Dr. Beach's No. 1 pick this year: Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks.
"You can walk for 14 miles and see nothing but beach, sand dunes and water," says Wit Tuttel of the North Carolina Department of Tourism of the long, skinny island known for its remote location. Except for wild ponies and a historic village, soft, golden sand dominates this part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, reachable by ferry or small plane.
Dr. Beach (a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research) has been keeping a list of beaches since 1991. He embraces tough environmental criteria as well as aesthetic factors, such as stellar sand and water color. A California beach has never made it to No. 1 (Hawaii dominates, with a little competition from Florida), but Coronado Beach in San Diego ranked eighth this year — the only beach in the state to make the cut. (For the full list, go to www.drbeach.org.)
Travel + Leisure takes a more laid-back approach that focuses on the beachgoing experience, not just the setting. The state fared better in this lineup, which included one Southern California site.
Senior editor Nina Willdorf explained the magazine's criteria in making selections. "Does it have a great lobster roll, a place to rent volleyballs, a newly renovated hotel nearby?" she said. Twenty beaches made the grade (go to vwww.travelandleisure.com for the unranked list), including four in California profiled below by their respective categories.