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Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku: Best beach in the U.S.?

Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki, Hawaii. It is

Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki, Hawaii. It is the Best Beach of 2013, according to the popular “Dr. Beach” best beaches contest. Credit: Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa

I have seen the future, and it is hot, wet and sandy, and you can get one of those funny-colored drinks with a paper umbrella on top.

I took a swim recently at Duke Kahanamoku Beach on Oahu in Hawaii. It is the Best Beach of 2013, according to the popular "Dr. Beach" best beaches contest, which will come out around Memorial Day.

Officially, the 2013 winner is a closely guarded secret, with wire services, newspapers, radio and TV stations, and (less consistently) websites promising not to reveal the winner early.

But as a leading beach travel rating forensics expert, I can tell you it's a done deal. "Duke K" is the one. So you can book at Hilton Hawaiian Village now and beat the crowds. If your budget is tight, there are dozens of hotels within a five-minute walk. I'll tell you why I'm sure of the choice in a moment, but first a little about our future top sandy spot.

Spread out and enjoy the view

Unlike past winners of the award, Duke Kahanamoku Beach is an urban beach, one of the finest stretches of Waikiki. It's the westernmost portion of the famous sand strand that runs from Kapahulu Avenue to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor.

While much of Waikiki is packed like a sardine can, Duke Kahanamoku Beach is usually less crowded, owing to the wide expanse of Fort DeRussy, which leaves only the military-run Hale Koa Hotel for service members amid the acres of green lawns. The beach then hits the massive Hilton Hawaiian complex of high-rises. The nearby Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, favored by many families, siphons off even those beachgoing guests.

The result is that even on a summer day, you usually can spread out your towel and enjoy the view without having to listen to 12 conversations around you and people stepping over your towel, or on you, to get to an empty spot.

Compare the beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian -- a bustling, fun but noisy spot -- and Duke Kahanamoku Beach, and you'll see why the latter is on this list.

Still, it's not the best beach in the nation. It's not the best beach in Hawaii, or even on Oahu. So what is it doing on this list? Well, imagine a Miss America contest where the 21 most beautiful and talented young women were eliminated before the event started.

Essentially, that's what "Dr. Beach," aka Stephen Leatherman, who has a PhD, does each year. He says he compiles data on 50 factors, ranging from water quality to amount of sun to water temperature to public access, then announces the best beach in America.

Only it's not. It's more like the 21st-best beach in America. Because once you win Leatherman's award, you are disqualified from future consideration. So the contest starts with the best of the best already out of the running and usually results in whichever beach was No. 2 the year before moving into the winner's circle 12 months later.

Duke Kahanamoku Beach was No. 2 in 2012, so it will all but certainly rise to No. 1. Just as the 2011 No. 2, Coronado Beach in San Diego, moved up to the top spot last year.

There's an outside chance that Leatherman could throw a curveball and skip Duke K Beach in favor of one of the other top runners-up -- like Main Beach in East Hampton, or the beach at St. George Island in Florida. To show it's not just a conga line of ratings, Cape Hatteras in North Carolina dropped from third in 2011 to 10th in 2012. But it's rarely the good doctor's way to call an upset at the top of the list.

Beach preservation effort

And I do mean good doctor. Leatherman is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. This list thing, which has become an annual bonanza of publicity for some local tourism office, was started to promote the National Healthy Beaches Campaign. Its goal is to reduce pollution, litter and overdevelopment at fragile coastal areas. So it is natural to get a fresh name at the top of the list. If the same two or three beaches regularly traded off the top spot, the buzz would all but disappear. Instead, a new queen of the sands is crowned at the start of each beach season, and another community is rewarded for keeping its beach as pristine as possible. It's a time for community celebration. Nobody likes to be forever the bridesmaid.

In an urban setting like Honolulu, beach preservation can be a heroic effort. Duke Kahanamoku Beach sits very near the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, where a man died in 2006 from a flesh-eating bacterial infection he contracted after falling into the harbor's waters. If the water quality on the other side of the breakwater has been improved and maintained in the past six years, that's an accomplishment worthy of national recognition.

I love Duke Kahanamoku Beach, but I have to say the list has grown a bit silly to get to this point. It has been 21 years since Kapalua in Maui won the first contest in 1991. That is a whole generation of beachgoers ago. How can a list that automatically excludes 12 beaches in Hawaii alone be taken seriously? Here's my suggestion, Dr. Leatherman: Time for a reset. Yes, the folks who are still on the list and waiting for their turn at the top might be upset. Give everyone on the list a spot on a "roll of honor" and start over. I'd be interested to see if the same names would win. Kapalua is a beautiful beach, but the surrounding area has undergone a large amount of development in the past two decades. Could it capture No. 1 again? Until Dr. Beach decides he's tired of his own list, the march of the beaches will continue. So join me and beat the crowd. You don't have to be a time traveler to go to Waikiki and take a dip in the Best Beach of 2013.


2012: Coronado State Beach, California

2011: Siesta Beach, Florida

2010: Coopers Beach, Southampton

2009: Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii

2008: Caladesi Island State Park, Florida

2007: Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, North Carolina

2006: Fleming Beach Park, Maui, Hawaii

2005: Fort DeSoto Park, Florida

2004: Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

2003: Kaanapali, Maui, Hawaii

2002: St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida

2001: Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

2000: Kaunaoa Beach, Big Island, Hawaii

1999: Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii

1998: Kailua Beach Park, Oahu, Hawaii

1997: Hulopoe, Maui, Hawaii

1996: Lanikai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

1995: St. Andrews State Recreation

Area, Florida

1994: Grayton Beach State Recreation

Area, Florida

1993: Hapuna, Big Island, Hawaii

1992: Bahia Honda State Recreation Area, Florida

1991: Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii


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