VENICE, CALIF. — "Life is a beach," say the poet, the sage, and the bumper sticker. "But," ask thousands of Americans vacationing this summer, "which one?"
The United States has 650 public beaches to choose from. Together they are the most-visited leisure destination on the planet - 180 million pilgrimages last year. Yet, there is no single source or agreed upon criteria (from ambiance to sand squishiness) for ranking all these locales.
To help plug this hole, or perhaps add to the confusion, the Monitor conducted its own thoroughly subjective, highly unscientific survey of US beaches. Six Monitor writers were asked to find the shoreline Shangri-La in their region.
First, the good news. There are scores of stunning beaches to suit every taste. Second, looks can be deceiving, so a note of caution: After 20 years of public focus on cleaning up America's shorelines, progress is mixed. Check with authorities if you have any questions about the cleanliness of your favorite beach.
Last, the big picture. One of America's leading beach authorities is Stephen Leatherman, an environmental science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Otherwise known as Dr. Beach, Professor Leatherman began ranking America's beaches 10 years ago. (See chart at right.) He considers 50 criteria including sand softness, size of waves, rip currents, water temperature, and pests (from people to mosquitoes).
This year's winner, says Dr. Beach, is Hulopoe, on the island of Lanai, Hawaii, until recently a private beach. "This is the beach you would expect to find in paradise," he says: crescent-shaped with soft, white coral sand, palms for shade, mountains for viewing, and 70-degree, clear water.
This year's list, which includes six beaches from Hawaii, nine from Florida, and two each from New York and North Carolina, is also notable for its omissions.
"California beaches are wonderful but have water that is too cold, currents that are dangerous, and too many people," says Dr. Beach. Georgia, too, was stiffed. Its beaches "have clean water but because they often drain salt marshes, they are not clear."
Following in Dr. Beach's footsteps, with magnifying glass and note pad in hand, Monitor scouts offer their own report.
Dr. Beach's omission of the Golden State from his Top 20 is just fine with folks from Malibu to Venice who don't want any more gawkers clogging up the curls (rolling waves) shot by surfers hanging 10 (toes over the edge).
Interestingly, just miles from the mayhem - the notorious Venice boardwalk where Rastamen, New Agers, and jugglers populate - are three beaches so paradisiacal that several locals begged us not to mention them.
They are El Matador, La Piedra, and El Pescador, just six miles north of Malibu off the Pacific Coast Highway. Visitors access them from wooden stairways zigzagging down rugged cliffs.
Sometimes known as "Little Big Sur," the area has been in such movies as "From Here to Eternity," and boasts soft sand, rugged rocks, and dangerous caves where the intrepid out-race tides to access ever-more-remote sections of beach. Sure, the water's colder, and a bit kelp-infested - but that also means you won't be sharing your beach towel with someone who wants to give you a Tarot-reading.
For many, a perfect beach is sea, sand, sun, and not much else - no crowds, no kiosks, no loud music. This is where Martha's Vineyard excels. A 100-square-mile island that hangs off the triceps of Cape Cod, Mass., the Vineyard is the summer retreat of the rich and the year-round home of islanders who want to protect their piece of the planet. Think St. Tropez settled by Puritans.
Partly for the cause of preservation and partly for privacy, locals keep most of the island's beaches beautiful, clean, and relatively empty, even on perfect summer weekends.
"The beaches here are all about rules and regulations," says Noah Eisendrath, a dispatcher at a water taxi service, whose tan attests to many hours spent lying prone. "It's kind of a pain ... but it's all good."
To get to some of the Vineyard's best beaches - Lucy Vincent, Lambert's Cove, Squibnocket - visitors need to live or rent nearby, or have friends who do. The rest of us can stay at an inn that has beach passes.
But there are a few splendid beaches open to visitors. Anyone, for instance, can visit the beach in Long Point Wildlife Refuge, a stretch of fine, yellow-white sand bordered by grassy dunes along the Vineyard's southern coast.
At the northern tip of Jupiter Island off Florida's east coast is a beach that Jay Clarke says is one of the state's best. As travel editor at The Miami Herald, Mr. Clarke should know. The shore at the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is special, he says, because of its abundance of privacy in a pristine, natural setting.
Endangered sea turtles like it for the same reason. The National Park was created in part to ensure that turtles would have a protected habitat to lay their eggs.
The result is a slice of original Florida coast preserved as it was thousands of years ago. The surf is gentle and the drop-off of the sandy ocean floor is gradual.
Cheryl Blackerby, the Palm Beach Post's travel editor, says Florida's best is on the panhandle - a wildlife refuge on Dog Island, which is reachable only by ferry.
The sand is "99 percent pure quartz," she says. "It squeaks like snow," when walked on, and it's "beautiful, just glittering white - unlike Florida's east coast, where the sand is oat bran [colored]."
True aficionados say one location stands out here: Ocracoke Island.
Just south of Cape Hatteras and accessible only by ferry, most of Ocracoke is a national park - off limits to developers. The only buildings are clustered around an inlet called Silver Lake.
"The island is not for everybody," warns Buffy Warner, who owns a local pub. "There's not a single go-cart track, putt-putt, or water slide. It's the kind of place you come to to get away from all of the above." The beach itself is half a mile away across dunes and sawgrass. It's 16 miles long and varies in width.
One of the best beaches here is Montauk, on the southern fork of Long Island. It offers miles of white sand and refreshing dips in 60-degree water.
Early morning finds fog hanging over the water and fishing boats blowing their air horns. It feels remote and isolated, a few sand grains holding back the gray waters of the Atlantic.
For those who want to add to that beach experience, it's near the Hamptons, the playground for New York's literary lions, jet setters, and financiers. You never know, Steven Spielberg could be at the next table.
Or for a slightly more social beach experience, there's Fire Island, which can be reached only by ferry. Unlike the Hamptons where the "cottages" can be mansions, the beach houses there are old and wooden with outdoor showers and barbecues.
When The Honolulu Advertiser asked readers to pick their favorite beaches in three categories - family fun, sunning and seeing, snorkeling and swimming - only one turned up in the top three of each category. Kailua Beach, a three-mile stretch of sugar-white sand and patches of shade cast by palm trees, is a scene straight out of Claude Monet's imagination.
An offshore reef reduces the Pacific's roaring waves to purrs, allowing children and dogs to play and swim in mellow surf.
Flat Island and the humpback Mokulua islets are an easy kayak ride away, rising where Kailua's water turns from turquoise to aqua to cobalt blue.
* Monitor staffers Nicole Gaouette, Warren Richey, Cameron Barr, Ron Scherer, and contributor Greg Barrett scouted beaches for this report.