanted people to know that through good times and bad, we would still be there.”

Miranda said Hapuna Beach is a powerful place – spiritually and literally. “It’s unapologetically magical,” she said.

Prepare for paradise at Hapuna Beach Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Respecting the ocean

When the water is calm, it's a great place to be, Miranda said, but when the ocean rises and big waves begin to crash, it can be “really dangerous.”

“It's beautiful, but there's a very strong undertow there,” she said. Growing up on Hawaii Island, a place of active volcanoes, towering waterfalls and huge sea cliffs, she learned to respect nature.

“The ocean in general in our culture is a really powerful place," she said. “It's very healing, but you know the way that we grew up, it gives, but it takes away, right?”

Leatherman said that although Hapuna has a well-trained group of lifeguards and is great for swimming and snorkeling on calm days, the winter swells can be deceiving.

Rip currents cause “the greatest loss of life that we have at beaches,” he said. ”I’m trying to give people a better understanding of rip currents because a lot of people don’t understand them. They say ‘We can’t see them, then they’re probably not there.’”

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Leatherman uses 50 criteria to evaluate beaches, the most important categories being safety and cleanliness.

Leatherman uses data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grade the beaches on water quality and has been to all of the beaches on his list.

Dr. Beach's top 10 beaches in the USA for 2021

  1. Hapuna Beach State Park – Big Island of Hawaii
  2. Coopers Beach – Southampton, New York
  3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach – Outer Banks of North Carolina
  4. St. George Island State Park – Florida Panhandle
  5. Old Lighthouse Beach – Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
  6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach – Oahu, Hawaii
  7. Caladesi Island State Park – Dunedin, Florida
  8. Coronado Beach – San Diego
  9. Beachwalker Park – Kiawah Island, South Carolina
  10. Coast Guard Beach – Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Why Hawaii always ranks high

Beaches in Hawaii are consistently ranked high, and he has given them extra points for prohibiting smoking.

“First of all, it’s a health issue,” he said. “But the biggest thing is disposal of the cigarette butts. People look at beaches like a giant ashtray.”

Cigarettes “are the No. 1 form of litter in terms of numbers,” Leatherman said.

Last year, Leatherman chose a beach outside Hawaii for the top spot because, he said, island lockdowns and quarantine rules made it nearly impossible for people to visit.

“I know a lot of people have been vaccinated,” he said. “And so I think this year, it’s fine for Hawaii to be on the list. And I encourage people to go there.

“You can really social distance on the Big Island,” Dr. Beach said.