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A Guide to America's Best Sand,Sun, and Solitude

SURF MONITOR

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1997



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?"

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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.

California

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.

New England

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.