The coastline of New Zealand totals about 15,000km, so you can imagine there are endless places to enjoy the sea breezes and long stretches of sand. Even its biggest cities – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – are all set on the coast, offering the best of urban attractions plus the chance to put your feet in the ocean.
Once you’ve explored what they offer, hire a rental car and head off on a road trip to find other amazing beach breaks. Here are four beautiful New Zealand coastal towns to discover.
All Roads Lead to Raglan
Black sand beaches. Incredible surf. A laidback vibe. If you’re looking for a relaxed spot, surrounded by stunning scenery and populated by artistic types, you came to the right place.
Set on the west coast of the North Island, the town of Raglan is just 40km from Hamilton, the main city in New Zealand’s Waikato region.
Raglan’s main claim to fame is Manu Bay, just south of the town and the place where the left-hand surf break is thought to be the longest in the world. It became internationally famous in 1966 when Bruce Brown shot some of the film Endless Summer here.
Once you’ve become acquainted with the waves, tour the harbour. Marine animals and birds are abundant, and the incredible rock formations that look like stacked pancakes add an element of interest. Try kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding or take one of the nature cruises to spot dolphins, sea birds and maybe even orcas.
Raglan town has plenty of boutiques and art studios to explore, as well as lots of restaurants and cafes. Out of town, too, there’s lots to keep you occupied, from hikes to the Bridal Veil Falls to canyoning expeditions through glow worm caves beneath nearby Mount Karioi.
Islands Galore at Paihia
On the other side of the North Island is one of New Zealand’s most famous regions, the Bay of Islands. If you want to do it justice, base yourself at Paihia for a few days.
Once you’ve arrived from Auckland in your rental car, get the lay of the land from the sea. There is a multitude of cruises to take you around the islands, past famous Motu Kōkako (Hole in the Rock) – the Māori ancestral canoe Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi landed here – and seek out pods of dolphins.
There are many other water-based options, including sea kayaking, diving and snorkelling, fishing, sailing and more. Don’t miss catching the ferry to Russell, which has some of the oldest and most significant historical buildings in New Zealand. Among them is the Duke of Marlborough, which has been a hotel since 1827. Order a drink to have on the veranda as you watch the sunset.
Anyone interested in history should take the short drive from Paihia to Waitangi. Here, the Treaty of Waitangi, the terms by which New Zealand would become a British colony, was signed in 1840. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are an insight into Māori culture and the history of the treaty.
Create Memories in Kaikōura
With the sea on one side and the snow-capped Kaikōura Ranges behind it, the town of Kaikōura is one of the most dramatically beautiful towns on New Zealand’s South Island. But the charms of the region can be found on land and in the ocean.
Just off the coast of Kaikōura is a huge underwater canyon that has produced the perfect oceanic environment for giant sperm whales. Join Whale Watch Kaikōura to get close to these gentle giants year-round, as well as dusky dolphins, the huge royal albatross and New Zealand fur seals. At different times of the year, you might also spy rare Hector’s dolphins, orcas and humpbacks.
There are other adventures to be had beyond the coastline. Go kayaking with seals, dive in kelp forests or swim with a pod of dolphins. There’s surfing too, at nearby breaks like Mangamaunu, Graveyards and Kahutara.
Back on land, go hiking, ride quadbikes on a sheep farm or, if it’s winter, head up to Mt Terako Basin to hit the slopes.
Have a Ball in Hokitika
Nature lovers will love Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island, about three hours’ drive in a rental car from Christchurch. The beach here is beautiful, peaceful and an excellent spot to take in the sunset.
One of the big attractions of this former gold town is the presence of pounamu (greenstone). This stone has spiritual significance to the Māori people of the region and is carved into jewellery and sculptures. You might be lucky enough to find some if you go fossicking on the beach at Hokitika, but if you’re not, there are jade stores in the town. At Bonz n Stonz, you can take a workshop with a carver, learn about the significance of pounamu and make a piece to take home.
Away from the sea, check out a glacier river at Hokitika Gorge. It’s about a half-hour drive from town and a 2km loop walk to the gorge, where the river, especially when it’s sunny, is a bright blue colour. You might also want to check out the Hokitika Glow Worm Dell, just out of town. Don’t forget your torch.
When you’re ready to explore New Zealand’s beach towns, hire a rental car to make it easy.