"It's the kind of place where God would retire" is pretty high praise for a beach.

But that's what one diehard fan of Matapouri Bay wrote when nominating the Northland holiday spot in our quest to find New Zealand's Best Beach.

Just 40 minutes drive from Whangarei, the rarely-if-ever-crowded, sheltered, white-sand beach has long been one of the region's favourite destinations. Easy to see why: it ticks so many of the traditional Kiwi family beach must-haves.

There's a bridge to jump off into calm, deep water at high tide. Tennis courts, a playground and a general store. It's an old-fashioned slice of Kiwiana, selling ice creams, fish'n chips, the necessities of life and leisure-time ¬– and, since we're all gentrified now, coffee. Local tips, directions and chit-chat are free.

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Rockpools for the kids to splash in and explore; safe swimming at the estuary, river or beach. Boogie boarding spots.

Locals will tell you that you can't go wrong with fishing from the rocks on the ocean side of the beach at Matapouri (but they might have been talking about how many they caught yesterday).

Big boys can play with their toys here, too. Boats under 5.5m can be launched into the tidal estuary from the hard sand ramp. Bigger boys with bigger toys will have to use the concrete ramp at Tutukaka, 10 minutes drive away.

Offshore, the Poor Knights Islands are famous as some of the best diving and snorkelling sites in New Zealand. Less well-known are the clear waters of the estuary, one of the few in the country to allow snorkellers a close view of rich and rare native fish and plant life.

Matapouri has plenty of rental accommodation. Freedom campers should be aware the council has recently changed its regulations, setting a maximum length of 6m for motorhomes and effectively limiting overnight parking to smaller, non-self-contained vans.

So far, this could describe hundreds of beach villages around the country. So what's magical about this place?

For that you leave the beach and make for the bush-clad headlands, choosing one of three walking tracks: the Whale Bay Headland Track, Tane Moana Kauri Track and Mermaid Pool.

Whale Bay track (45min one-way) begins at the northern end of the bay, crosses the dunes and goes up a steep trail over the ridge to a stunning cove.

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Tane Moana track (2hr one-way) starts near the Matapouri Store and leads to Tane Moana, the east coast's largest remaining kauri, with a circumference of 11m.

The famous Mermaid Pools come with some warnings: wear shoes suitable for clambering a steep path and walking on sharp rocks. The track is steep (you may have to pull yourself up on the ropes provided) and unofficial. You can reach the pools only at low tide.

But take reasonable care, and it's the experience of a lifetime – swimming, basking or lolling in a naturally formed rock pool that's large enough for many people to enjoy, while looking out to the Pacific Ocean beyond and, more than likely, waving to a passing dolphin.

For our judges, that swung Matapouri's place on the shortlist over several Northland contenders. Surf Life Saving's Matt Williams: "It's accessible. It's got a lovely community, you can get your fish'n chips, you've still got a cellphone signal if that's your thing. It's a nice bay with short bush hikes. But it's got those Mermaid Pools – the size and depth of a room."

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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