So maybe watersports aren’t your thing. Maybe your idea of the ultimate beach experience is wiggling your toes in soft sand. We understand. And to help you have a better beach experience, we’ve asked Stephen Leatherman, Ph.D.—better known as Dr. Beach—director of the Laboratory of Coastal Research at Florida International University, for his five favorite East Coast beaches: super shores that are visitor-friendly, crowd free, relaxing, and inexpensive. Leatherman has visited all of America’s more than 650 major public recreational beaches, and each year, using an exhaustive list of criteria that covers everything from sand quality to water temperature, he ranks the nation’s top spots. Since we already know that Florida has great beaches—and to test the good doctor’s knowledge—we asked him to recommend places north of the Sunshine State. His top five picks, in order:
Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, North Carolina Blackbeard’s former stomping ground was Dr. Beach’s top pick in 2007 and remains a personal fave. Part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the 16-mile-long coarse-grained sand beach boasts big surf, clean water, and great swimming. Bicyclists love the nearby paths and the absence of monster homes (or any homes, for that matter). “It’s not the end of the world,” says Leatherman, “but you can see it from here.”
Kiawah Island Beachwalker Park, South Carolina The south end of Kiawah Island may lack big waves—“Leave the surfboard at home,” advises Leatherman—but the location is otherwise perfect, with superfine white sand, brilliant sunny skies, picnic areas, boardwalks, and beach-chair and umbrella rentals. Take canoe trips along the bay side, or bring your bicycle for some fabulous pedaling along the hard-packed sand. For great bird watching, head south at low tide.
Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware Separating Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Henlopen beach is mostly undeveloped, though a World War II observation tower offers panoramic 360-degree views that are ideal for bird watchers. Back on the ground, grownups and kids alike tumble down the steep sides of Lewes Dune, which is nearly 80 feet high and more than a mile long. You can also track down the abundant horseshoe crabs. “They look like living fossils,” says Leatherman.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland Dr. Beach calls this one a favorite, even if the resident ponies have been known to kick and bite well-meaning tourists. The beach runs about five miles—terrific for long, uninterrupted walks, bicycling, or shelling. The sand is fine and white—some of the best along the mid-Atlantic coast—and the beach has become a vital resting and feeding area for more than 300 species of birds, including peregrine falcons, sandpipers, egrets, ospreys, and terns. The only way to spend the night is by camping, but Ocean City is 20 minutes away by car.
Sand Beach, Maine It’s just 290 yards long, but Sand Beach, in Maine’s Acadia National Park, fascinates Leatherman because of its unique formation. “Instead of quartz, the beach is actually a cold-water carbonate, meaning it’s composed of the crushed spines of sea urchins and seashells,” he says. Even in the height of summer the water temperature rarely exceeds 55°F. Still, the rocky, piny views are spectacular, and Sand Beach is close to Bar Harbor and the finest lobster meals around.
For more of Dr. Beach’s favorite spots, check out www.drbeach.org.