The Best New Zealand Beaches to Visit this Winter
It's Mid-June. We’ve just been hit by a polar blast and there is another dose just around the corner. Winter has only just begun, but the days are gloomily short, and summer at the beach seems but a distant memory. How will we survive the next six months cooped up indoors until the mercury begins to rise and we can consider our next swimsuit and (natural) sunscreen purchase? Oh to be making tracks to one of New Zealand’s plethora of picturesque beaches to relax and unwind amidst the sound of waves gently lapping at the sand.
But why wait?
While summer is the obvious time to don your swimmers and dip your feet… a trip to the beach can be just as rewarding in these cooler winter months. Here are a few of New Zealand's most fabulous beaches that are equally inviting come winter time!
90 Mile Beach
While the name may be misleading, 90-mile beach is actually only 55 miles (88 kilometres), Northland's long sandy west coast beach Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē offers outstanding sea views that seem to stretch on forever. The beach extends from Ahipara in the south almost all the way to Cape Reinga in the north. As one of New Zealand's official highways, you can even take the car for a spin... but beware this is not without risk!
If you are looking to take the surfboard out, the southern end of the beach is home to the NZ-famous Shipwreck Bay, offering mile upon mile of left-hand goofy foot goodness - in the right conditions. Navigate the rocky shelf at low to mid tide to avoid your car becoming a boat. When the surf is flat, towering sand dunes provide a worthwhile detour around the corner.
Whale Bay is the jewel in Northland's crown. This small, sheltered beach is protected from prevailing winds and its native bush fringe provides shade from the harsh summer sun. However, it can also be extremely busy throughout summer with the car park overflowing at the beginning of the 10-minute trail to your destination. What better time to experience this gem of a beach than in winter. Enjoy the beautiful beach and crystal clear seas, minus the crowds.
While most lists of this type would feature Piha towards the top, Karekare is my preferred west coast option. Don't get me wrong, Piha is a wonderful beach and well worth a visit. But I prefer its quieter and slightly more rugged neighbour. Wind down Lone Kauri Road through the native bush until you arrive at this spectacular black sand beach made famous by Jane Campion's mysterious drama ‘The Piano’ in 1993. The upside of a winter visit is you won't blister your feet on the hot iron sands as you might during the heat of summer!
Bethells Beach / Te Henga
Bethells is another firm favourite. A great spot to watch the heavy winter ocean swells crash into the beach, or sneak over to Oneills to catch a wave when every other West Coast spot seems untenable. Take a leisurely stroll to Bethells Lagoon, or if you are feeling particularly energetic, the Te Henga Walkway follows the coastline from Bethells to Muriwai. It is rated as one of the top twelve walking tracks in New Zealand. Set aside four hours each way to allow time to take in the spectacular views.
Arriving at Great Barrier Island feels a little like you have exited a Back to the Future-type time machine. It offers a more relaxed pace of life, with locals that will go the extra mile to please. The flight over in a small eight-seater plane can be gnarly, but once you've arrived then you should make tracks to Medlands Beach, Oruawharo Bay. The beach is at the southeastern end of Great Barrier Island, and is popular, but rarely crowded.
Cathedral Cove is one of the must-visit sites on The Coromandel, and winter offers the ideal opportunity for a more secluded experience. The Cove is located at Hahei, and a two-hour return walk will get you to your destination. Cathedral Cove is also accessible by boat or kayak. If you're brave enough for a dip, even though the ocean temperature may approach 15 degrees Celsius, you may be rewarded. The Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve, Te Whanganui- A-Hei, is a 9 square kilometres marine protected area. Guided snorkelling trips are available.
Hot Water Beach
Just 10 minutes up the road from Hahei is the dramatic and uber-popular Hot Water Beach. Where else could you sit in your own homemade hot spring next to the sound of rolling ocean waves? Stay warm no matter the weather - but be careful, the hot water can reach a foot-tingling 64 degrees Celsius. Make sure you bring a spade or two and arrive two hours either side of low tide to begin exploration. Be prepared to share your hot water experience with a flurry of locals and tourists alike as tour groups, campervans and buses make daily visits to the area.
New Chum Beach
I visited the isolated New Chum Beach for the first time just a few months ago. I'm not sure why it took me so long to make the journey, but this Coromandel hotspot did not disappoint. The secluded north-east facing beach is a 30-40 minute walk away, following the Mangakahia Dr track over the saddle and meandering through huge Pohutakawa and beautiful nikau forest. Take the additional 10 minutes to scramble to the top of the headland and you will be rewarded with unabated 360 degree views of the Coromandel.
In summer, it is teeming with people. For many, this is part of the attraction. In winter, however, there is a lesser influx to 'The Mount' offering a wonderful change to explore the glorious stretch of golden sands. The water may be cooler, but a walk or run up the iconic mountain, Mauao, and you will be warm in no time. Mauao stands 232 metres above sea level and offers panoramic views.
The Wairarapa coast offers plenty of wonderful beach options, and Castle Point is right up there with the best of them. It was previously voted one of New Zealand's ten most loved beaches, and it is easy to see why. The area is popular for surfing and swimming, and also provides a plethora of walking trails with a rugged east coast vibe. All this just an hours drive from Masteron. Be sure to check out the lighthouse, one of NZ's last two remaining beam lighthouses.
Picking the best beach in Abel Tasman National Park is a difficult task. The area is littered with striking golden sand beaches surrounding by lush native forest. Anchorage gets the nod from us on this occasion, primarily for its easy access to the great walk, and the exquisite ocean journey from Kaiteriteri to the destination.
Wharariki Beach is only accessible via a 20-minute trail from Wharariki. Its inaccessibility certainly adds to the attraction, traversing farm paddocks and coastal forest before reaching the north-facing beach. Wharariki Beach lies to the west of Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of the South Island, and if you arrive when the tide is low you can wander the entire length of the beach taking in spectacular sand dunes, caverns and islands.
The Caitlins area is highly regarded for its raw beauty, visible wildlife, and large waves, and is perhaps even more attractive on a crisp winter day. While there are many excellent beaches in the area, Curio Bay is a fan favourite and is home to yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals and sea lions. Hectors dolphins can often be seen frolicking in the surf during summer and autumn, and there is also the fossilised remains of an ancient forest to explore at low tide. A campground is available at South Head between Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay.