We hit the sand and picked our favorites.
1. Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii
How do you choose from so many fabulous Hawaiian beaches? Consult Dr. Beach―coastal scientist and beach aficionado Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (see drbeach.org). When he compiled his first annual list of "best beaches" in 1991, he ranked Kapalua Bay Beach number one for its calm, swim-friendly water and lovely location on Maui's northwest shore. Thanks, Doc. See you on the sand; bestplaceshawaii.com/tips/10_best/beaches.html.
2. Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Daydreams of the perfect tropical beach conjure images of blue-green water, lazy breezes, towering palm trees, and white sand. In other words, Trunk Bay. The magic extends even beneath the surface. Plaques mark an underwater snorkel trail, which guides visitors to colorful fish and coral. Sure, the beach can draw crowds, but for good reason: It's gorgeous. And it's part of Virgin Islands National Park, which offers plenty of other distractions; 340/776-6201 or nps.gov/viis.
3. Heart's Desire Beach, Inverness, California
About 75 minutes north of San Francisco, Heart's Desire Beach nestles within Tomales Bay State Park and the magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore. The area's sunniest, warmest, most accessible enclave, Heart's Desire welcomes picnickers, and the sand and water lie a short, level walk from the parking lot. For those reasons, it especially attracts families. Still, the splendid isolation on a tranquil Marin County bay makes Heart's Desire a romantic spot as well―the ideal place to pop the proverbial question; 415/669-1140 or parks.ca.gov (click on "Find A Park").
4. Clam Pass Beach, Naples, Florida
We may be stretching the definition of a pocket beach (one bounded at each end by a headland). But despite a lack of headlands, we just had to include Clam Pass, a 3,200-foot expanse of white sand waiting at the end of a three-quarter-mile boardwalk. Only low-key concessions (beach-gear rental, food, drink) and the occasional cries of seabirds and happy children disturb the wave-washed serenity; 239/597-3232 or colliergov.net/Index.aspx?page=458.
5. Sand Beach, Mount Desert Island, Maine
Attractions here include soft sand, a rarity on Maine's rocky coast. Visitors to this 290-yard gem in Acadia National Park can also enjoy sublime sunrises―but usually not swimming, because the water temperature rarely tops 55 degrees. The Park Loop Road and, from late June through Columbus Day, shuttle buses provide easy access; 207/288-3338 or nps.gov/acad.
6. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
It takes some effort to reach this extraordinarily beautiful bit of Central California's Big Sur coast. In Los Padres National Forest, you have to find the unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road turnoff from Highway 1, then wind along the narrow road for two miles. The payoff: a wide curve of sand guarded by jagged cliffs on the land side and gnarled rocks on the ocean side that shatter each wave into clouds of foam and mist. Tide pools shelter sea stars and other marine life. In late fall and early winter, a natural archway in an offshore rock formation frames the sunset; bigsurcalifornia.org/beaches.html.
7. Short Sands Beach, Nehalem, Oregon
Surfers and body boarders ride the waves. Hikers love the trails through old-growth forests. (The beach is part of Oswald West State Park.) Less strenuous options include puttering around the tide pools, enjoying the vistas of the surrounding cliffs and forest, beachcombing, watching the surfers―and thanking the memory of Oswald himself, who as Oregon governor in 1913 guaranteed public access to the state's beaches. The park runs along the northern Oregon coast, 10 miles south of Cannon Beach off U.S. 101; 503/368-5943 or oregonstateparks.org/park_195.php.
8. Horseshoe Bay Beach, Bermuda
The South Shore encompasses this island nation's famous pink-sand beaches. Well, pinkish, at least. Whatever the hue, Horseshoe Bay's barefoot-friendly softness and scenic rock outcroppings make it Bermuda's most popular beach. A snack bar, equipment-rental concession, and lifeguards (May-October) enhance the experience; 441/238-2651 or bermudatourism.com (click "What To Do," then "Beaches").
9. Sand Point Beach, Munising, Michigan
Shallow, clear, warm water (at least in summer) draws lots of swimmers. Sand Point lies within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the rugged, remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Easy hikes lead to waterfalls, wildlife, and the multicolored sandstone cliffs that give the park its name. As a bonus, the beach faces west, allowing beautiful sunset views across Munising Bay; 906/387-3700 or nps.gov/piro.
10. El Matador State Beach, Malibu, California
Three California sites among the top 10? Credit the vagaries of geography. The Pacific Ocean has carved an abundance of pocket beaches that other coasts can't match. This Los Angeles-area treasure, part of Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, includes sea stacks, caves, and other rocky features usually found farther north. Other interesting sights include occasional glimpses of celebrities (this is, after all, Malibu) and nude sunbathers. Don't join the latter―it's illegal; 818/880-0350 or parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=633.
published May 2006