The South Island has a little of everything, from the totally tranquil and only accessible by boat beaches to the wild and surf-smashed where nature has carved scenes of cathedral-like caves and sentinel-like rock arches.
1) Purakaunui Beach, The Catlins, Southland
A large cove-like beach, tucked away like a precious jewel, Purakaunui tends to see more penguins, dolphins and sea-lions than people. Walk round the western end rocks and you will find a series of swimming size rock pools. Refreshed with each incoming tide these crystal-clear pools are a snorkeller’s paradise. Lined with pink rocks and inhabited by a variety of sea creatures which live among the lime green, shocking pink and scarlet seaweed, swimming here has more than a slight air of floating in a fairytale. There is a Department of Conservation camp-site for those who just can’t bear to leave after a day trip here. Click here to view all the beaches in this area.
2) Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough
We admit we’ve cheated a bit here because the Marlborough Sounds is not one single beach but rather a kaleidoscope of hundreds. You won’t find many people here but what does await you are steeply wooded hills and inlet after cove after hidden sandy gem which all adds up to a certain slice of paradise for seclusion seekers and nature lovers.
There are more than 50 Department of Conservation camp-sites here many of which can only be arrived at on foot or by boat. So, grab yourself a map, pack your spirit of adventure and get ready to have your breath taken away by scene after scene painted with every shade of blue and green nature has in her entire palette.
3) Cannibal Bay and Surat Bay, The Catlins, Southland
With an air of nature at its wildest and most raw, these often wind-swept and totally deserted beaches will appeal to all lovers of dramatic coastal scenes and all who come in search of solitude.
As lovely as these South Island beaches are – and both are very different – the real draw comes in the form of the resident hooker sea-lions which loll about on the sands or snooze their days away in the dunes. In close proximity these sea mammals are big; stray too close and you will also discover that they are particularly fast and agile on their flippers too.
4) Mosquito Bay, Abel Tasman National Park
Take a slight detour from the Abel Tasman Coast Track and you will arrive at this stunning cove where the sands are white and the waters which lap them varying shades of idyllic-beach turquoise.
The rocks and broken reef slabs make for a snorkeller’s wonderland in this often seal frequented deserted spot where the lush and thickly wooded hills tumble straight down to the beach. Why deserted if so special? Because getting here requires some effort as there is no road access……. but nobody questions that effort on arrival here.
It is possible to rent a kayak from nearby Marahau but if you don’t want to exert yourself this far this beach is just made for lazing about when the sun shines although you’ll have to pinch yourself occasionally to be sure it isn’t all just a beautiful dream.
5) Stewart Island
OK we admit Stewart Island isn’t technically speaking the South Island but as that is where most visitors access it from we’ll sneak it in.
And where to begin if we are talking ‘best of’ beaches!. This conservation island – which takes an hour to reach by ferry from Bluff on the far south coast – is a true jewel in the nation’s crown. It showcases all that is naturally best about New Zealand with great servings of unspoiled splendour. Here you will find verdant rainforest, incredible flora and fauna (including the iconic kiwi) and a ton of beaches of almost blindingly-white sand and water so clear you can only tell it’ there at all when the breeze ripples its surface.
6) Gillespies Beach, West Coast, Near Fox Glacier
Although the gravel road access to Gillespies is not for the faint-hearted it ensures little to no traffic and a wonderful reward at the end which comes in the form of a pebble beach complete with a unique backdrop of Southern Alps and glacier. Once you have made the effort to get here it is possible to linger a while thanks to the basic Department of Conservation camp-site where beach bonfires at sunset are almost obligatory and stargazing is unavoidable.
At the heart of what was once a remote gold-mining settlement, you can also go for a wander and explore what is left of the old gold dredge and mining tunnel.
7) Cathedral Caves, Waipati Beach, The Catlins
Sandy Waipati beach has a wind-swept beauty all of its own but the main reason folk head this way is to visit the imposing cathedral-like caves. With ceilings soaring up to 30 metres above you, these two inter-connected caves are only accessible at low tides and sometimes closed completely after storms or when the tides are excessively high.
8) Wharariki Beach, Golden Bay, Nelson Region
Yet another offering of the pure white sand variety, this lovely beach within a vast bay has easy access but if you don’t like to share no worries…this beach is big which means wandering off to find your very own spot requires little effort. Here you will find free-standing rock arches and dunes big enough to sand surf down should the mood take you along with rippled white sand, and if you are lucky the odd fur seal.