An alternative guide to New Zealand’s best beaches

An alternative guide to New Zealand’s best beaches

It’s around this time of year that a great debate swells into kiwi conversation and proximity to ice cream is weighed up against sunshine hours and sand preferences.

While our personal connections to the takutai (coast) mean that there can never be a definitive list of Aotearoa’s best beaches, here is our version, compiled by Te Papa staff with images from Collections Online.  

1. Pātea, South Taranaki

Leslie Adkin, Patea cliffs looking north from Seaview Park (13), 1941. Te Papa (A.007191)

‘Some people find Taranaki’s black sand beaches and stormy seas ominous and “scary”.

Me – I didn’t swim regularly at white sand beaches until I was in my 20s, and I still find them a bit sedate.

I stopped at Pātea beach on my Christmas road trip back to New Plymouth this summer, and the cliffs stretching north and south and the dark dunes falling into the sea – just as Leslie Adkins captured them – are still a sight that makes my heart swell and my sense of being home complete.’

– Courtney, Director Audience and Insight

2. Uawa (Tolaga Bay), East Coast

Brian Brake, Tolaga Bay wharf, 1960s-1980s, New Zealand. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (CT.030215)

‘Why Tolaga Bay (Uawa)? – Sun, sand, and seafood – simple! Whenua, whakapapa, and whanau – warmth! Christmas, cuzzies, and crayfish – connections!’

– Haley, Learning Innovation Specialist

3. Whakaari (White Island)

Getting Sulphur – White Island, about 1880s, by Burton Brothers studio. Purchased 1981 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.000824)

‘A recent trip to Whakaari/White Island was seriously sulphuric. After a colourful tour of the volcanic island, we were ferried back to the boat and in good kiwi fashion, we jumped from the boat into the sea. It was the most amazing swim experience I’ve ever had. The sea was deep, blue and rolling and the view of the volcanic island as I floated on my back, will stay with me forever.’

– Ellie, Senior Communications Advisor

4. St Clair Beach, Otago

St Clair Beach and Baths, 1908, Dunedin, by Muir & Moodie studio. Te Papa (O.001820)

‘I love this historical photo of St Clair beach – especially the caption – “Great pleasure resort for youngsters”. St Clair beach with the hot salt water pool is unique in Aotearoa and I have photos of family members on the same beach dating back 60 plus years.’

– Sue, Head of People, Safety & Culture

5. Takapuna and Milford, North Shore

Robert Walrond, On the beach, Takapuna, 1913. Te Papa (A.018210)

‘A friend and I used to walk almost every day after work on Milford and Takapuna beach – the walk south from Milford to Takapuna has a mix of wide sandy beach, rock platforms and pools, fossilised trees, and even a freshwater spring in the sand.

Milford and Takapuna are very urban beaches with million dollar homes on the edge of the sand, but always have lots of kids and dogs running around in the evenings (dogs can run free after 2pm in winter and 6.30pm in summer) and happy walkers enjoying the views of Rangitoto and the Hauraki gulf.’

– Erica, Media and Image Researcher

6. Worser Bay, Wellington

Jenny Campbell, Untitled (Landscape). Gift of Mr and Mrs RJ Waghorn, 1983. Te Papa (1983-0007-2)

‘Sheltered and often uncrowded. This painting I’m pretty sure depicts a small bay north of Worser Bay in Wellington Harbour. It was a hang out in my youth and we took our kids there. Beautifully sheltered in the northerly and often limited to just a few people. You can sit there just checking the Ferries coming through the heads. One of the safest swimming and exploring beaches you could find.’

– Don, Construction Manager

7. Waikanae, Kāpiti

Evelyn Page, Waikanae, about 1950. Purchased 1950. Te Papa (1950-0008-1)

‘Watched over by Kapiti Island, Waikanae Beach is vast and flat, with safe swimming and pretty much constant earache-inducing northerlies. When we were kids, people settled in for the day, setting up chairs and chilly bins and blankets. Back at our bach we’d fight over who got to pull off the big patches of sunburned skin from mum’s back while Dad in just his stubbies was lighting the barbecue with meths. The best towel was black, with a white fringe, and an embroidered pineapple above the words “Surfer’s Paradise”. What I would give to see that towel again!’

– Kate Camp, Head of Marketing and Communications

8. Punakaiki, Westland

Brian Brake. Westland, Punakaiki, 1960s-1980s, New Zealand, by Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (CT.030530)

‘Growing up on the West Coast, I have spent many summers in Punakaiki and it’s still my favourite beach today. Sadly the coastline has changed dramatically from erosion over the last few years but it’s still a stunning place to visit.

The mouth of the Punakaiki River is the best spot for swimming and you can’t go past jumping off the famous limestone pancake rocks at high tide. The crystal clear green water of the nearby Porarari River also makes for a refreshing dip – just watch out for tuna (eels)!’

– Jess, Executive Assistant

9. Muriwai, Auckland

Colin McCahon, Moby Dick is sighted off Muriwai beach, 1972. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1996-0027-1)

‘Many people know Muriwai for the classic black sand, West Coast surf beach vibes, and its busy gannet colony which attracts a lot of visitors.

For me, it’s an art beach, not a surf beach. When I’m there I’m always thinking of Colin McCahon’s symbolic drawings and paintings of this place, and imagining Oaia Island as Moby Dick.’

– Fiona, Collection Information System Manager

10. Gillespies Beach, Westland

Brian Brake. Gillespies, 1960s-1980s, New Zealand. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (CT.030265)

‘This great photo of Gillespies beach by Brian Brake took me right back to crunching along the gravel cobbles of this wild, west-coast beach to find the seal colony at the far far end, and the awesome backdrop of the Southern Alps stretched along the skyline. More of surf, sandflies, and sound than sand, sunbathing, and sun!’

– Susan, Head of Science

The real winner? Well, it’s a mystery.

New Zealand’s best beach is the one that nobody else knows about, or so we like to think. This is illustrated by a photo selected by Curator Photography Athol McCredie.

I’ve always liked this hand-coloured beach photo, though I have no idea where it is.

It was taken to promote New Zealand’s scenery and you can see why, for it hits the jackpot of sheep, white sand, blue sea and sky and pōhutukawa in flower all in one shot.

The scene is deserted and I wonder if the photographer stumbled across a beach known only to the farmer of the adjacent land.

Untitled (pōhutukawa fringed beach), about 1965, New Zealand, by National Publicity Studios. Purchased 2003. Te Papa (O.027958)

If anyone knows or recognizes the location of this particular beach, or wants to share their personal favourite, please leave us a comment!


  1. Ever been to mahunga beach hawkes bay or waipatiki beach near napier

  2. Rocks in the foreground and relatively shallow water, Hauraki Gulf? Most of the roads around the Coromandel Peninsula were still unsealed in 1965.

  3. Very like a beach we visited on the way round East Cape – can’t remember what it was called. Not on the main road though.

  4. Looks like Cornwallis, Waitakere to me!

  5. Tawharanui or Takatu

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