With 15,000 kilometres 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 beach in New Zealand is easy, but here's our pick of the top 10 must-see beaches this island nation has to offer.
Drive, surf or sandboard at Ninety Mile Beach
It’s a poorly kept secret, but North Island's famous Ninety Mile Beach is in fact only 88 km (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.
A great spot to visit this seemingly endless beach is just shy of the Cape is Te Paki Stream car park. A walkway from here leads to the beach and northwards to Scott Point.
Visit the black-sand Piha beach near Auckland
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.
Cathedral Cove is a popular Coromandel beach
Beautiful Cathedral Cove is not going to win any awards for peace and quiet but its iconic status means it's still worth the visit. With its famous gigantic stone arch and natural waterfall shower, is best enjoyed early or late in the day if you are crowds-adverse. The rocky Gemstone Bay also has a snorkelling trail where you’re likely to see big snapper, crayfish and stingrays.
You can escape the Coromandel crowd at 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, pohutukawa 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.
Watch learner surfers riding the waves at Ngarunui
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.
"Big water" swimming at Wainui in Eastland
Meaning “big water” in Maori, it’s no surprise that New Zealand has more Wainuis 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, as well as Wainui Store which fries up good fish and chips.
Anchorage tops the stunning beaches of Abel Tasman National Park
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 stunning stretch of the coastal Great Walk. 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.
Make the journey to epic Scott’s Beach
The coastal crescendo of Kahurangi National Park’s multi-day 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.
Head to photogenic Wharariki Beach for a sunset stroll
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. 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.
Pūrākaunui Bay is a quiet spot to swim – and camp
Sixteen kilometres 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. 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. There’s blissfully little to do, except swimming when the surf’s off, and surfing when it’s on. It's the perfect beach for a tremendous relax.