ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A 14-kilometer stretch of sugar-white Florida sand in a pristine natural setting on the Gulf of Mexico is the country’s best beach for 2023, according to the annual ranking published Thursday by university professor “Dr. Beach.”
The state park on St. George Island, just off the Florida Panhandle, received the top honor from Stephen Leatherman, Professor at the Department of Earth & Environment at Florida International University. This year’s Top 10 list marks the 33rd year that Leatherman has ranked the best of America’s 650 public beaches around Memorial Day, the traditional beginning of summer.
St. George Island frequently makes the list. But what sets it apart this year is its natural beauty, lack of development, numerous activities including fishing, swimming, kayaking, biking, camping, and unparalleled views of the night sky for stargazers, Leatherman said.
“There’s just so many things that capture my imagination,” Leatherman said in an interview. “It’s an idyllic place.”
The park covers approximately 2,000 acres (810 hectares) on the east end of the island and is connected to the mainland by a bridge over Apalachicola Bay, famous for its oysters. The other parts of the island have a small village, restaurants, rental houses and motels, but not much else.
And that’s how Leatherman likes it.
“People can enjoy the best of both worlds there, just miles of pristine beaches,” he said.
Tropical storms have ravaged the island over the decades, most recently Hurricane Michael in October 2018. This deadly Category 5 storm made landfall about 50 miles northwest in Mexico Beach, but had enough force to level many St. Georges Island sand dunes and damaged park facilities such as picnic pavilions and restrooms.
“Since then, staff and volunteers have made great strides to restore the park to normal,” park officials said on their website.
In 2005, a 153-year-old lighthouse on the nearby, uninhabited island of Little St. George collapsed into the Gulf due to storms and erosion. It was rebuilt on the main island after volunteers recovered 22,000 of the original bricks and found the 19th-century plans in the National Archives. The new location allows people to get to the top more easily and enjoy a panoramic view.
Leatherman uses 50 criteria to rate beaches, including sand type, wave action, lifeguard presence, wildlife presence, level of development and crowding, and many other factors. Of particular note are beaches where smoking cigarettes is prohibited, mainly because of the need to prevent discarded cigarette butts. None were seen on a recent visit to St. George Island, he said.
“I had to give them more credit for that,” Leatherman said. “I think people have come to believe that our beaches are some of our most beautiful places to relax. You can go to the beach and do so many things.”
A second beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater and Dunedin, is fourth on the list this year. It’s accessed primarily by ferry and private boat, or, depending on the tide, it’s a fairly decent walk from Clearwater Beach. Despite the name, Caladesi is no longer a true island because one bay is closed, Leatherman said.
“The white beach consists of crystalline quartz sand, which is soft and comfortable at the water’s edge and invites you to swim in the sparkling, clear water,” he said.
In Caladesi there are nature trails on boardwalks and kayaking through mangroves, which are home to numerous species of fish, birds and other animals.
Hawaii has three beaches on the list, more than any other state. Next came Florida with two.
Here are Dr. Beach’s complete top 10 for 2023:
1. St George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
2. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
3. Cooper’s Beach, Southampton, New York
4. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
6. Coronado Beach, San Diego
7. Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii
8. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
9. Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts