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Catch a wave at America's 5 best beaches

By Ben Grove, Staff writer
Published On: May 23 2011 10:44:56 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 26 2012 08:01:05 AM CDT
Windansea Beach, San Diego

People love the beach. For whatever reason, many humans just feel drawn to the shore. "The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever," Jacques Cousteau said.

So even if we can't get there often, we like to visit in our minds. We linger over childhood memories of an unblemished white strand, or close our eyes for a moment when things get stressful to escape to a gently sloping dune.

Or stuck in drab cubicles, we gaze longingly at a Pacific island screensaver.

Imagine it now: Clean, uncrowded stretches of sand. Clear blue water. Cool breeze. Seagulls. Sunshine.

Indulge that fantasy a little more here with a stroll along five of the finest beaches in America.

Best Beach No. 5: California dreamin'

Coronado Beach, San Diego

No. 5: Coronado Beach - San Diego, Calif.

The Travel Channel has called Coronado Beach one of the best in America, citing its near-perfect weather and sprawling stretches of clean white sand. Coronado is perhaps best-known for the national historic landmark Hotel del Coronado, the finely restored, red-roofed Victorian-era inn that has beckoned tourists to the shore since 1888.

But locals and tourists alike fall in love with the beach itself because there is so much to do there -- Coronado is a favorite of for sunbathing, volleyball and other beach sports, and swimming nearly year-round.

There's also a great bike path, tide pools to explore, nearby off-leash dog park and fire rings. In January through March, visitors might spot whales migrating south.

But maybe the best thing about Coronado is that it has the widest expanse of sand in San Diego County -- plenty of room to fly a kite or simply unfurl a beach towel for a quiet nap under the California sun.

Best Beach No. 4: Georgia on my mind

Cumberland Island, Georgia

No. 4: Cumberland Island, Ga.

Conde Nast Traveler noted that Cumberland Island 's few permanent residents have included the names Carnegie and Rockefeller, but it took the 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette to put the island on the map.

And yet, the beach on Georgia's southernmost and largest barrier island is still unspoiled -- nearly 18 miles of fine sand that at the water's edge is "delectably soft," as Conde Nast put it.

And the beach is hardly a playground of the wealthy -- it's now managed and protected as U.S. National Seashore by rangers who keep an eye on everything from wild turkeys and manatees to otters, wild horses and more than 300 species of birds.

The island is remote; visitors have to hop a ferry from the mainland that leaves just twice a day. But once they get there, the sun and sand make for an affordable, unforgettable day trip. For just a few bucks, anyone can camp overnight and check out some of the finest star-gazing on the East Coast.

Best Beach No. 3: Goin' to Carolina

Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina

No. 3: Beachwalker Park - Kiawah Island, S.C.

Visitors to South Carolina will more likely have heard of South Carolina's most famous strand -- Myrtle Beach, long a tourism Mecca. But Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island offers a purer beach experience for the sand and wildlife lover.

Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, world-renown as Dr. Beach and for his annual top-10 beaching rankings, listed Beachwalker at No. 6 on his list this year.

The place is aptly named -- perfect for a stroll down to St. Sam's Inlet, where visitors can see thousands of birds. A boardwalk winds through live oaks, pines and palmettos. Dr. Beach recommends visitors paddle through the tidal inlets by canoe or kayak.

Dr. Beach notes that the water is clean and home to seafood culled for fine low-country cooking. And he suggests bringing a bicycle -- the sand is compact enough to ride along the 10-mile long barrier island.

Best Beach No. 2: Sunshine State's Finest

Fort De Soto Beach, St

No. 2: Fort De Soto Park - St. Petersburg, Fla.

Florida is another state where it's tough to choose one best beach. But the online travel site TripAdvisor went out on a limb and named Fort De Soto Park as America's top beach -- twice.

The Pinellas County website boasts simply, "three miles of the finest white sand beach in the United States" -- as fine as baby powder, as one tourist described it.

The park has a colorful history. It was sold to the federal government for $18,404 to be used as a gunnery and bombing range during World War II. A distinguishing feature of the park today is still a historic fort, along with its cannons, built for the Spanish-American War (although not completed until after the war's end).

There is a lot to do here, too: canoeing, fishing piers, rental bikes and 238 campsites. But it's the quiet splendor of sunset viewing from the sand that tourists remember most.

Best Beach No. 1: In A Land Called Hanalei

Hanalei Bay Beach, Hawaii

No. 1: Hanalei Bay - Kauai, Hawaii

Somewhat off the beaten tourist path on Oahu is the quieter island of Kauai, home to what some argue is the finest beach on Hawaii's long list of fine beaches.

Hanalei Bay beach on the island's north shore is a secluded two-mile crescent of undeveloped white sand sandwiched between sparkling blue water and green forested mountain. It's a favorite of locals for surfing, swimming and snorkeling.

"The sheer beauty of Hanalei Bay is breathtaking," Dr. Beach said. He ranked Hanalei Bay No. 1 in 2009 and has called it his favorite beach in Hawaii.

Of course, Hanalei Bay's claim to best beach in Hawaii is highly debatable. Dr. Beach himself has ranked these in previous years as the nation's best beach: Fleming Beach Park on Maui; Hanauma Bay; Kaanapali; Poipu Beach; Kaunaoa Beach; Wailea Beach and Kailua Beach Park.

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