Our meanings and memories of the beaches we love

Juliette Sivertsen

Travel Journalist/Digital Producer

I cherish every second.

Sand and shells stuck to the backs of my legs, the smell of the ocean air, the salt crusted on to my skin after a swim. What is it that makes it so special, so healing and cleansing? Why do we feel such a pull towards the seaside?

For some of us, the beach is a place of happy memories, representative of carefree childhood summers, a place for frolicking in the waves or playing backyard cricket with extended relatives.

Sometimes it serves more specific benefits - a place to swim, surf, paddle, to walk to the dog, to meditate or a place to gather seafood to provide for our families.

In one of my more melancholic phases in recent years, the beach was my daily saviour; a brief reprieve of peace in my stormy mind.

I would haul myself out of bed to walk to the water's edge, to feel alive again as the cool ripples rushed over my sandy toes. A sensory experience to ground me each day. The feeling of warmth from the morning sun, the beauty of the golden glow, the sound of the water lapping at the shore were all nourishment for my soul.

With coastlines never far away, many of us in Aotearoa feel something so much deeper than just appreciation for the seaside; somehow the feeling of being at the beach transcends all meaning. Each beach in this country is unique, each one with a story to tell, and each one holding the secrets of its visitors, generation after generation.

What does the beach mean for you? If you can't find the words, enjoy the following short essays which may do the talking for you.

Juliette Sivertsen, Travel Journalist, NZ Herald

She will never drown

Like David Copperfield, I was born with a caul.

Folklore has it that this means I will never drown, a mystical protection confirmed by a temple soothsayer in Hong Kong when I was about 7 or 8 and shook a cylinder full of wooden fortune-telling sticks until one shuffled free and fell to the ground. Reading the symbols on my stick, he told me I would never drown and that one day I would return to Hong Kong. Well, he was certainly right about that.

And it's true, the water – especially the sea – is like a second skin to me.

In November, I had my first swim of the season at Piha Beach on Auckland's black-sand west coast, a girls' weekend for my birthday. The wildness of the surf, its fierce grip and pull, made me feel so utterly alive. The beach gives me joy; truly, it is my happy place.

I never take my birthright for granted, though. I've been dumped too many times out bodysurfing, tumbled by the churning water and pressed down by a force far more powerful than me just long enough to be afraid I might never resurface.

O'Neill Bay and Bethells Beach from the Te Henga Coastal Track in West Auckland. Photo / Rachel Vulinovich, 123RF
O'Neill Bay and Bethells Beach from the Te Henga Coastal Track in West Auckland. Photo / Rachel Vulinovich, 123RF

If I ever retire to the beach, I can picture myself as a granny grommet learning to surf, my skin wizened and streaked with salt trails. But part of what makes Auckland special to me is how it's defined by its relationship with the water, more than any other New Zealand city.

A few summers back, a young cousin came up to stay from Dunedin. Over a long weekend, we took him to the warm shallows of Point Chevalier for a sunset swim; rode the waves at Takapuna before a barbecue with friends; dove into the surf (safely between the flags) at Te Henga/Bethells Beach, just north of Piha; and then followed the track below towering sand dunes to Lake Waimanu, a freshwater swimming hole that appears in the bush like a mirage.

It was perfect.

Joanna Wane, senior writer, Canvas

The sea is within me

We live on two islands surrounded by vast oceans so no matter which way you go, you will end up on a beautiful beach. White sand on the east coast, black sand on the west. Wild, rugged, or sheltered, small waves, big waves, or no waves, our coastlines are as diverse as our people and they are an intrinsic part of who we are as Kiwis.

I grew up in the Bay of Islands, but inland. So travelling to the beach was a joyous, coveted childhood adventure. One of nine children, with ample cousins and friends, meant I was never short of playmates when building castles in the sand, playing bullrush or leapfrog, trying to catch crabs in the rock pools, or eat oysters fresh off the rocks.

Paihia was our childhood beach. Matauri Bay was our camping beach and often where family members would go to dive for seafood. Long Beach in Russell was my teenage beach,as this is where I worked during the summer holidays to earn my pocket money working on an oyster farm, at the local takeaway bar or, when I was old enough, as a waitress at a waterfront restaurant.

New Zealand actress Rena Owen feels a deep connection to the beach. Photo / Monique Lively, Supplied
New Zealand actress Rena Owen feels a deep connection to the beach. Photo / Monique Lively, Supplied

Growing up in a popular tourist resort, I met travellers from all around the world and this fuelled my ambitions to travel, which I have ended up doing extensively. But when it came to choosing a place to live, I bought a home in Muriwai Beach as it gave me the BOI lifestyle but was still close enough to commute into Auckland City.

I grew up in nature and I need to live in it. I am not separate from it but on the contrary, I am made up of our Aotearoa land, sky and sea. I am extremely blessed to have a million-dollar sea view and the ocean never fails to remind me; I am but a small dot in an expansive universe.

Rena Owen, actress in Auckland Theatre Company's 'Two Ladies'

Bunk beds, baches and icecream

The best beach is your first beach. Is that true?

My family used to holiday at Riversdale, on the Wairarapa coast. My father, an architect, designed a beach house there for a former schoolfriend of his - and that's where we stayed, summer after summer.

Elevated above the dunes, with a big main room, a veranda all down the north side and, in two rooms at the rear, the ultimate mark of magical living: bunks. We weren't allowed to sleep on the top ones.

We were little. The beach was enormous, fine sand and a hot wind with far horizons, the sand soft in some places and so crusty in others you could break it into pieces. The waves rolled endlessly and we learned the thrill of being tumbled over, with flutter boards, even as we were also warned daily about the mysterious power of something called "a rip".

There was a river and an estuary, for safe, warm wading, with canoes on it. There was a pine forest, on undulating land with needles thick underfoot, perfect for the kind of all-day adventure where everyone carries a stick.

Dotterels nested on the beach and storms deposited giant tangles of kelp, the knots and nets and floats of fishermen's lost treasure and the astonishments of the world: a dead cow, once, her dead calf half emerged.

A young Simon Wilson lends a hand at Riversdale Beach, Wairarapa. Photo / Supplied
A young Simon Wilson lends a hand at Riversdale Beach, Wairarapa. Photo / Supplied

One shop, selling Frosty Jack icecreams. A strip of asphalt, bordered by tyres dug into the sandy soil, painted red and blue and white, marking the route as you tootled along on a bicycle, a lazy eye out for tractors towing giant boats.

The beach house is hemmed in now and corrupted by additions, but back then it stood alone and beautiful and the summers were bliss. I'm there again, always, the moment I smell pine needles on sand, hot under the sun.

Simon Wilson, senior writer NZ Herald

Seagulls maketh the moment

It's the best photo I've ever taken and I know I will never take another like it. It's barely a year old but already the details are blurry. I think it's at Kohimarama, although I always get the eastern beaches mixed up. I've long ago forgotten why we were there or what we were doing.

In the foreground is my eldest daughter, about to take a bite of a hot dog, standing in a shaft of early evening sunlight. In the middle ground, ankle-deep in the water, looking out towards Rangitoto, which is perfectly centred in the frame, are my two younger children. At the exact moment of exposure, a bird appeared in the top right of the picture, positioning itself perfectly, compositionally speaking.

Greg Bruce's eldest daughter takes a bite of a hotdog at Kohimarama, Auckland. Photo / Greg Bruce, Supplied
Greg Bruce's eldest daughter takes a bite of a hotdog at Kohimarama, Auckland. Photo / Greg Bruce, Supplied

I remember looking at that photo seconds after I took it, already feeling nostalgic for the scene it captured, even though it could be argued I was still living it.

My eldest daughter looks thoughtful, even wistful, even though she was 6. What was going through her head? Ponies or icecream probably but that's not what the photo suggests and therefore not what I choose to believe.

My two younger children appear to be the best of friends and, even though I know that to not be the case, the photo is proof positive otherwise. I have assigned multiple quasi-spiritual meanings to the seagull and will continue to, even though I'm not a spiritual person.

Our family exists in a near-permanent state of chaos but at that beach, in that moment, life was perfect. That is what that photo tells me and that is what I choose to believe.

Greg Bruce, senior writer, Canvas

Where is your favourite beach in New Zealand? Go to nzherald.co.nz/bestbeach to submit your nomination. May the best beach win.