The nation's best place to get a tan and enjoy the ocean's waves in 2007 is North Carolina's Ocracoke Island, a place so remote that even people in the offices of "Dr. Beach" — Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman — didn't know where to find it on the map.
"Fourteen miles of unspoiled beach," Leatherman told CBS News from Ocracoke Island. "No development on it whatsoever."
Ocracoke is the first beach not in Florida or Hawaii to earn the top spot in his annual ranking of the nation's top 10 spots on the shore.
Technically, it's Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach that is the nation's best. But Leatherman said there's little that separates those 300 yards of postcard-perfect sand from the rest of the island, almost all of which is protected from development as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Ocracoke is at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the fragile chain of barrier islands along North Carolina's coast known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic." Accessible only by boat or private plane, there are only about 800 full-time residents of the island where the pirate Blackbeard met his untimely death at the hands of the Royal Navy in 1718.
"Don't come here to play golf, don't come here for a Paris Hilton spa — it's not that kind of beach," Leatherman, director of Florida International's laboratory for coastal research, said.
"It has what people are looking for. It has beautiful sand, soft light, the water's clean and clear — it's about 75 degrees today, beach-type weather, no jellyfish, no seaweed," he said Friday. "Then it has a quaint little village called Ocracoke where you have B&Bs (bed-and-breakfast inns) and small, wonderful restaurants."
Ocracoke has been a favorite of "Dr. Beach" for years — he ranked it No. 3 in 2006 and No. 2 in 2005. By winning this year, it will be retired from consideration, along with other past champions.
"Obviously, it's a great honor to be put up at the top of the heap," said Julia Howard, the administrator for the Ocracoke Island Museum and Preservation Society, who has lived on the island for 35 years.
Leatherman ranks beaches on 50 criteria, using a 1 to 5 scale. No beach has ever gotten all 250 points, and Ocracoke ranked somewhere in the 230s, he said. The sand, for example, isn't lily white, so it lost points there.
Here's the 2007 list:
- Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks, N.C.
- Caladesi Island State Park, Clearwater, Fla.
- Coopers Beach, Southampton, N.Y.
- Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
- Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Mass.
- Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii
- Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
- Coronado Beach, San Diego, Calif.
- Lighthouse Point Park, Daytona Beach, Fla.
- Siesta Beach, Sarasota, Fla.
He considers only swimming beaches, which leaves out those along the Maine and Oregon coastlines, where the water is just too cold. Beaches with lifeguards get high points, as do those that balance the natural environment and the built environment.
"I'm just a stickler for detail," he said. "There's no perfect beach by the rating criteria, but there are so many great ones."
Earning the No. 1 ranking on the "Dr. Beach" list is usually a tourism booster. When the north beach at Florida's Fort De Soto was named the best in 2005, Leatherman said, the number of hits on a related Web site jumped in one day from 1,000 to 10,000.
But the remote nature of Ocracoke and its place as part of a national seashore should spare the island's 25-foot sand dunes, topped by sea oats, from an onslaught of beachcombers.
"When things are inundated with people, it isn't quite the same place any more," Howard said. "We hope people who do come here would honor our beauty and keep it looking the way it does for a long time."