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Which are Hawaii’s best beaches? People have been asking me that question for two decades. For the same number of years, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman — a.k.a. Dr. Beach — has been producing an annual list of what he calls America’s Best Beaches, a great resource to help answer that question. Hawaii beaches have claimed the top spot on his list for a whopping 12 times, and rightfully so.
As director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Dr. Beach certainly knows his stuff. His approach to each year’s list is based on extensive criteria — 50 considerations in all — including the width of the beach at low tide, the softness and color of the sand, the number of sunny days and the views from shore.
The only problem with Dr. Beach’s methodology is that once a beach has been named the best, it’s no longer eligible for inclusion on his lists in the future. But list or no list, the following beaches will remain unsurpassed as long as the tides continue to roll in and out.
Fleming Beach Park, MauiDr. Beach’s 2006 favorite, Fleming presides on the west side of Maui, known for its idyllic year-round sunny weather. A lure for sunbathers, swimmers and surfers alike, it also provides a rim of shady trees.
Hanalei Bay, KauaiThe Best Beach designee for 2009, this north shore gem features a pristine bay surrounded by majestic mountains made famous in the movie “South Pacific.” Locals love to surf here, and the beach is soft, white and inviting.
Hanauma Bay, OahuDr. Beach called this 2004 Best Beach winner “one of the most spectacular natural resources in Hawaii.” A Marine Life Conservation District, it’s tops for snorkeling amidst brilliant fish and sea turtles.
Hapuna Beach State Park, Hawaii IslandThe 1993 winner is set on the island’s Kohala Coast and flanked by the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. Dr. Beach praised it for its long stretch of white sand and perfect bodysurfing waves.
Hulopoe Beach, LanaiThis idyllic oasis earned the top spot on Dr. Beach’s list in 1997. A local favorite, it offers plenty of room to relax on its palm-lined crescent sands, presided over by a Four Seasons resort. Spinner dolphins make frequent appearances.
Kaanapali Beach, MauiThis west Maui marvel is the island’s best-known beach. Recipient of Dr. Beach’s 2003 award, it stretches luxuriously in front of a long series of hotels, hugged by pretty palms and a pleasant pedestrian path.
Kailua Beach Park, OahuLocated on Oahu’s rural windward side, this 1998 list-topper draws windsurfers with its steady onshore breeze. Dr. Beach gave kudos to its gradually-sloping sands and clear azure waters.
Kapalua Bay Beach, MauiDr. Beach chose this northwest Maui beach as his very first winner in 1991. He likes its calm, clear waters sheltered from big waves and strong currents, which make it an ideal spot for swimming, snorkeling and diving.
Kaunaoa Beach, Hawaii IslandAlso known as Mauna Kea Beach, the 2000 award-winner has gently-sloping sands and swimmable waters. The rocks on either side of the bay draw schools of tropical fish, and visitors can easily snorkel out to see them.
Lanikai Beach, OahuTopping the list in 1996, this windward Oahu jewel is excellent for swimming, and its view of two little offshore islands across a swath of turquoise water looks like something right out of the movies.
Poipu Beach Park, KauaiOn Kauai’s sunny southern shores, the Best Beach for 2001 is a winner for both visitors and residents thanks to its coral sands and areas of shallow, protected waters for safe swimming.
Wailea Beach, MauiOne of south Maui’s favorite swimming spots, Dr. Beach’s 1999 pick fronts the hotels of Wailea Resort. A paved path makes it easy to stroll from one end of the beach to the other, and there are equipment rentals for splashy fun.