HONOLULU — Cruising along the west side of Hawaii’s Big Island, the landscape is dominated by ancient volcanic flows and jagged shorelines. Then, you come to Hapuna Beach.
The contrast of black lava rock, white sand and blue water means you have arrived in paradise — at least that’s what “Dr. Beach” believes.
“It’s like an oasis,” said Stephen Leatherman, who has been ranking U.S. beaches on his annual list under the alias “Dr. Beach” for three decades and rates Hapuna Beach State Park the best beach in the United States in his just-released 2021 rankings of sandy shorelines.
The sand “looks super white there because of the black lava beside it,” Leatherman said. “I think the contrast makes you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve never seen sand so white in my life.’ ”
Leatherman, a coastal scientist and professor at Florida International University in North Miami, hopes his 30th annual list will encourage people to get out and leave the past year of pandemic struggles in the rearview mirror.
Visitors will have to bring their vaccination cards or pay to get tested for COVID-19 before coming to the islands, but, Leatherman said, “Hawaii is a really special place, and so I think it’s worth it.”
Kandi Miranda, who owns Manuela Malasada Company and runs a food truck near Hapuna Beach State Park, was born and raised on the Big Island. She was able to stay open for locals throughout the pandemic and is optimistic about the return of visitors.
Miranda said Hapuna Beach is a powerful place. “It’s unapologetically magical,” she said.
When the water is calm, it’s a great place to be, Miranda said. But when the ocean rises and big waves crash, she said, it can be “really dangerous. It’s beautiful, but there’s a very strong undertow there.”
Leatherman said that while Hapuna has a well trained group of lifeguards and is great for swimming and snorkeling on calm days, the winter swells can be deceiving.
He uses 50 criteria to evaluate beaches, with the most important categories being safety and cleanliness. He taps data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grade them on water quality and has been to all of the beaches on his list.
Why Hawaii always ranks high
Beaches in Hawaii consistently have been ranked high by Leatherman, who, in recent years, has given them added credit for prohibiting smoking.
“First of all, it’s a health issue,” he said of wafting cigarette smoke. “But the biggest thing is disposal of the cigarette butts. People look at beaches like a giant ashtray.”
Cigarettes “are the number one form of litter in terms of numbers,” he said.
For the first 25 years of rankings, any beach that won the top spot on Leatherman’s list was ineligible for inclusion in subsequent years. But in 2015, he cleared the slate to allow any beach in the nation to once again be eligible, though he retires new winners from future lists.
Last year, Leatherman chose a beach outside of Hawaii because, he said, island lockdowns and quarantine rules made it nearly impossible for people to visit.
“I know a lot of people have been vaccinated,” he said. “And so I think this year it’s fine for Hawaii to be on the list. And I encourage people to go there. You can really social distance on the Big Island.”