The 2010 UK Landscape Award, the first of its kind, was created by the European Landscape Convention. The winner, Durham Heritage Coast, was one of six English landscapes competing for a place in a European final to be held in Strasbourg next March.
"Where waste was tipped onto beaches in enormous quantities, a path now leads through a wonderful landscape mosaic," said Durham Heritage Coast Partnership.
Over 1.5m tonnes of slag a year were dumped over cliffs onto what became known as the "black beaches", immortalised as the film sets of Get Carter and Alien 3. Mining ended over 15 years ago and the spoil heaps became natural grasslands.
The 11-mile strip from Sunderland to Hartlepool boasts natural, historical and geological landmarks and beautiful views along the North Sea coastline, said the award judges. "The coast has emerged from its industrial past to be an area worthy of Heritage Coast status, with one of the finest coastlines in England."
The Durham Heritage Coast beat the Mersey Basin, Sheffield town centre, Baxter Park in Dundee, hill forts and moorland in Denbighshire, Wales, and Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. The coastline will now represent the UK in the European Landscape Awards next year.
Poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan called the landscape an "internationally important exemplar" of transformation through investment, enthusiasm and hard work.
"This is the beginning of a renaissance that will enable towns and villages of this part of the former Durham coalfield to develop a relevant new identity," he said.
The award is championed by Defra, and is managed in the UK by the Landscape Institute.