New Zealand’s best swimming holes, beaches and outdoor pools to visit this summer

Summer is bliss. Or “Bliss”, if your coming-of-age memory is Th’Dudes’ gig at the Soundshell.

It’s the rosy beginning, burnt-orange middle and fading end of the golden weather, when life is a beach, a surf break, lakeshore, swimming hole, whitewater raft-ride, sit-down or stand-up paddle bay; when New Zealand becomes a country of sails.

Aotearoa has 15,000km of coastline, which means that each of us gets 3 metres to find a tree, spread out a towel and moor a gently defrosting chilly bin.

And Jeez, Wayne, we’re protective of it. Every living Kiwi has a summer place that no one else knows about and won’t divulge in case everyone else finds it and spoils it.

So we’re on a hiding to nothing in this guide. There’ll be a tsunami of complaints that we’ve revealed some “private” places and a tidal wave of whinges about ones we’ve missed out. Our cop-out: we asked regional tourism organisations for hints.


You could write this about every province but it’s especially true of this one. Northland really does have more than its fair share of stunning beaches on both coasts; wild and windswept, golden and gentle, crowded and private. We’ll restrict ourselves to four idyllic spots: picture-perfect Maitai Bay on Karikari peninsula; Charlies Rock swimming hole in Kerikeri, waterfall tumbling over cool rock formations; the crystal-clear dune lakes at Kai Iwi on the Kauri Coast just north of Dargaville; and Whale Bay on the Tutukaka Coast, a stunning, hidden, sheltered family beach near Matapouri.


Not knocking Mission Bay, Narrow Neck or Piha but they can get, y’know, crowded. Let’s look elsewhere. In the north, Mathesons Bay (Leigh) is a pretty, safe beach, sheltered by its reef and island; Tāwharanui has white-sand beaches, wildlife and awesome rock pools; Kendall Bay is a sandy, shelly, calm gem amid Birkenhead’s bush. West, if you’re after black sand and surf, head to Muriwai Beach; be careful of rips, wear jandals on the scorching sand and check out the gannets. Less well-known is Lake Wainamu, a freshwater swimming mecca behind vast dunes. On Āwhitu Peninsula tranquil Kauritūtahi Beach is our pick. Head east to Maraetai to stroll or snatch Vitamin D. Further south, fish, rockhop or swim at family-friendly Mātaitai Bay. Don’t overlook the Gulf: Ladies Bay (Rotoroa) and Little Oneroa (Waiheke) are a ferry ride away.

Waikato / Coromandel

Raglan on the west coast and Pauanui on the east are, like the local mineral water, world-famous in New Zealand. Lesser-known are Karakariki Scenic Reserve, west of Hamilton; Wairere Falls near Matamata and Hoffman’s Pool east of Thames.

Bay of Plenty

With 259km of golden sand and Pacific surf, the Bay of Plenty has more than its fair share of … sorry, you’ve heard that before. Looking for somewhere other than Waihī Beach, Omokoroa, the Mount, Pāpāmoa, Maketū, Pukehina, Ōhope or Ōpōtiki? Revisit Rotorua’s 14 accessible lakes for swimming, fishing, picnicking and whatever else floats your boat. For thrills, jetboat through a geothermal valley or whitewater raft down the Kaituna River.

Eastern Bays

Gizzy. What more is there to say? Oh, OK: Rere rockslide, about an hour out of town, may be the most fun you can have on a bodyboard or tyre tube. Further south, Waimārama Beach (near Havelock North) is old-time Kiwi camping and endless summer holiday territory.


There’s a good reason why the 105km state highway from New Plymouth to Ōpunake has been renamed Surf Highway 45. We’ll let you figure it out.


Palmy is one of two landlocked cities (and the other one has a lake) but it is surrounded by riverside retreats. The cliffs and bush of Ruahine Dress Circle have been locals’ favourite swimming hole for more than 100 years; so too Ferry Reserve on the Manawatū River, Totara Reserve (Pohangina Valley) and Kahuterawa Stream (Tararua foothills). Himatangi and Foxton are big, rugged west coast beaches; Foxton boasts the country’s biggest aqua-park.


Diving could have surfaced in Northland, Coromandel, BOP or further south, but we had to find something nice to say about the capital’s marine life (I was raised there and we went north to Waikanae or south to the Sounds for holidays). Grab your wetsuit and fish, harvest kaimoana or just revel in the rocks, sea caves and waters of Cook Strait / Raukawa.

Top of the South

Don’t let the local rugby team’s nickname – Mako – put you off. If your idea of heaven includes any activity involving H20, you’ll find it here. Marlborough has the Sounds, three drowned valleys of serene water, secluded bays and coves surrounded by bush-clad ranges; Nelson has kilometres of golden-sand beaches from city escapes to the treasures of its national parks. Best way to see the Sounds is a day cruise on the Pelorus Mail Boat which has delivered mail, groceries and supplies to isolated homesteads for almost a century. Tāhunanui Beach, near Nelson’s city centre, is a beautiful, safe and family-friendly beach; not too far away are the cafes and galleries of Mapua Wharf. In Abel Tasman National Park, Kaiteriteri is modestly known as “New Zealand’s premier outdoor recreation destination”. Nearby Cleopatra’s Pool is nestled among forest with a natural moss waterslide and canyoning adventures. Wainui Falls is a popular swimming hole and the Riwaka Resurgence spring claims healing properties.


Punting – or more recently waka ama – on the Avon doesn’t really rate here. North of the city, Motunau / Gore Bay and Lakes Sumner or Taylor in the Hurunui region are get-away-from-the-crowd options; you won’t have to look too far to find a quiet cove around Banks Peninsula. Avoid Akaroa, seek out Charteris Bay or Diamond Harbour. South, an exiled Timaruvian insists we mention Caroline Bay. We’ve done it.


You can’t go past Ōtāgo Peninsula – the next stop is Antarctica – and the rugged, windswept grandeur of Sandfly Bay, Victory Beach and more, home to seals, sea lions, penguins, albatross and others; or gentrified St Clair, home to cafes, surfers and heated saltwater pools. Southern folk have always known there’s more to Central Ōtāgo than snow: the region’s rivers and lakes are Ground Zero for summer adventures too. Lo-fi: discover the rope swings on Queenstown’s best lakeside beaches, ending with a jump into Lake Hayes. Higher fi: riversurfing on the Kawarau, taking on the rapids, whirlpools and rock jumps on modified bodyboards or specially built sledges. They thought big when Lake Dunstan was formed near Cromwell and created a base for water activities with bonus cellar doors and orchard stalls. Wānaka’s frantic in summer: if you crave solitude, book a day trip to Arethusa Pool on the lake’s Mou Waho island or detour to more laidback Lake Hāwea.

Deep South

You shouldn’t be allowed to call yourself a Kiwi until you’ve experienced the Catlins, between Balclutha and Invercargill, a spectacular coast of native forests, rearing cliffs, sandy and deserted beaches, bays, waterfalls, hidden lakes, blowholes, caves, Instagram lighthouses and a Jurassic-era petrified forest. Surfers cherish some of the country’s largest ocean swells, but if anyone of any age enjoys getting wet, they can do it here. Highlights: Nugget Point lighthouse at Kaka Point, Curio Bay’s 180-million-year-old stone forest; McLean, Pūrākaunui, Matai Falls. The World Heritage Area of Te Wāhipounamu protects ancient, untouched land and waterways: Manapouri and Te Anau are two of our most beautiful lakes. Nice people down here, too. They’ll smile when you call it a bach and not a crib.

Patrolled, sandy, swings and slides (and ice-cream stores)

Takapuna, Auckland

Ocean Beach, Mt Maunganui

Westshore, Napier

Lyall Bay, Wellington

Sumner, Christchurch

Hot and cold running waterparks

Parakai Springs, near Helensville

Parnell Baths, Downtown Auckland

Te Aroha Mineral Spas, Waikato

Polynesian Geothermal Spa, Rotorua

AC Baths and Thermal Hot Pools, Taupō

Lido Aquatic Centre, Palmerston North

Motueka Saltwater Baths, Tasman

Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa, North Canterbury

He Puna Taimoana / Christchurch Hot Water Pools, New Brighton

St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool, Dunedin

Jumping off a wharf or bridge is a Kiwi tradition. Always check with savvy locals first!

Waitangi Bridge, Northland

Whakarewarewa, Rotorua (look, don’t leap)

Raglan Bridge, Waikato

Tolaga Bay Wharf, Tairāwhiti Gisborne

Mapua Wharf, Nelson

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This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 27 October

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