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Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki leads Dr. Beach's annual ranking as top public US beach

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HONOLULU, Hawaii - A tourist-friendly beach named for a Hawaii surfing legend has been dubbed the best public beach in the United States in this year's Dr. Beach ranking.

Duke Kahanamoku Beach, a well-groomed crescent of blond sand and palm trees near the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, beat out more than 600 other beaches for the distinction.

Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University coastal science professor who goes by the nickname Dr. Beach, said the cleanliness, safe conditions and amenities pushed Duke Kahanamoku to the top of his 24th annual list.

"It's safe for kids and families," he said by phone. "The water quality's great. The vistas are right off the scale for that place."

Also big for him: Smoking there is banned, as it is on beaches throughout Oahu.

"I hope Hawaii sets the standard and the wave moves eastward to the mainland," he said. "South Beach is a hot beach in Miami but sometimes there I count 10 cigarette butts in a square meter."

On Wednesday at Duke Kahanamoku Beach, visitors lolled under umbrellas and thumbed paperbacks. Toddlers in frumpy hats undertook tiny civil engineering projects. A half-dozen surfing students in garish green rash guards paddled through the placid shallow water, past the seawall and out toward popular surf breaks.

Locals who know Hawaii may quibble about what deserves the best beach title. "There's probably better beaches on the outer islands," said Kainoa Haas, 22, a Honolulu surfer.

But Rhode Island tourists Robert Ferland and Stephanie DeQuattro, at Duke Kahanamoku for a ninth straight day, were impressed.

"It's pretty," said Ferland, 32. "We have nice beaches at home..."

"But it's nothing like here," DeQuattro, 30, finished for him.

They said they saw couples posing for engagement and wedding photos on the beach every day. Ferland and DeQuattro became engaged themselves Tuesday, and Ferland would have proposed on the beach — but it was raining.

Hawaii's Waimanalo Bay Beach Park on Oahu, and Hamoa Beach on Maui, were also among the top 10 beaches Leatherman named this year. The others were Florida's Barefoot Beach, St. George Island State Park, Key Biscayne and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park; North Carolina's Cape Hatteras; Massachusetts' Cape Cod; and South Carolina's Kiawah Island.

Duke Kahanamoku Beach is the 13th Hawaii beach to win the distinction as America's best — the fourth on Oahu, following Hanauma Bay, Kailua Beach Park and Lanikai Beach. Once a beach wins, Leatherman retires it from consideration for future lists.

Outside Hawaii, Florida boasts the most past winners in the Dr. Beach rankings, with seven. New York beaches have won twice, while California and North Carolina have produced one top beach apiece.

This already has been a big spring for Duke Kahanamoku Beach. In the new blockbuster movie "Godzilla," it's where the monster clambers out of the Pacific and into Waikiki, flooding the streets and demolishing hotels.

Leatherman, who did his Ph.D. on beach erosion, said such a kaiju attack would hurt the beach in his rankings if the debris wasn't cleaned up. "The tsunami itself would go over top of the whole thing," he said, "and the beach would still be there."

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Sam Eifling can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/sameifling

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