Dr. Beach's top picks make a splash
(CNN) -- It was six years in the making, but Florida rebounded this year when one of its beaches topped "Dr. Beach's" list for the first time since 1995.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, near Port St. Joe on the Gulf of Mexico in the Panhandle, took the No. 1 spot, boasting sugar-fine sand and transparent surf. It ranked No. 2 a year ago.
"It was really just its time. It's been there, making its way as second and third in years before," said Stephen P. "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, who has ranked beaches for the past 12 years.
"It has the finest, whitest sand in the world, and it's not overdeveloped. It sets out on a peninsula, has lily white beaches."
Three other Florida beaches -- Fort DeSoto Park, Caladesi Island State Park and Cape Florida State Recreation Area -- secured the No. 4, 5 and 9 spots respectively. All make encore appearances, having made the cut in 2001.
Four of Hawaii's beaches made the top 10 and North Carolina and New York each had one winner.
In 2001, Leatherman's annual compilation of "America's Best Beaches" included 20 coastal retreats, but this year he lists only 10.
Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University in Miami, provides vacationers with an environmental scientist's take on how the nation's shores rate for annoyances and amenities.
The criteria for evaluating swimming beaches is comprehensive, composed of 50 characteristics and considering the depth of the shore, water temperature, wind speed, wave size, sand texture, water color, algae and public safety.
The criteria fall into three broad categories: physical factors (underwater beach slope, rip currents); biological factors (pests, water pollution); and human-use factors (litter, urbanism, noise).
"People want to see a wide beach. They want to see nice soft sand, the whiter the better," Leatherman told CNN.
"They want to see beautiful, warm, ocean water -- clear. They want amenities. They want a natural environment. ... They don't want to see seaweed."
Leatherman cites this year's No. 9, Cape Florida State Recreation Area, as an example that brings nature and convenience together in a winning combination.
"You have all the amenities, but yet, it's a whole world apart," he said. "The peace and quiet. Ample parking."
Leatherman visits more than 100 beaches a year to make his assessments.
And for those he might not get to personally, he has "coastal contacts" -- beach managers, park rangers, scientists and the like -- across the nation who let him know the latest raves about the waves.
Various Hawaiian beaches held the No. 1 berth since 1996 and for eight of the 12 years Leatherman has done the ranking.
California, Alabama, Massachusetts and New Jersey secured spots in the past. But topography, Leatherman said, will prevent some states from ever making his list.
"Louisiana is never going to have a top beach," he said, "because it has a muddy coast."
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