LAUREN BAYNE ANDERSON
The Pinellas County beach is the fifth Florida strand to top Dr. Beach's annual ranking of the best beaches in the nation.
ST. PETERSBURG - Luke Lahaie and his family were sunbathing at the beach at Fort De Soto Park Wednesday when a coastal geologist approached and asked his opinion of the place.
"I told him how I liked it," Lahaie said. "He said, "Good. I'm Dr. Beach, and I'm naming it the No. 1 beach in the country."'
Dr. Beach, whose real name is Stephen Leatherman, thrilled Pinellas County civic leaders Wednesday when he named Fort De Soto's north beach as the nation's best on his annual list.
Fort De Soto has been included on Dr. Beach's widely watched top 10 list for several years, but this is the first time it or any Pinellas County beach has earned the top spot.
Caladesi Island State Park off Dunedin ranked No. 4 this year. Since Leatherman began his best beaches list in 1991, five Florida beaches have made it to the top spot. After hitting No. 1, a beach is retired from the list.
It was the park's overall package that catapulted Fort De Soto to the No. 1 spot, Leatherman said - a combination of cleanliness, ambiance, beauty, good parking and facilities and the park's abundance of wildlife. Fort De Soto ranked second last year.
"The sand is almost like ivory soap, very fine and the water is so clear," Leatherman said. "It feels like I've really gotten away from it all when I'm here."
Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she's excited about the ranking.
The bureau will use Fort De Soto's No. 1 title in brochures, on the Internet and in all promotional campaigns, she said. The promotions will be incorporated into the current marketing budget.
"This is big," she said. "Visitors like to go places that are No. 1."
As Leatherman made his announcement on the beach, county officials gave out foam hands that read, "We're No.1," and John Morroni, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission, gave Leatherman a key to the county. Fort De Soto is a county park.
Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University in Miami, worked for years as a geologist, studying beach erosion and other beach issues before he started his list.
He uses 50 criteria to rate more than 650 beaches around the country. Among them are crowd size, water color, sand softness and color and the beach's smell.
Leatherman said he visits about 100 beaches each year and also produces the National Healthy Beach Campaign's list.
Leatherman said his rankings change because beaches change from year to year, affected by everything from hurricanes to management changes that make a difference in how clean the park is kept. For example, after a hurricane Poipu Beach Park in Hawaii was off the list for years, only to re-emerge and top the list in 2001.
The wildlife at Fort De Soto was also a factor in its ranking. Leatherman said he is impressed with the different birds he sees in the park.
Wednesday as they lay in the sun, many beachgoers agreed with the top ranking, including Lahaie and his family who were visiting from Ontario, Canada.
As 3-year-old Connor Lahaie attempted to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a sea gull swooped down and snatched it from his hands.
Lahaie, 34, laughed about the aggressive bird and said since he arrived in Tampa, people told him to visit Fort De Soto. As the family got off the plane, another passenger told them to visit the park, and the concierge at their hotel recommended it, too.
"We love it," he said. "We don't have to fight for parking, it's quiet, it's calm, the water is clear."
Heidi Rush of St. Petersburg said she comes to Fort De Soto several times a week with her 2-year-old son, Travis. She said the secluded beach has its upsides: She doesn't have to watch her son as closely and feels more comfortable wearing her bathing suit because it's not usually crowded. She also likes the clear water.
"I'm scared of critters, and here I can see to the bottom," Rush said, noting it far surpasses other beaches she's been to in Georgia and other parts of Florida. "It's pretty."
But James Gallagher of St. Petersburg said it doesn't deserve the No. 1 spot. He said he likes Fort De Soto, but the top honor should go to Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle.
"When I was a kid, this is where we used to come so it has sentimental value," Gallagher said. "But in all honestly, I think Fort Walton Beach is better. The sand there is like sugar."
In addition to several beaches, the 1,136-acre park offers boating, fishing, hiking, camping and kayaking.
Ketterhagen said she expects the ranking to boost tourism to the area. Last year there were 2.9-million visitors to Fort De Soto.