The concrete tower stands high and proud on top of a headland that runs down to the water. Come Christmas Eve, it's the centrepiece of a stunning light show, lasting an hour and repeated three times from 9pm until midnight every night.

No, not that tower. The 23m Castlepoint Lighthouse, atop its 162m headland, first lit in 1913, still protects ships along the rugged and unpredictable east coast of the North Island. A lighthouse keeper lived here until 1988.

Below is one of the most spectacular sites – and most loved beaches – on the Wairarapa coast: a long stretch of sand, a sheltered lagoon, a reef teeming with marine life and a waterfront that's home to rich and unique plant, bird and animal life.

The reef, lagoon, dunes and Castle Rock are part of Castlepoint Scenic Reserve. The reef and rock's crumbled limestone are the only place in the world that the shrubby Castlepoint daisy (Brachyglottis compactus) calls home.

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Several species of dolphin, fur seals and sometimes small whales come here; white-fronted terns, red-billed gulls and black shags inhabit the reef while reef herons and black-backed gulls nest on Castle Rock's sheer cliffs.

Health and safety advisories: the reef is extremely dangerous because the sea is unpredictable. Camping is prohibited – base yourself at the holiday park at the northern end of the beach.

Surfcasting and just about any other form of watersport deemed acceptable in a civilised society can be practised at Castlepoint. Experienced surfers might find the break less than challenging, but it's good for beginners.

Take your golf clubs to the nine-hole golf course (ocean views free) and the country pub just across the road has a garden bar which makes for a terrific 19th – or should that be 10th? - hole.

Castlepoint's big day out is the horse races along the beach in March. These date from 1872 when farmhands would race for rum. These days, the horses are thoroughbreds and the event is about picnicking and family fun.

To get there from Wellington, it's a one-and-a-half-hour drive across the Rimutaka Range and past the wine, gourmet and antiques and collectibles villages of Greytown and Carterton to Masterton.

You'll turn off the highway at Masterton, possibly best known these days as the baronial seat of Sir Peter Jackson, whose extremely private estate is not far from town, and head east across farmland to the rugged and mostly desolate coast.

Probably a good idea to raid and pillage the artisan food stores and boutique wineries along the way: once you get to Castlepoint, there's only a beachfront store and the pub.

Each of our expert panel shortlisting the 10 finalists for New Zealand's Best Beach had a different reason, from their own special interest, for nominating Castlepoint.

For Waikato University coastal researcher Karin Bryan, it was the reef and for singer-songwriter and beach bum Jamie McDell, the tearooms. "I do think having a beachfront store with ice cream is a very important thing to Kiwi families."

For Surf Life Saving's Matt Williams, it was the whole package. "Even if you've only seen a picture of Castlepoint you'd think, that's a place I want to visit. The lighthouse, the beach … they'd shoot a movie there."

Well, if they ever want to, there's a bloke living just an hour up the road who's quite good at it.

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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