Comprised of two main islands and hundreds of smaller off-shore islands, New Zealand has a lot of coastline. That means there are many excellent beaches that are ideal for all interests: swimming, relaxing with a book, walking, wildlife spotting, or just admiring the view. While the beaches in the North Island and top of the South Island are generally better for swimming, especially in the warmer months (November to March), even the cold-water beaches in the deep south are quite a treat. Here are 15 of the best beaches in New Zealand.
Ninety Mile Beach, Far North
The further north you go in New Zealand, the warmer the seas tend to be, and long skinny Northland province is awash with gorgeous beaches. One of the northern-most is Ninety Mile Beach, which is actually 55 miles, or 88 kilometers, long. It stretches from Ahipara near Kaitaia to Scott Point near Cape Reinga, on the far northwestern coast of Northland. Many travelers visit on a day trip from the Bay of Islands, and it’s a good place to hike, surf, or fish.
Maitai Bay, Karikari Peninsula
This sheltered bay is ideal for swimming, as the waters are warm and clear. The Maitai Bay Headland Track is also good for travelers who want a bit more activity than just sitting on the beach. The 90-minute hike through farm and scrub land offers great views of Matai Bay as well as nearby Waikato Bay. There’s a campground at Maitai Bay (as there are at many of New Zealand’s beaches), or it’s a 27-mile (44-kilometer) drive northeast of Kaitaia. Be aware that fishing is restricted in the area, in an attempt to counter the effects of overfishing.
Waipu Cove, Bream Bay
Further south in Northland, Bream Bay is just south of the city of Whangarei, and only a couple hours’ drive north of Auckland. The whole bay is characterized by white sands and dramatic views of the Whangarei Heads and Hen and Chicken Islands off shore. Waipu Cove is relatively sheltered with a small creek at the southern end overhung with Pohutukawa trees. Although popular with visitors from Auckland in the summer school break, the rest of the year it's practically empty, apart from locals enjoying their backyard. Nearby Ruakaka Beach, Uretiti, Langs Beach, and Mangawhai are also pretty special.
Piha, West Auckland
Piha is a rugged black sand beach in west Auckland, and to get there from the city, you must travel through the Waitakere Ranges. It’s one of New Zealand’s most famous surf beaches, but like many beaches along New Zealand’s entire west coast, the seas are rough and only suitable for experienced surfers or newbies with an instructor. In the summer, surf lifeguards patrol the beach and mark areas that are safe for swimming. There’s a walking track to a nearby waterfall, too.
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel Peninsula, an easy drive from Auckland, also features many contenders for best beach in the country. Cathedral Cove is perhaps one of the most iconic beaches in New Zealand, but like many popular attractions, it's popular for good reason. The rock formations at the beach and just offshore look like something you might expect to see in Thailand. Kayaking is a fun way to explore the area, which is a marine reserve. The beach must be accessed by walking for roughly one hour along an easy track from the car park at the top (unless you arrive by boat or kayak).
Whangamata, Coromandel Peninsula
At the southern end of the Coromandel (not actually on the peninsula at all), Whangamata ticks many of the boxes for a perfect beach: white sand, safe swimming, an incredible left-hand surf break at the Whangamata Bar, an estuary that’s ideal for exploring in a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, and a hot northern New Zealand climate (in the summer, that is). Whangamata’s a favorite among New Zealanders, so in the summer you’ll have plenty of chances to meet the locals here.
Ngarunui Beach, Raglan
Raglan is another of northern New Zealand’s famous surfing spots. The glittering sweep of black sand at Ngarunui Beach is the ideal place to learn to surf, as surf schools set up in the area in season. The western end of the beach is best for swimming and surfing while the eastern end is ideal for long walks. There are lovely picnic spots overlooking the long beach from the Wainui Reserve just above the beach, but bring your own food.
Oriental Bay, Wellington
New Zealand doesn’t really do city beaches like Rio de Janeiro or Sydney, and with so many gorgeous and undeveloped beaches not far from the towns, they’re not really missed. But Wellington’s Oriental Bay is an exception. Although Wellington’s weather is notoriously blustery, when the wind does die down and the sun comes out, locals flock to Oriental Bay in the heart of the city. If you're not up for swimming or sunbathing, grab an ice cream and people-watch instead.
Umungata Bay, Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island offer dozens of secluded little white sand beaches that are practically deserted because they’re quite tricky to get to. Umungata Bay (also called Davies Bay), on the western edge of the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound, is one example, and getting there is part of the fun. You’ll have to walk through the bush from roadhead for a mile or so to get there. The water is shallow, so it warms up quickly on a hot day. You might even spot a stingray.
Kaiteriteri, Tasman Bay
While it’s a bit of a cliché to talk about golden sands on a beach, this is exactly the color of the sand at Kaiteriteri, a striking yellow-orange gold. It's on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park, making it an ideal jumping-off point for sea kayaking explorations into the park and the offshore marine reserve. The small bay is also highly worthwhile as a destination in its own right, thanks to those beautiful sands and the interesting cliffs at either end.
Wharariki Beach, Golden Bay
Wharariki Beach feels like the end of the earth, because it practically is. On the far north-western tip of the South Island, it’s just west of the long sandy arch of Farewell Spit, leading the South Island off into the ocean. Access the beach via a half-hour walk from the end of the road over lovely farmland. You may see seals basking in the sun and pools of the beach. At low tide you can walk the length of the beach, but you can go at any time. Just be warned: Wharariki Beach redefines the word "windswept."
Hokitika Beach, Westland
The best time to visit Hokitika Beach, on the western coast of the South Island, is after a storm, or heavy rainfall, when incredible driftwood washes ashore. Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, can be seen from the beach when the weather’s clear, and it’s even possible to find pieces of pounamu (New Zealand jade) washed up on the beach, too. This isn't a place for a swim, but creative types will be inspired by the Romantic beauty.
Moeraki Boulders Beach (Koekohe Beach), Otago
On the Otago coastline near the town of Moeraki are the highly unusual Moeraki Boulders. These large, spherical rocks are thought to have been produced about 60 million years ago from ocean floor sediment. They’re extremely photogenic, and are one of the southern South Island’s most popular attractions. They're on the road between Christchurch and Dunedin, though much closer to Dunedin.
Aramoana Beach, Dunedin
Wildlife and bird enthusiasts should spend some time exploring the coastline around the southern city of Dunedin, which is home to sea lions, penguins, and other wonderful creatures who like the cold waters. Aramoana is a wide beach on the northern side of the Otago Harbour, with dramatic cliffs and sand dunes (though you should keep off them as penguins nest there). The beaches of the Otago Peninsula on the opposite side of the Otago Harbour are equally attractive.
Waipati Beach, Catlins
The incredible Cathedral Caves—not to be confused with Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel—are on the northern end of Waipati Beach in the Catlins area of southern Otago. They’re among the longest sea cave systems in the world, and measure 650 feet deep and 100 feet high. There are two caves, formed by the pounding waves over many thousands of years. Access is along a walking track through the bush, and is only possible during low tide. Lovely native birds can be found in and around the caves, like fantails, tuis, and oyster-catchers.