Top 10 Best Beaches in the South Island, New Zealand

Most people visit the South Island for the mountains, the snow or the lakes, but the beaches on the South Island of New Zealand are some of the best in the world. I might be a little bit biased as a Kiwi but it’s no surprise that an island with thousands of kilometres of coastline has some awesome sand and surf to show off.

The South Island beaches range from the postcard-perfect golden sand beaches at the top of the South Island to the wild rugged West Coast beaches. With the help of some fellow Kiwis and travel writers, I’ve rounded up the top beaches from all over the South Island. This post also has details of things to do at each beach, how to get there and where to stay close to the beach.

Wharariki Beach, Nelson-Tasman

Wharariki Beach in Golden Bay is one of New Zealand’s most photographed beaches.  Nestled at the end of a gravel road near Farewell Spit, you are far from civilisation but surrounded by beauty.  It is one of the best things to do in Nelson and definitely worth the day trip.

Wharariki Beach is not your relaxing swimming beach, so apologies if that is what you are looking for.  In fact, you are not allowed to swim here due to rips, strong currents and high winds.

Wharariki Beach

Things to do at the beach

What is highly popular here is landscape photography.  The large “archway islands” rock formations in the sea make for some incredible photos.  The best time to visit is a low time when you are likely to get reflections in the wet sand.

It is common to find seals lying on the beach or playing in the rock pools, but as with all wildlife, give them a wide berth and take photos from afar with a zoom lens.

If photography isn’t your thing, you might consider horseback riding on the beach with Cape Farewell Horse Treks.  They offer horseback tours on the beach for confident riders, or a beginners ride at nearby Puponga Beach

How to get there

Head north about 30 minutes from Collingwood and drive to the end of Wharariki Road.  The beach is about 20 minutes walk from the carpark, so pack a backpack if you are going to stay for a while.

Where to stay

Given this is a remote location, there is very little accommodation in this area, however, Wharariki Beach Holiday Park is right nearby and perfect for visiting the beach for sunset or sunrise.

Written by Jennifer from Backyard Travel Family

Cable Bay Beach, Nelson-Tasman

Located at the top of the South Island of New Zealand, Cable Bay Beach is a must-visit destination. This is easily one of the best beaches in the South Island with its crystal clear bay and rocky shores. Complete with a coastal walkway where visitors can check out the panoramic views of the bay and the surrounding scenery. Cable Bay Beach should always be at the top of the list of things to do in Nelson.

Things to do at the beach

One of the best things about this beach is the Cable Bay Walkway. Starting from the beach itself, this walk starts with a bit of a hike through farmland to stunning views of the bay and inlet which is home to a marine reserve. Carry on through to the Glenduan township which should take about two hours. Time the return portion of the walk around sunset for the perfect lighting.

There are no restaurants or cafes at Cable Bay Beach, so bring a packed picnic lunch. With New Zealand’s harsh UV rays, it is advisable to bring a beach umbrella as there is little shade on the beach. 

How to get there

From Nelson town, it’s less than a 30 minute drive up the coast, so there’s no excuse not to visit. Parking is no trouble, but any visitors interested in hiring stand up paddleboards should drive to the end of the beach near the hireage stall. 

Where to stay

Following the trip to the beach, check into the Sails in Nelson City Centre. This 5-star hotel is located perfectly opposite Trafalgar Park and is immaculate. There is a range of rooms available to suit any traveller, from studio rooms to larger apartments equipped with a spa bath.

Written by Delilah of Our Travel Mix

Cable Bay Beach Nelson

Anchorage Bay, Nelson-Tasman

The Abel Tasman Track is a world-famous hiking trail located in the Abel Tasman National Park, at the top of the South Island of New Zealand.

The park is well known for its coastal scenery, and the track features numerous beaches and estuaries.

Things to do at the beach

Anchorage Bay is at the start of the Abel Tasman Track, and is a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking.

The beach is also a good place to launch kayaks for exploring the coastline. The waters are calm due to being in a bay, and there are plenty of sandbars to relax on.

At low tide, it is possible to walk around the headland to another beach at Torrent Bay.

There are plenty of short walks you can do from Anchorage that will have you back in time for the return boat trip.

These include:

  • Te Pukatea Bay – a 1-hour return walk (2km) takes you to one of the most picturesque bays in Abel Tasman National Park.
  • Pitt Head Loop Track – 1 hr 30 min return (4km) from Anchorage to Te Pukatea Bay via Pitt Head.
  • Cleopatra’s Pool – 1 hr 30 min return (4km) around the Torrent Bay estuary – allow extra time to enjoy the natural water slide from a mountain stream.

How to get there

To get to Anchorage Bay you’ll need to take a day cruise or water taxi. Wilsons Abel Tasman offers tours from Kaiteriteri which venture past Split Apple Rock and take around 45 minutes each way.

Guests then have up to three hours at the beach to enjoy swimming and exploring.

Where to stay

Accommodation at Anchorage Bay consists of a DOC campsite or you can stay at Kaiteriteri and take a boat ride in for the day.

anchorage bay beach South Island

Written by Emma of Mum’s Money

Kaiteriteri Beach, Nelson-Tasman

Kaiteriteri Beach is not only one of the best South Island beaches, but it’s also regularly named among the top beaches in all of New Zealand. With clean golden sand, calm water, and surrounded by stunning New Zealand native bush it’s a must-visit spot on your South Island travels.

Things to do at the beach

Many water-based boat day trips to the park depart directly from the beach, along with private water taxis if you prefer to stick to your own timetable. You can also hire kayaks to explore the beach and nearby Split Apple Rock – another New Zealand icon – which is an ancient granite rock in the ocean that looks exactly like its name! 

The best place to eat at Kaiteriteri Beach is the Waterfront restaurant – mainly for the stunning views that look out across the water. Come early in summer to get a table and watch the sunset while you try some of their delicious seafood. They also do great coffee, but be prepared to queue during the summer months, especially around the time the ferries are departing for Abel Tasman!

The wood-fired pizzas at the Beached Whale Restaurant are also good. If you’re hot and thirsty while at the beach, the local store sells great ice-creams and cold drinks.

If mountain biking is more your style, be sure to check out the Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park, with a range of different trails for all abilities. You can rent bikes by the hour or day from the pop-up bike trailer on the Kaiteriteri Beach waterfront.

How to get there

Located at the top of the northwest of the island, it’s a short drive from Nelson (around 45 minutes) to reach this beautiful spot. Kaiteriteri beach also borders Abel Tasman National Park and is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring all the activities the park has on offer.

Where to stay

The Kaiteriteri Recreation Reserve located directly across the beach is a great place to stay. It offers a wide range of accommodation – from camping pitches, space for motorhomes/RVs, cabins and modern apartments. It’s extremely popular in summer so be sure to book ahead!

Find and book more Kaiteriteri accommodation options on Agoda.

Boat at Kaiteriteri beach

Written by Kylie Gibbon from Our Overseas Adventures

Kaikōura Beach, Canterbury

Kaikōura is a gorgeous coastal town in New Zealand’s South Island with many things to do, from seafaring adventures to epic peninsula walks and awesome seafood. Not only is Kaikōura one of New Zealand’s best beaches, but it’s the only community in the Southern Hemisphere to have achieved platinum certification from EarthCheck for its dedication to sustainable tourism. Kaikōura should be on every New Zealand bucket list. 

Things to do at the beach

Whenever you visit Kaikōura, you’re likely to see some incredible wildlife due to its location between the Kaikōura Range and the Pacific Ocean. Dusky dolphins, seals, albatross, penguins, and sperm whales are the most common. Between June and August, and possibly between November to March, you may also spot some blue whales, humpback whales, orca, and Hector’s dolphins. 

The beach itself is made up of black rock sand and has an incredible backdrop of the snowy mountains. It is recommended not to swim in the northern waters as the undertow can be extremely strong. Swimmers also need to be wary of the rocks and surrounding rip currents. Stay safe and swim in the Southern end of the esplanade.

The most popular tourist attraction in Kaikōura is the whale-watching cruise. You can also go kayaking, out fishing, or scuba diving! 

There are many walks with a variety of fitness levels, the best being the Kaikōura Peninsula walkway which starts at the Point Kean seal colony main car park. You’re very likely to spot some seals, as well as experience a beautiful view. 

In Māori terms, Kaikōura translates to ‘meal of crayfish’ (kai – food/meal, koura – crayfish) and so it’s no surprise that the town is home to some amazing seafood, some even say ‘the best’ in the whole of New Zealand. Kaikōura Seafood BBQ stall is the most popular by far, with freshly caught seafood starting at $8 and a gorgeous view of the bay. 

How to get there

Kaikōura is located roughly halfway between Christchurch and Picton, so it’s a perfect stop if you plan on accessing the ferry to and from the North and South islands. It’s around two hours south of Picton and around two and a half hours from Christchurch. If you’re on the West Coast, you can also reach Kaikōura by heading through Hanmer Springs. 

Kaikōura is also accessible by bus and on the scenic Coastal Pacific tourist train (train services are restarting in September 2022).  

Where to stay

With so many adventures to go on and wildlife to spot, it is recommended that you should spend at least 5 days exploring Kaikōura. If you are looking for a unique stay, look no further than Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses. A real cherry-on-top for your Kaikōura adventure. 

Kaikoura beach

Written by Lana of Wallflower in Wanderland

Carters Beach, West Coast

On the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a town called Westport which is a popular holiday destination for New Zealanders and tourists and has everything you’d want in a place to stop on a New Zealand Road Trip including a small but lovely beach called Carters Beach.

Things to do at the beach

At this sandy beach you can swim, kayak, play golf or walk the Kawatiri Coastal Trail. Nearby is the gorgeous Cape Foulwind where you can spot seal colonies!

One of the best ways to experience the beach is to return in the evening equipped with beers, drinks, jackets and marshmallows to watch the sunset and then make your own bonfire and use the sticks found on the beach to roast marshmallows over the fire and enjoy this wonderful place of the world.

How to get there

Carters Beach can be reached by going to Westport Airport nearby or following State Hwy 6 on the West Coast of the South Island.

Where to stay

The best place to stay is on-site at The Links Carters Beach Apartments or Carters Beach Top 10 Holiday Park.

carters beach South Island New Zealand

Written by Shireen of The Happy Days Travels

Hokitika Beach, West Coast

Located on the central West Coast, Hokitika Beach is one of the best in the South Island.  With quintessential westerly waves and a rugged shoreline, this is anything but a typical palm-tree-lined, white sand bay.  That’s a large part of what makes it so special though.

Things to do at the beach

This black sand beach is a wonderful place to enjoy a sunset or picnic, whilst watching the world go by.  Lifeguards do not patrol the beach and though swimming is possible, it is not recommended.

Instead, there are a number of takeaway shops and food trucks nearby, serving meals. These are perfect to pay a visit to before continuing on to the beach.

Whilst at Hokitika Beach, it’s hard to miss the giant ‘Hokitika’ sign, made from driftwood.  This is a popular spot for travellers to take a photo, especially at sunset.

Though many choose to pass through Hokitika, those that opt to stay the night are generally pleased they did. The nearby Hokitika Gorge and glowworm dell are worth visiting, and there is also an opportunity to feed wild (but friendly) eels.  

How to get there

Hokitika Beach is in the town of Hokitika which is a 3.5 hour drive from Christchurch. You can also take the Intercity bus or fly direct to Hokitika from Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch although these flights can be very expensive unless you book well in advance and during a sale.

Where to stay

Don’t miss a chance to spend time at Hokitika Beach and the wider area whilst on the West Coast. You can compare Hokitika accommodation options on Agoda.

Hokitika sign on the beach on the South Island of New Zealand

Written by Sarah of NZ Travel Tips

Tunnel Beach, Otago

Less than 8km from the heart of Dunedin is the fun Tunnel Beach. While it’s not safe to swim at the beach, it’s an awesome South Island beach to visit.

Things to do at the beach

There’s a walk, about 1km each way from the car park, to access the beach. The walk itself is gorgeous with a gentle descent down to the beach. On the way, you get great views, and if you want you can walk onto the peninsula-like section above the beach (where the photo above was taken from). Don’t be silly here as it can be slippery around the edges.

Back to the main walk, and access to the beach is via 72 slippery stairs through a tunnel that was hand cut into the rock…hence the name. It gets dark in here so a head torch isn’t a bad idea.

Exiting the tunnel onto the beach takes you to this unique beach. You’re isolated here, and with big tides, it’s only practical to visit for two hours on either side of low tide.

There are no places to eat nearby, so bring a picnic to enjoy after you’ve explored the beach, boulders, and caves surrounded by cliffs.

How to get there

The Tunnel Beach walk starts at the end of Tunnel Beach Road, off Blackhead Road. The space for parking is limited, and the road is narrow so if you’ve got a large vehicle, choose a safe place to park further away from the trailhead. Or catch bus #33 or #50 and get off at the last bus stop which adds another ~1.5km each way to the walk.

If you’re craving a swim, head to the nearby St. Clair beach.

Where to stay

There are plenty of accommodation options in Dunedin or the Hotel St Clair in nearby S Clair is a great option.

tunnel beach dunedin

Written by Jub from Chur New Zealand

Moeraki Boulders Beach, Otago

Moeraki Boulders Beach is known for all of the large, spherical boulders protruding out of the sand along the shoreline. They are scattered along the beach in clusters, which makes for a unique and very picturesque landscape.

Each boulder weighs several tonnes and can reach up to 2 metres tall. They were formed about 65 million years ago when calcium deposits hardened into thick, compact masses (also known as concretions).

Things to do at the beach

On the pier above the beach, there is a visitors’ centre that describes the history of the boulders and the Maori legends that live behind them. It is free to enter and also has a cafe and souvenir shop. From there, it is a short 3-minute walk down the boardwalk to the beach itself.

Admiring the boulders during low tide is the main draw of Moeraki Boulders Beach, but there are other activities available as well. Swimming, kayaking, and relaxing in the sand are all popular options for visitors. It’s also common to spot wildlife, as yellow-eyed penguins and fur seals call the beach their home.

How to get there

Moeraki Boulders Beach is only a 30-minute drive down the coast from Oamaru.

Where to stay

For visitors travelling in campervans, All Day Bay Free Campground is a wonderful place to spend the night near Moeraki Boulders Beach. Just a 20-minute drive north from the beach, this free campsite is peaceful and has views of the ocean.

Another great option is the Moeraki Beach Motels. These cheap and cheerful rooms are located in the town of Moeraki, making it super convenient for beach visitors.

Written by Nicole of Niki in New Zealand

Moeraki boulders beach south island

Curio Bay, Southland

Curio Bay is one of the most unique beaches in the South Island, thanks to the rare wildlife that call it home and an ancient fossilised forest that appears at low tide.

Things to do at the beach

During the summer Hector’s Dolphins (one of the rarest in the world) play in the surf right next to the shore, Yellow-eyed penguins (also one of the rarest in the world) nest on the beach, along with Little Blue penguins, and seals and sea lions can often be found basking in the sun on the beach and surrounding rocks. 

The fossilised forest, dating back about 180 million years, is one of the largest and most well retained ancient forests from the Jurassic period, formed way back when New Zealand was still part of the ancient Gondwana continent. The layers of multiple volcanic destructions of the forest are visible in the fossils which can be explored at low tide.

On top of all that, it’s also a nice sandy beach that’s typically family-friendly and safe for swimming – if you can brave the cold water that is!

How to get there

A great stop on a South Island road trip, turn off SH1 at Edendale (if travelling from Queenstown or Te Anau) or at Balclutha (if travelling from Dunedin) and head for Niagara-Waikawa Rd, which becomes Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd and will take you right to Curio Bay.

Where to stay

There is a campground available at the beach for tents and campervans, along with a cafe (Wed-Sun) serving brunch and a variety of sandwiches and cakes. Alternatively, there is a range of Airbnbs available in the area.

Take care if you encounter any wildlife, maintain a good distance and don’t disturb any nesting birds, nor touch or feed the dolphins. 

curio bay beach southland

Written by Laura from Laura the Explorer

Best time to visit the South Island beaches

The best time for a beach day is in the New Zealand summer, from December to February when it’s warmest. The top of the South Island (where the Nelson-Tasman beaches are) tends to have better weather for longer, staying warm from November to Easter, while way down south, in Otago and Southland it’s cold for most of the year.

Beaches in the South Island of New Zealand tend to get busy around school holidays, especially the New Zealand summer holidays from mid-December to late January. While the beach itself is rarely crowded, it can be hard to find parks near the beach or get tables at beachside cafes/restaurants.

Happy travelling!

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