Matt Williams, chief executive of Surf Life Saving New Zealand's northern region, was happy when presented with the long list of 26 contenders in the Herald's search for New Zealand's Best Beach.

One of three expert judges tasked with wading through our readers' suggestions and sifting them down to a shortlist of 10, Williams took one look at the options and said: "The best thing is, the three best beaches in the country aren't on here."

Fellow judge, singer-songwriter and surfer Jamie McDell, chipped in, "That means they're still a secret."

It's hard enough to get two Kiwis to agree on which is the best beach in the country - everyone has their favourite and won't hear a word against it.

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So it was no small task for our three expert judges to agree on their shortlist yesterday.

"What makes a great beach?" Williams asked. "You don't visit a beach and say, 'That was a great toilet'. You walk there and it hits you - it's spiritual. It captures you."

The seaside is New Zealand's last great free entertainment and a place where everyone can find their favourite activity and enjoy it, he added.

For our third judge, Waikato University Associate Professor Karin Bryan, who studies the dynamics of sediments and nutrients in coastal environments, "It's the sound of the surf."

McDell agreed: "That's what I will travel hours and hours to get to a beach for."

Since the beginning of January, we've asked readers to tell us which beach they think is the nation's finest.

We asked you to take into account local amenities like toilets, food vendors and parking; family friendliness (are there playgrounds? Is the water safe? How far away is the nearest ice cream shop?); green credentials (water and sand quality); and the X-factor (Is it secret or hidden? Do you need to walk for two hours to get there? Is it where you had your first kiss? Were you eaten by a shark there?

You came up with more than a hundred bays, beaches, points, harbours, gulfs, inlets, lakes and even the odd swimming hole that no one but your family knows about.

One beach earned more than five times as many nominations as any other in the country, but even that was not enough for it to make the top 10. Sadly for Ohope, "it's a great beach - but it picked a country of great beaches to be in," Williams said.

Today we name their pick of our leading beaches. Over the next 10 days we will profile these coastal contenders and readers can vote online for their choice. At the end of the month, that vote will determine New Zealand's Best Beach.

Obviously, this is all a bit of fun. But the search for New Zealand's best beach is also a great opportunity to reinforce important messages about water safety, and the responsibility we all share to care for our beaches and waterways.

And after the debate, our judges agreed on one thing. "This could be a world top 10 of beaches," Williams said.

THE TOP 10 BEACHES

• Castlepoint, Wairarapa
• Hahei, Coromandel
• Kaiteriteri, Tasman
• Matai Bay, Northland
• Matapouri, Northland
• New Chums, Coromandel
• Opito Bay, Coromandel
• Taupo Bay, Northland
• Te Arai, Auckland
• Whangamata, Coromandel


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