Bondi. Copacabana. Venice Beach. You only have to think of places where the sun meets the ocean meets the sand and you have captured the essence of a nation. For Aotearoa, that place could be Whangamata.

The Coromandel resort is not so much a place as a rite of passage for generations of Kiwis.

Great-grandparents, retired in their baches, who came there as newlyweds when the world was focussed on another beach, Dunkirk. Grandparents who remember Ray Columbus and the Invaders playing She's A Mod on the summer beach tour.

Parents who would rather not tell their teenagers what happened at the party after the Exponents' gig.


And those teenagers, at high schools anywhere from Auckland to the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, who've counted down the days till they can head to Whanga' for New Year's with their mates.

That's the clichéd Whangamata, and like all clichés, there's more than a sand-grain of truth to it. And, like all clichés, there's more to the town, and the beach, than the annual headlines of misbehaving teens, grumpy cops and an ambience – whether fuelled by alcohol or chemicals or serotonin – heady with an excess of summer lovin'.

Whangamata "is not a beach but an experience," as local resident Des Cowie wrote when nominating it in our quest to find New Zealand's Best Beach.

For another resident, Dave Webb, "there is something for everyone at Whangamata Beach.

As a local for over 40 years, my love affair for the beach is still the same as it was when I first came and surfed here in 1966."

Few holiday destinations can claim to be as accessible as Whangamata. Eighty per cent of New Zealand's population can drive to the town and its two surf beaches, a harbour at the north and tidal estuary at the south, in two hours.

The ocean beach and its famous "Whanga' Bar" produces some of New Zealand's best surfing breaks, and safe, patrolled swimming. At low tide beach-goers can wade to Hauturu/Clark Island to dive, gather seafood or let kids play in the rock pools, or kayak to Whenuakura/Donut Island at the southern end of the ocean beach.

Away from the water, there are day walks, mountain-bike trails and old gold-mining sites in the Coromandel Forest Park on the edge of town.

While Whangamata has only 3500 permanent residents, its population swells to 25,000 around New Year, swamping holiday accommodation, the shopping centre and its cafes, restaurants and bars.

This was the first beach on our judging panel's shortlist. For singing, songwriting surfer Jamie McDell, it has the best surf – "you can't beat the Whanga' Bar". Surf Lifesaving's Matt Williams agrees, pointing out that the bar has the most potential for long-boarders, while foil-boarders are also out there now.

There's a different attraction for Waikato University coastal researcher Karin Bryan: "I like the fact that it has [Clark] island, with those very cool reflecting patterns around it."
Whanga': not so much a place as a holiday romance that defies explanation. As generations sing here every New Year, "I don't know, why does love do this to me?"


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• Whangamata, Coromandel

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