The best beach in the United States this year is in the Carolinas - Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, on the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Banks.
It heads the list of the Top 10 beaches released last month by Stephen P. Leatherman, known as "Dr. Beach" for the ratings he has issued every spring since 1991. This is the first year a beach from the Carolinas took the No. 1 spot - that honor usually goes to sandy stretches in Florida, California or Hawaii.
Ocracoke isn't the easiest beach to reach. You have to take one of three ferries, a private boat or a plane. Aside from Ocracoke Village at its southern end, most of the island is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Leatherman says the biggest obstacle Ocracoke may face is access. "I took off a few points for limited accommodations, but that's the reality. You just have to plan ahead and call ahead."
Leatherman's criteria? "It comes down to clean water, clean sand, safety, facilities - it can't be a primitive beach - air temperature and water warm enough to swim in," he says. "I'm looking for a balance of creature comforts and nature."
He adds, "It's incredibly hard to get in the top 10. There are 650 major beaches to consider."
Ocracoke's island population of 800 swells in summer, when tourists descend on its 23 miles of beach.
Dr. Beach's listing will guarantee a surge.
Wit Tuttell, public relations director for N.C. Tourism, headed tourism publicity for Florida's St. Petersburg/Clearwater area in 2005 when its Fort De Soto Beach topped the list.
"I think we got $1 million worth of publicity just from the 'best beach' announcement," Tuttell recalls. "And visitation [to Pinellas County] in 2005 rose about 6 percent - one of the biggest single-year increases we had - despite an algae problem that year."
Leatherman, a Charlotte native, is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Miami's Florida International University. He graduated from North Carolina State in marine sciences; one job he held as a student was surveying the Outer Banks, including Ocracoke.
"Ocracoke is the best beach, but not the perfect beach," he says. "I'm still looking for that."
Dr. Beach's Top 10
1. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, N.C.
2. Caladesi Island State Park, Fla.
3. Coopers Beach, N.Y.
4. Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
5. Coast Guard Beach, Mass.
6. Hamoa Beach,
7. Main Beach, N.Y.
8. Coronado Beach, Calif.
9. Lighthouse Point Park, Fla.
10. Siesta Beach, Fla.
Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach in North Carolina's Outer Banks heads this year's Top 10 list. N3.