New Zealand’s best beaches: In the third of our Backyard Explorer travel series with Canon, Jim Kayes nominates his favourites.

It snapped in two on the second wave and the third one rolled over the top of us like a giant green wall as the IRBs raced to check if we were okay.

“Are you going to swim in,” the first driver asked, expecting us to take the macho route and do exactly that.

“Piss off mate, give us a ride,” Blouse said, to the relief of the other three of us.

We tumbled in, before another set rose up, and headed for the beach at Piha, leaving the two halves of our four man canoe to wash into shore.

It had been both terrifying and awe inspiring to paddle out with these massive green monsters smashing down into white wash, driving us back.

Once through the foaming wall we saw mini mountains of water rolling toward us.

On the first peak, as the water slipped under us, it seemed we were suspended in the air like Wile E. Coyote.

When we slammed down, the boom could be heard on shore.

The four of us, me, Coco, Danks and Blouse, knew we were in trouble and when we dropped off the second wave the canoe snapped in half, leaving us gasping in the surf.

One half of the broken boat had to be rescued from Lion Rock.

Jim, as an 18 year-old, with the ruined canoe at Piha Beach. Photo: Ross Malyon

It was January 17, 1988 and for a variety of reasons, including two decades living outside Auckland, I hadn’t been back to Piha until I went with my girls a few weeks ago for the eldest daughter’s Regional Paid Lifeguard Service trial.

The waves had taken the day off but it was still an awesome sight to look down across Piha and North Piha from Te Piha, or Lion Rock as it’s more commonly known.

The roar of the surf swept up to the seat beneath the pou dedicated to the memory of Ngati Tangiaro Taua and though it was a windy morning, we were in a lee as my youngest and I sat in contemplative silence.

Piha is, perhaps, the most famous of New Zealand’s west coast beaches with its black sand and decent surf, now supported by a couple of cafes, Pete’s pies and a surf shop open when Ratso, the owner, isn’t surfing.

But it is just one of many amazing beaches Kiwis flock to in summer.

For most of us a beach is defined by more than just the water, surf and sand.

It’s often other things like childhood memories, the state of the camp ground or the ice cream sold by the beach dairy that bring us back.

Sunrise at summit track on Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

It’s why the Mount is so popular, with its walk around or up Mauao and the cafes, bars and surf shops beside it in New Zealand’s mini version of Australia’s Surfers Paradise.

The Mount is iconic, but it’s tough to swim at for many down the left hand side with Shark Alley, on the right of Moturiki Island, more family friendly.

Taupo Bay in the Far North is a personal favourite because there’s limited cell phone and internet access, and the beach is wonderful.

Read more: From where you’d rather beach

On the other side of the island, Shipwreck Bay is superb and as you drift down the east coast of Northland, it’s hard to find a poor beach.

Some, like Omaha and Tawharanui are family favourites for their accessibility, surf and – with Tawharanui – the rock pools on the right hand end.

Almost anywhere in the Coromandel is magnificent but it’s hard to go past Opito Bay and the walk up and over to Crayfish Bay where you can, if you’re brave, jump in off the cliff, or Hahei and the walk to stunning Cathedral Cove.

Grasses in the sand, beach Waipu Beach at sunrise, Waipu Cove, Northland. Photo: Getty Images

With our links to surf lifesaving, Waipu Cove, Whangamata, Waihi, the Mount, Ohope, and Gisborne’s Waikanae and Wainui beaches are regular haunts – and superb beaches.

But again, so often the memories make the beach.  We had a bach at Pinewoods Motor Camp above Red Beach and I was a nipper at the Surf Club that remains a central part of our lives.

The beach is mundane but as a kid, walking around the rocks to swim at The Cove and jump off the cliff was a test of courage.

Read more: Memories of a Kiwi Camper

I’ve run the southern coast of Wellington countless times and braved the cold at Island Bay and Lyall Bay, but while I’ve looked at Dunedin’s St Kilda and St Claire I’ve never suffered the freeze headaches both will induce.  Golden Bay, up from Nelson, and her neighbours remain on the ‘must visit’ list.

If memories make beaches then the trip my wife and I did around the East Cape, a few decades ago remains vivid.  Camping and swimming at Tolaga Bay was gorgeous, as was swimming at Anaura Bay way back then, and many years later with my eldest daughter. It is remote, basic and beautiful, just like so many of New Zealand’s best beaches.

Jim’s Top Five


Cathedral Cove

An hour’s walk from Hahei and though it’s steep, it is paved and well worth it. Many people run it!  The other option is to get there by boat with water taxis from Hahei and Whitianga.


Two hundred kilometres south from Auckland. With a winter population of just under 5000, it can have about 10 times that in summer so book early!

Opito Bay

The last time I went the road up and over from Kuaotunu was gravel so keep your windows up. That section takes about 20 minutes and Kuaotunu is 15 minutes from Whitianga on a paved road. Both sections are windy and often steep.

Anaura Bay

About an hour north of Gisborne on SH35, you take a right on to Anaura Rd which finishes with some tight turns. The trip is worth it, but pack all you will need for the day including water.

The Mount

A suburb of Tauranga, this iconic beach is just over three hours from Auckland with routes via Waihi or Matamata to choose from.  If you go via Waihi, stop for a swim in the Karangahake Gorge, and a photo with the giant L&P bottle in Paeroa. 

Don’t forget….swim between the flags, never alone, and not outside your ability. 

Did your favourite beach miss the cut? Send us a photo of your top beach and why its a winner and you could be a winner too.

This series is a partnership with Canon

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