Readers have voted and decided the top beach in the country is Whangamata, writes Ewan McDonald.

Sarah Ellery began her new job as manager of the Whangamata Motor Camp on Monday, so she was pretty chuffed when the Herald rang two days later to confirm Whanga' had been voted New Zealand's Best Beach by our readers around the country.

Not that Ellery is a newcomer to New Zealand's favourite summer resort — she has been holidaying there for 10 years.

So what makes it so special for young and old, families and international visitors?

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"It's clean. It's got everything — great surf, a bridge for kids to jump off, it's got the estuary, which is safe for the little ones, there's boogie boarding for the older ones," she said.

"It's just the best place to have a holiday. It's a great walking location and the streets are easy to bike around."

Events such as the five-day Beach Hop, which celebrates the music, cars and fashion of the '50s and '60s, and Brits at the Beach, which attracts thousands of UK expats, ensure the holiday vibe continues throughout summer.

Fun runs, the town's mountain-bike park and tramping in the surrounding bush add to the leisure opportunities, she says.

"It's the classic Kiwi holiday place that caters to all ages."

Matt Williams, chief executive of Surf Life Saving NZ's northern region and one of three beach experts who short-listed the 10 finalists from hundreds of nominations by Herald readers, wasn't surprised at the winner and runner-up, Matapouri Bay, in Northland.

When he and fellow-judges Karin Bryan, of Waikato University, and singer-songwriter-surfer Jamie McDell mused over the essential qualities of not just a great, but the greatest, beach they agreed defining that was a tall order.

Whangamata's Beach Hop is a popular yearly event. Photo / Lesley Staniland
Whangamata's Beach Hop is a popular yearly event. Photo / Lesley Staniland

New Zealanders are lucky to enjoy good water quality, safety, accessibility (or privacy) at many of our beaches. So what would set the best apart?

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First, the wow factor.

"The amazing beaches grab you upon arrival, capturing you in that moment. The feeling was described as 'almost primal' but we judges had difficulty trying to articulate it."

Second, modern convenience.

"Kiwis are funny creatures, and as much as we want the extraordinary, it must also be accompanied by the ordinary," Williams says.

"Though we all like to engage in a little adventure, getting off the beaten path for our summer sojourns, that feeling is often short-lived. It dissipates shortly after the picnic lunch, or when it is discovered Dad forgot to get the drink bottles out of the fridge, and no one checked the expiry date on the sunblock.

"It seems a functioning (and preferably flushable) toilet, alongside a dispenser of ice blocks and deep-fried nourishment are as high on our list of priorities as a beautiful breaking wave and pristine white sand."

Third, fun, thrills — and safety.

"We ask a lot from our beaches," Williams says.

They must have waves for the thrillseekers, rocks and caves to explore, areas to fish, and safe swimming spots, shelter and shade.

"With an order that tall, I hope Mother Nature doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon."

Finally, you have to have been there.

Williams notes that Kiwis are passionate, even possessive about what they regard as their beach.

"We do not enjoy beaches from afar or through our newsfeed, and very rarely is someone's favourite beach one they have not been to many times. More remote beaches don't seem to make it through the noise of their more popular coastal cousins. Here's to that, I say."

The top two have all those features — in spades.

"A worthy winner, Whangamata holds a special place for many New Zealanders. For those not lucky enough to own property or have regular holidays there, a summer or New Year at this Coromandel hot spot has been a longstanding Kiwi rite of passage.

"Much of its treasured status comes from the unique coastal environment. It's a widely accessible beach kept safe by the guardians of the coast at Trust Waikato Whangamata Surf Life Saving Club since December 1949."

You can't beat Whangamata Beach for safe, family fun on a warm, sunny day. Photo / Coastal News
You can't beat Whangamata Beach for safe, family fun on a warm, sunny day. Photo / Coastal News

Whatever you are looking for from a beach, Whangamata has it, Williams says.

"It offers the ability to do literally every activity you could hope for at the beach - from kayaking to nearby Whenakura Island, SUP'ing, snorkelling, fishing."

All that activity — or lack thereof for those finishing a good book — can build up an appetite. Whangamata has that covered too, with almost-beachfront cafes, and plenty of amenities and parking. He says "you really will want for nothing at this iconic Kiwi beach."

Runner-up Matapouri is a world away from the summer hum of Coromandel and Williams calls it "a little Northland gem."

"Matapouri is 'quiet' in the best possible way, a feature many longtime visitors value above all else.

"Its golden sands and shimmering blue waters, hugged by surrounding headlands, are always welcoming to holidaymakers, tourists, adventure enthusiasts or the weary urban dweller looking to disconnect for a spell."

The Mermaid Pools are unique, although their popularity means the heavily eroded track to the oceanfront natural swimming spot is burdened at times.

"For the board riders, it is not as attractive as its neighbouring beaches but proves a great bay for the kids and learners to get acquainted."

But Williams has a warning: "Tread lightly on your travels. Matapouri is still coming to terms with its popularity and does not yet have the infrastructure to support the masses."

Readers who originally nominated Whangamata share the reasons for their choice.
Lisa Spragg
Best beach, gorgeous white sand, great surf waves, awesome surf life guards on duty, Blackies cafe 10m away for great food, coffee and icecream. Whangamata beach suits and caters for all age groups. Simply the best.

Reader Lisa Spragg loves Whangamata for its gorgeous white sand and great surf waves. Photo / Lisa Spragg
Reader Lisa Spragg loves Whangamata for its gorgeous white sand and great surf waves. Photo / Lisa Spragg

Matthew Carson

Stunning setting, beautiful clean beach, crystal-clear blue water, easy swimming, boogie boarding, kayaking, jetski and surfing. Or boating/fishing if you prefer. So many places to go — harbour, main beach, little beach or estuary. Heaps of shopping and eating options only a block from the beach. Concerts, icecream, playgrounds, doctors — you name it, it's all there along with a funky, chilled vibe. You can easily scooter or ride your bike around as the roads are flat and cars cruise around slowly. It's paradise for me and my family.

'It's paradise for me and my family', writes reader Matthew Carson. Photo / Matthew Carson
'It's paradise for me and my family', writes reader Matthew Carson. Photo / Matthew Carson

Dave Webb

Whangamata Beach is paradise. With a tranquil harbour, a world-class left-hand surf break at the harbour river mouth, two long white sandy curved beaches, it is a year-long paradise. It caters for the multitudes of summer holidaymakers who can even stroll through ankle-deep water at low tide to Clarke Island or paddle to Donut Island and experience a tunnel into the centre of the island which was blown out by a volcano thousands of years ago. At the south end of the second beach is another smaller river mouth and estuary, which is also a popular summer spot. As a local for more than 40 years, my love affair is still the same as it was when I first came and surfed here in 1966.

Sandra Dudek
Fine white sand, beautiful blue water, what more can you ask for? The beach is safe for all ages and with the bend in the beach you can always find somewhere sheltered. It is great if you want to surf, swim, paddleboard or any other water activity. Definitely the best in NZ.

Reader Sandra Dudek says Whangamata is definitely the best in NZ. Photo / Sandra Dudek
Reader Sandra Dudek says Whangamata is definitely the best in NZ. Photo / Sandra Dudek

Christina Drent

It's home away from home.

Reader Lisa Spragg loves Whangamata for its gorgeous white sand and great surf waves. Photo / Lisa Spragg
Reader Lisa Spragg loves Whangamata for its gorgeous white sand and great surf waves. Photo / Lisa Spragg

Alie Corporaal

Always bound to have a bloody good wave somewhere. No high-rise apartments yet and there's a neat vibe going on in the town. Nero's has the best pizza in the country and there is always scoop icecream around every corner. I mean, you just can't lose.

Alix McGinity

It faces the rising sun, is fronted by accessible adventure islands and is shouldered with dunes and pines and pohutukawa. The waves challenge and entertain swimmers, surfers, wind surfers, kayakers, of all ages. It is loved and cared for by locals and visitors alike. In keeping with the meaning bequeathed by Maori, it has healing properties, obsidian being a strongly protective stone forming a shield against negativity.