With 15,000km (9320 miles) of coastline, New Zealand is heaven for beach lovers. Its diverse shores dish up everything from lazy days and blazing sunsets to active adventures such as swimming, kayaking and surfing.
Finding a great strip of sand in New Zealand is easy, but you can narrow down your coastal hit list with our pick of the country's very best beaches.
While Piha is infamous for unruly surf and strong undertows, it well deserves its mantle as Auckland’s most popular strand. Sizzle yourself on its hot black sand, frolic amid foamy white rollers (always swim between the flags), and wander the beach and surrounding walking tracks to better admire the shapely headlands of Lion Rock and Taitomo Island.
Picking the best beach in Abel Tasman National Park isn’t easy, for its coastline boasts one stunner after another. Anchorage stakes a strong claim not only for its sheer natural beauty – a gently sloping arc of golden sand, fringed with lush forest – but also for its access to a beautiful stretch of the coastal Great Walk.
Planning tip: It’s possible to overnight in the conservation campsite or hut, which should allow time to take the short side-trip to magical Cleopatra’s Pool.
3. Ninety Mile Beach
It’s a poorly kept secret, but North Island's famous Ninety Mile Beach is in fact only 88km (54.6 miles), but you won't feel short-changed here. Starting near Kaitaia and ending close to Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua) – New Zealand’s spiritual northern point – is an epic expanse of sand and endless ocean, backed by massive dunes.
Planning tip: A great spot to visit this seemingly endless beach just shy of the Cape is Te Paki Stream car park. A walkway from here leads to the beach and northwards to Scott Point.
4. Scott’s Beach
The coastal crescendo of Kahurangi National Park’s multiday Heaphy Track, this remote beach can also be reached from the northern extremity of the West Coast Road. And what a journey it is: the intensely scenic drive through Karamea to Kōhaihai, the end-of-the-line camping reserve in a magnificent estuary setting. From there you can venture into the national park, over a low hill to Scott’s Beach. Likely to be shrouded in a salt mist, the beguiling scene features jagged rocks, nikau palm forest, and powerful waves clawing at the driftwood-strewn beach.
5. New Chums Beach
Beautiful beaches are everywhere on the Coromandel Peninsula, but New Chums is our pick for the best one because of its isolation. It’s actually only half an hour’s walk from Whangapoua car park, but such is the rock-hopping and scampering required that many don’t even attempt it. The reward is a beach so golden, a sea so glittering, pōhutukawa trees so gnarled (and resplendent in red blooms around Christmas), that its beauty may bring a tear to your eye. What’s more, you might have it all to yourself.
Nearby Raglan is waxhead central, with serious surfers heading to Manu Bay, rumoured to have the world’s longest left-hand break. Mere mortals are better off at nearby Ngarunui, where friendlier surf allows for safer swimming, even more so from October to April when the beach is patrolled by lifeguards. It’s a busy and entertaining place on fine, summer days, especially when visitors to Raglan Surf School are giving this surfing lark a go.
7. Wainui, Eastland
Meaning “big water” in Māori, it’s no surprise that New Zealand has more places named Wainui than you can poke an oar at. Just up the coast from Gisborne, this Wainui is a cracker: it offers great swimming and a quality surf break, backed by a series of dune and bush reserves. Wainui sustains a close-knit community of ocean-lovers including stalwarts of the surf-lifesaving club.
Planning tip: For a bite to eat, stop by Zephyr Wainui, which serves up plant-based smoothies and bowls.
8. Pūrākaunui Bay
Sixteen kilometers (10 miles) from the nearest town (Owaka, population 300), this is a genuine hidden gem in a super-sleepy corner of the Catlins, Southland. It has few claims to fame, save a small (and CGI) role in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). And hooray for that because Pūrākaunui is all about peace and quiet. It’s a picturesque beach, framed by high cliffs, with pockets of native bush and a large grassy reserve.
Planning tip: There’s blissfully little to do here, except swimming when the surf’s off, and surfing when it’s on. It's the perfect beach for a tremendous relaxation.
9. Wharariki Beach
Brace yourself for an eye-popping surprise after the 20-minute farm walk in western Golden Bay. Boom! Mighty dunes lead down to a wild, West Coast sea. Jagged rock islands stand firm in the shallows, smashed by the waves. Seals may be seen scampering. Light shimmers across wet, rippled sands.
Planning tip: Wharariki Beach is too dangerous for swimming so don’t bother with the beach towel. But do try to time your visit for early morning or late afternoon, and definitely bring your camera.
10. Cathedral Cove
Beautiful Cathedral Cove, with its famous gigantic stone arch and natural waterfall shower, is an iconic New Zealand beach that has been known to draw massive crowds. However, storm damage in 2023 has made the area vulnerable to landslides, and the Department of Conservation (DOC) has closed the walking route to the beach. It's still possible to reach the cove by boat or kayak, but be advised that going under the famous arch is not considered safe at this time due to the risk of rockfall. Check DOC's latest online advice before heading out to Cathedral Cove.
Planning tip: Should the DOC reopen the walking route and the beach be deemed safe to visit again, bring your mask, snorkel and fins: the rocky Gemstone Bay has a snorkeling trail where you’re likely to see big snapper, crayfish and stingrays. If you prefer to avoid crowds, Cathedral Cove is best enjoyed early or late in the day.