Discover the best beaches within easy reach of Auckland

If you’re after sandy stretches close to Auckland and scenery to suit your mood, local sun-chaser Alice Galletly suggests a few of her favourite Auckland beaches

Aerial view on sunny beach with group of people taking fitness class.
  • Words Alice Galletly
  • May 2018

Every year from about mid-November to late March, my life is invaded by sand. It burrows into the upholstery of my old Toyota Corolla, hitchhikes into the apartment on beach towels and bodies, and coats the floorboards and bed sheets with grit. There’s no point fighting it. Instead, I consider this a small price to pay for living in Auckland, where a summer day without a swim in the ocean is a summer day wasted.

Along with New Zealand’s worst traffic and priciest houses, Auckland lays claim to some of the country’s loveliest beaches. The city is surrounded by water, straddling twin harbours and two wildly different coastlines, so there’s a slice of sand to suit every whim.

Want rugged, raw beauty and awesome surf? The black sand beaches out west offer that and more.

Prefer classic white sand with calm water and shady pohutukawa trees? Auckland’s east coast is lined with them.

Then there are the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, many just a short ferry ride from the CBD, and myriad beaches tucked in and around the city. In short, Aucklanders are #blessed, and we know it.

For summer visitors, a trip to one or more of Auckland’s beaches should be an essential part of the itinerary. Just try not to bring too much sand home with you.

A trail to the beach at Onetangi beach, Waiheke Island.
Waiheke Island beach, New Zealand

Local dips

When Auckland heats up, locals know that spending eight hours under fluorescent office lights can feel like torture. Thankfully, the city has myriad great beaches within cooee, meaning an after-work (or even lunchtime) swim is always an option.

Mission Bay is one of the busiest central beaches and has a wide sweep of golden sand lined with restaurants, cafés and gelato shops looking out towards Rangitoto Island. It offers calm water for swimming or kayaking, a kids’ playground and a grassy reserve for picnics, making it popular with families – and a natural drawcard for tourists.

On weekends, when Mission Bay is crowded, I prefer to keep heading east around the waterfront to St Heliers. Visitors with a little more time on their hands will find the beach is just as lovely, and the St Heliers Bay Bistro does better food than the more touristy options at Mission Bay.

Another favourite spot with locals is Takapuna Beach, just over the bridge on the North Shore. Like Mission Bay, it’s family friendly, offers safe swimming, and has bonus postcard views of Rangitoto and plenty of cafés and shops.

If you prefer little horseshoe bays to wide beaches, head around the corner to Thorne Bay. A secret-ish spot beloved by Auckland’s hipster crowd, this secluded bay has a steep gradient and deep water, making it one of the better options for swimming at low tide. Reach it via the coastal walkway between Takapuna Beach and Milford or from the end of Minnehaha Ave.

Hauraki havens

I might be biased because I’ve been spending summer holidays there since I was six, but my favourite Auckland beaches belong to Waiheke Island. Yes, it can get crowded in summer, but what can you expect when paradise is only a 35-minute ferry ride from the CBD?

The best swimming spots are on the sheltered north side of the island, including the three most popular beaches, Oneroa, Onetangi and Palm Beach. If you don’t mind the sight of nude, leathery bodies, clothing-optional Little Palm Beach (at the western end of Palm Beach) is a secluded white-sand bay that’s even more picturesque than its better-known neighbour. For dinner and a sunset dip, I also love Little Oneroa, where, year-round, a mobile pizza cart sells excellent wood-fired pizzas.

Of course, Waiheke isn’t the only island in the Hauraki Gulf blessed with beautiful beaches. Just over an hour by ferry from downtown Auckland, tranquil Rotoroa Island has two knock-out golden beaches (named Ladies Bay and Men’s Bay, but rest assured they’re unisex) within walking distance of the wharf. There are no shops on the island, so it’s best to pack a sandwich if you don’t plan to catch your lunch.

A similar distance from Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is a haven for native wildlife. After a morning of bush and birdsong, unspoiled Hobbs Beach is a peaceful spot for swimming, snorkelling and picnicking.

A beach view of Tāwharanui Regional Park.
Tawharanui Regional Park, New Zealand

Northern gems

For a proper day out at the beach – car loaded up with books, beach toys, the works –Auckland’s northern motorway is the road to paradise.

Tawharanui Regional Park is the ultimate day-trip destination for those in the know and well worth the 75-minute drive. The 58-acre reserve lies on a remote eastern peninsula near Matakana and functions as a working farm, bird sanctuary and marine reserve. Besides an ice-cream shop, Tawharanui has it all: white, sandy beaches with safe swimming areas near the shore and swells further out. There are big, old pohutukawas for reading under, rock pools to study and native bush trails to explore. Bring a snorkel, enough food and water for the day and a fully charged phone (so you can show off on Instagram).

Another favourite off-the-beaten-track destination is Shakespear Regional Park. Lying at the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula about an hour north of Auckland, the park is an open wildlife sanctuary flanked by two gorgeous beaches: Army Bay facing north, and Okoromai Bay facing south (take your pick depending on which way the wind is blowing). It’s tempting to spend the whole day lounging and paddling in the clear, calm water, but don’t miss the lookout track to the top of the park’s highest hill. You’ll encounter plenty of birdlife, and the 360-degree views of the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland’s skyline are spectacular.

A mountain view of Lion Rock at Piha Beach.
Lions rock at Piha beach, New Zealand

Wild west

Away from the good-time golden beaches of New Zealand’s east coast, the wild western beaches deliver the real drama. Out there, beyond the dense bush of the Waitakere ranges, vast black-sand beaches are pounded by the Tasman Sea. Fiery sunsets, towering sea cliffs and volcanic rock formations add to the raw, rugged beauty of the coast, attracting a steady stream of artists, surfers, hippies and hermits.

The most famous westie beach is Piha, where the rips are so legendary they starred in their own reality TV show, Piha Rescue. Though many do swim here (between the flags), there’s plenty more to do. Admire the view from atop Lion Rock — the ancient volcanic formation that stands guard between Piha and Little Piha — learn to surf, or hike up to the Tasman Lookout, then refuel with woodfired pizza and craft beer at the excellent Piha Cafe.

Other west coast beaches offer equal doses of beauty without the crowds. Made famous by Jane Campion’s The Piano, sweeping, moody Karekare is surrounded by high cliffs and forest walking trails. Bethells Beach or Te Henga boast massive dunes (BYO cardboard toboggan) and Muriwai is known for its big swells and clifftop gannet colony. Whichever beach you visit, make sure you bring your jandals (thongs to Aussies) for navigating the sizzling black sand. And be sure to dust off that excess sand before you get back in the car.