Take early dip at ‘Best Beach’

The secret’s out: Duke Kahanamoku Beach has been chosen for 2013

Orange County RegisterJanuary 19, 2013 


A quiet walk under the backdrop of Diamond Head is part of the experience of visiting Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Hawaii. (Michael Goulding/Orange County Register/MCT)


  • Past ‘Dr. Beach’ winners 2012: Coronado State Beach, Calif. 2011: Siesta Beach, Fla. 2010: Coopers Beach, N.Y. 2009: Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hi. 2008: Caladesi Island State Park, Fla. 2007: Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, N.C. 2006: Fleming Beach Park, Maui, Hi. 2005: Fort DeSoto Park, Fla. 2004: Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hi. 2003: Kaanapali, Maui, Hi. 2002: St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Fla. 2001: Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hi. 2000: Kaunaoa Beach, Big Island, Hi. 1999: Wailea Beach, Maui, Hi. 1998: Kailua Beach Park, Oahu, Hi. 1997: Hulopoe, Maui, Hi. 1996: Lanikai Beach, Oahu, Hi. 1995: St. Andrews State Recreation Area, Fla. 1994: Grayton Beach SRA, Fla. 1993: Hapuna, Big Island, Hi. 1992: Bahia Honda SRA, Fl. 1991: Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hi.

I have seen the future and it is hot, wet, sandy and you can get one of those funny-colored drinks with a paper umbrella.

I took a swim recently at Duke Kahanamoku Beach on Oahu in Hawaii. It will be the Best Beach of 2013, according to the popular “Dr. Beach” contest that comes out around Memorial Day.

Officially, the 2013 winner is a closely guarded secret, with wire services, newspapers, radio and TV stations and (less consistently) websites promising to adhere to a strict embargo.

But as a leading beach travel rating forensics expert, I can tell you it’s a done deal. “Duke K” is the one. So you can book at Hilton Hawaiian Village now (or the Hale Koa if you are military) and beat the crowds. If your budget is tighter, there are dozens of hotels within a five-minute walk.

Unlike past winners, Duke Kahanamoku Beach is an urban beach, one of the finest stretches of Waikiki.

While much of Waikiki is packed like a sardine can, Duke Kahanamoku Beach is more sedate, owing to the wide expanse of Fort DeRussy, which leaves only the military-run Hale Koa amid the acres of green lawns. The beach then hits the massive Hilton Hawaiian complex of high-rises. The nearby Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, favored by many families, siphons off even those beachgoing guests.

The result is even on a summer day, you usually can spread out your towel and enjoy the view without people stepping over your towel to get to an empty spot. Still, it’s not the best beach in the nation. It’s not the best beach in Hawaii, or even Oahu. So why is it on this list?

Well, imagine a national election where first you removed the 21 most populous states. Or a Miss America contest where the 21 most beautiful and talented young women were eliminated before the event started.

Dr. Beach’s selection method

That is what “Dr. Beach,” aka Dr. Stephen Leatherman, does each year. He says he compiles data on 50 factors ranging from water quality to amount of sun to water temperature to public access, then announces the best beach in America.

Only it’s not. It’s more like the 21st-best beach in America. Because once you win, you are disqualified from future consideration. So the contest starts with the best of the best already out of the running and usually results in whichever beach was No. 2 the year before moving into the winner’s circle 12 months later.

Duke Kahanamoku Beach was No. 2 in 2012, so it will all but certainly rise to No. 1. Just as the 2011 No. 2, Coronado Beach in San Diego, moved up to the top spot in 2012.

There’s an outside chance that Leatherman could skip Duke K Beach in favor of one of the other top runners-up – like Main Beach in East Hampton, N.Y., or the beach at St. George Island in Florida. To show it’s not just a conga line of ratings, Cape Hatteras dropped from third in 2011 to 10th last year. But it’s rarely the good doctor’s way to call an upset at the top of the list.

Reducing pollution is goal

And I do mean good doctor. Leatherman is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. This list thing, a publicity bonanza for some local tourism office, was started to promote the National Healthy Beaches Campaign. Its goal is to reduce pollution, litter and overdevelopment at fragile coastal areas. So it is natural to get a fresh name at the top of the list. If the same two or three beaches regularly traded off the top spot, the buzz would all but disappear.

In an urban setting like Honolulu, beach preservation can be a heroic effort. Duke Kahanamoku Beach sits very near the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, where a man died in 2006 from a flesh-eating bacterial infection he contracted after falling into the harbor’s waters. If the water quality on the other side of the breakwater has been improved and maintained in the past six years, that’s an accomplishment worthy of national recognition.

I love Duke Kahanamoku Beach, but how can a list that automatically excludes 12 beaches in Hawaii alone be taken seriously?

Here’s my suggestion, Dr. Leatherman: Give everyone on the list a spot on a “roll of honor” and start over. I’d be interested to see if the same names would win.

Until Dr. Beach decides he’s tired of his own list, the march of the beaches will continue. So join me and beat the crowd.

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