OK, so the North Island gets all the credit as having the most tropical beaches to swim at in New Zealand, which is true, but the South Island has some epic rivers to float down, beaches to canter or drive along and hidden gems that will have you in your togs in no time. Here's our picks.
There are many good reasons to visit this little beach (the golden sand between your toes, the ridiculous azure water, the idyllic setting) but the freaky apple-shaped rock, which looks like a giant in a rage has split his rock in half, is the frosting on the golden cake. Only fifteen minutes walk from the car park, the beach is the classic crescent shape so it’s sheltered and super safe. There’s more room on the beach at low tide but the Split Rock, which sits on a reef, looks best at high. After splashing about in the water, the caves at the northern end are worth sending an echo into.
The harbour foreshore at Picton is busy, usually slammed with boats, kayaks, people and the odd cruise ship. If you want a peaceful dip then a 10-15 minute walk around the coast takes you to a tiny beach that is calm and so easy to do laps up and down you’ll feel like a fish. The view out to the sounds is also busy with marine life, dolphins, orca, humpback whales and seals in the water, and passing yachts and ferries on top. We don’t know who Bob was but this namesake beach is one peaceful little find that you’ll want to picnic at after swimming.
As soon as you clap eyes on the Pelorus River you want to get in it. Flanked by boulder clad gorges and forest glades, the water is consistently crystal clear and full of deep swimming holes that can take a good bomb any day. Halfway between Blenheim and Nelson a bridge crosses the river, and below is a scenic reserve, which is a good place to start exploring Pelorus. Locals sometimes jump off the bridge, which provides excellent, live entertainment (don’t be tempted unless you know what you’re doing). If the whole place feels eerily familiar this was the location where dwarves floated down river in barrells in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
You’d be disappointed if the sand wasn’t white at Whites Bay. But you won’t be disappointed. This little cracker of a beach over the hill at Rarangi, halfway between Picton and Blenheim, is a classic half moon shaped beach with white sand, safe swimming, short walks, surf patrol in summer and rock pools for exploring. If you’re feeling charged there’s a walk to a lookout at one end with impressive views. Plus a DOC campsite if you like it that much you decide to sleep over.
Fit for royals, this decadent plunge pool comes with its own mossy waterslide, lush bush surrounds, crazy shaped boulders for jumping off and mini waterfalls. Follow the high tide track between Torrent Bay and Anchorage to find the turn off to Cleopatra’s Pool, where the spring water is always clear and cool after schlepping in the heat. The effort required to find this natural beauty makes it that much more of a find, although you’re bound to find others here in summer because it is the Abel Tasman after all.
During the last Ice Age gigantic glaciers cut their path through this area, leaving deep trenches in their wake, which eventually filled up and created some nice lakes. The pier at Lake Rotoiti is the supermodel of jetties - featured in so many photos showing off what’s picturesque about New Zealand. With forest heavy hills that shoot down to the water’s edge, snow on Mount Robert winking in the distance, and a deep lake that is bluer than the sky you’ll be sprinting down the jetty in seconds too.
Swimming down river from a dam might not sound like a sane idea but the Maitai River has many great, safe swimming spots – so good they’ve even got names: Black Hole, Dennes Hole, Sunday Hole, Sharlands Hole, Smith’s Ford. Surrounded by smashing trees you can explore the river on foot or cycle. It’s an easy four hours return. From central Nelson, park near the corner of Trafalgar and Halifax streets and follow the track to the right, which follows the river. Or drive into the Maitai Valley via Nile Street East, park, and jump in.
Half the magic of Awaroa Beach is getting there. The views by plane are epic, over all the Abel Tasman National Park, or from an aqua taxi you see lots of other bays on fast-forward around the coast. Walking in takes three to four days and makes the cold beer at Awaroa Lodge so much tastier. This white beauty of a beach is 800 m long, with calm safe water for swimming or paddle boarding. It became famous in 2016 when kiwis fought to buy it from a private landowner, raising over two million in crowd funding. It was later gifted to Abel Tasman National Park.
A half hour drive from Takaka will get you to the Wainui Falls car park. The thirty minute trek in will have you goggling at the strangling rata trees, the dappled sunlight from the nikau palms, and then golluming your way across a spidery swing bridge. You’ll hear the falls before you see them and they live up to their roar. Wainui’s not the highest waterfall but it is top of the class for pretty. And the deep pool at the bottom, sandwiched by massive slabs of granite rock, will have you in your togs in seconds.
You can fish for wild brown trout all year round at Lake Brunner and it’s so bounteous many trout get to die of old age. But for swimmers you don’t feel old or dead in this gigantic lake. You feel alive! It is deep, and cool even in summer. Thirty minutes drive from Greymouth, Lake Brunner is huge (41 kms) plus there are another six smaller lakes dotted around. Swimming at night is safe and the stargazing is a bucket list must. Then there’s the glow-worm grotto to explore in Moana Township plus a hotel, café, campground and gas station for topping up.
Woodend is one of the best beaches between Kaikoura and Christchurch. Access to the long sandy beach is through a fresh pine forest, full of tracks that are good for bare feet, running shoes, bike wheels or horse hooves. If you’re travelling with a horse you’ll want to canter down Woodend. The beach has a gentle slope so its great for boogie board learning and swimming too. And the dunes provide some excellent sliding (and wiping out) opportunities. There’s an outdoor shower in the car park so you can wash off all the salt and sand before hitting the road again.
Ashley Gorge is the river to plan an all day rafting extravaganza on. There’s a decent current to keep you moving on whatever floating device you choose, drifting passed some mighty picturesque views of cliff faces, beech trees, and even the odd waterfall. But you’ll want somebody to collect you at the end rather than have to trudge back, wet, carrying your floating device. Or if you’ve only got a couple of hours then there are plenty of swimming holes, deep and not so deep, to frolic about. There’s also a five-hectare picnic spot so there’s room for everyone.
For an urban beach experience Sumner totally delivers. Only ten minutes from Christchurch this long sandy beauty serves up a classic seaside feel with plenty of merry locals —both swimmers and surfers —a good promenade for strolling along that’s dog friendly, and a breezy little village with cafes and restaurants churning out ice-creams, coffee and burgers. For newbies, Sumner’s a good beach to take surf lessons at and there are surf lifesavers for swimmers. At low tide it’s fun to explore Cave Rock, where a short walk takes you through a trippy tidal cave.
Picnics and pontoon action is what you get at Corsair Beach. The sheltered bay is only a few minutes from Lyttleton and gradually slopes down making it a primo swimming spot. You know something’s good when it is popular with locals and the weekends are busy but the steep track down puts some travellers off. If you’ve got a kayak then head out past the pontoon and you might see some of the other locals, Hector Dolphins. The water is often a fraction warmer here but don’t hold us to that. Midweek, Corsair can be deserted (but not in the school holidays).
Mt Aspiring National Park is one of the best places to go waterfall spotting. The 80-metre, crashing Wishbone Falls are visible from the road. It would be a crime not to stop, and there are quite a few falls along the Wanaka Mt Aspiring Road (which has 35km of gravel at the end) plus more throughout the park. Whether you take the easy ish hike to Wishbone falls or explore further, diving into the large cool pool at the base of the falls is never disappointing. While you’re there, make a wish. Many do.
Lake Wakatipu, being a lake in a town surrounded by mountains is always bracing – and we’re talking 12-14 degrees bracing! So Frankton Beach is a find because it’s slightly warmer. We’re not calling this shallow beach tropical but you can stay in for longer. And afterwards, when you’re sunning yourself on the shore you can watch the Para gliders in the air as they often practice at the reserve above the beach. You might even be tempted to try it.
If there’s an old lime kiln from the 1800s, a jetty for jumping off, fishing spots and a lappy, sloping swimming shore at Bob’s Cove, what else would you need to have a good time? Oh, not many people? Check. Only 20 minutes out of town? Check. Hidden away down a native bush track? Check. Bob’s Cove (what is it with beaches called Bob?) is a treat on a hot day.
You have to share the Arrow River with eager gold panners but it doesn’t take long to find a good swimming hole or rope swing dangling from a tree. The river produced a lot of gold in its time (hence the eager panners) and was an important part of the Central Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s. It’s also famous as the spot where Arwen challenged the Nazgul while rushing Frodo to Rivendell in the Lord Of The Ringstrilogy.
This sandy gem right at the bottom of everything once appeared in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But that’s not why Purakaunui is magic. There’s great swimming when the surf’s off and good surf when it’s on. And when you don’t feel like either there’s a small hot spring that flows into the sand at the right side of the beach that you can dig a hole and warm up in. Being 16 kms from the nearest town, Owaka, camping is possible with DOC sites dotted around. And occasionally you’ll be sharing your overnight with a Lion Seal who come ashore at night.
This is the beach where kiwi legend, Burt Munro, tested his superfast Indian Motorcycle. Oreti Beach is long, 26 kms long, and you can drive along it in a car or bike, which is truly epic at sunset. There’s good swimming, chilly but good, and the ancient dune forest is full of wind-sculpted totara and matai, making this beach at the edge of the world feel very rare.