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The Ultimate Guide to Surfing New Zealand

New Zealand, known as Aotearoa by the indigenous Maori people, has a rich surfing heritage, dating back far before the sport was introduced to the island nation in its modern form by surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku in 1906.

In fact, the Maori engaged in basic boardriding since their arrival around 800 years ago.

Fast forward to today, and New Zealand boasts some of the greatest surfing in the world, and more desirable to some, the potential to explore its rugged coast and score perfect, empty waves — and it's a place I know well.

In this article, I'll break down the best places to surf in New Zealand, along with the gear you'll need, and what to do when the waves are flat.

Photo courtesy Taira Blakely

New Zealand Surf Guide

Waves in New Zealand 

You might imagine New Zealand as a small island nation off the coast of Australia.

However, it’s not exactly small (it’s larger than the UK), and it isn’t all that close to Australia either (about 1,000 miles at its closest). It also boasts 9,400 miles of pristine coastline, the 9th longest in the world.

When you consider that the contiguous United States has just under 5,000 miles of coastline, it becomes possible to truly understand that the potential for surfing in New Zealand is, quite simply, unlimited. 

A vast majority of the coastline is surfable, too, as New Zealand picks up swell from all directions.

The Tasman Sea to the west, the Pacific Ocean to the north and east, and the Southern Ocean to the south provide an abundance of swell year-round. 

In light of this, it’s no surprise that New Zealand has it all: perfect point breaks, punchy beach breaks, pristine reef breaks, and everything in between.

There are waves for all levels and types of surfers, it’s just a matter of finding the right ones. 

Gear Needed to Surf In New Zealand 

Because New Zealand is so large, the water and air temperatures vary widely depending on the location and the season.

In the north, where the weather and water remains warmer, it’s easy to get away with a thin 3/2 wetsuit year round. In the summer, you might not need one at all.

But the far south gets extremely cold, especially in the dead of winter, demanding a 5/4 hooded wetsuit with gloves and booties. 

The same goes for your surfboard. New Zealand has thousands of unique breaks along its coast, with perfect waves for every kind of surfer of every level.

During my time in New Zealand, I had a fish.

It suited me well in all waves.

But for the big barreling reef breaks of The Catlins, a high-performance shortboard would be better. And for the soft point breaks along the North Island, you would be better off with a log. Essentially, it all depends on where you want to surf. 

New Zealand has waves for everyone: from big wave surfers hunting a winter swell on the south coast, to beginners chasing soft, small waves to learn on.

If it weren’t for its cold weather and sheer remoteness in relation to the rest of the world, New Zealand would almost certainly be a premier surf destination - rivaling the likes of Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Bali.

The Best Places to Surf in New Zealand 

Spot 1: Piha 

It’s no surprise that Piha is one of the most popular beach breaks in New Zealand, given its proximity to Auckland and the consistent swell it receives from the Tasman Sea to the West.

And, sitting below the stunning Waitakere Ranges, it’s certainly one of Aotearoa’s most beautiful surf spots as well. As a result of this, it can get extremely crowded, especially in the summer. But don’t worry, there are peaks spread up and down the beach with plenty of quality waves to go around. 

Piha picks up any western swell from the Tasman Sea, and is good in all seasons, though it tends to be bigger and occasionally blown out in the Winter.

Autumn is far and away the best season to surf Piha however: consistent swell from the Tasman Sea makes for dreamy conditions along the entire west coast of the North Island. 

Piha’s defining feature is Lion Rock: a massive rock formation jutting out from the shore, splitting the beach in two.

The north side of the rock is more exposed to the south and west, and can often get too large for all but the most experienced surfers.

But the south side of the rock is a little more sheltered and is home to mellower waves when it’s small, and quick, punchy A-frames when it’s bigger. 

Piha is best up to 6 feet, and benefits from easterly winds. It can be good on all tides, with rips along Lion Rock and between peaks up and down the beach that can help with the paddle out. 

In the summer, a thin 2mm wetsuit will keep you comfortable, but in the winter, you’d be better off with a 4/3 and booties.

Watch out for strong rips when it gets big, and keep an eye out for other surfers during the crowded days of summer. 

Spot 2: Raglan 

Raglan is a sleepy surf town along the west coast of the North Island, a couple hours down the coast from Piha.

At first glance, you might not expect it to be the surfing mecca of New Zealand.

Yet, Raglan is home to multiple world-class point breaks, one of which is touted as being the best left-breaking wave in the world due to its length, consistency, and accessibility. 

That wave would be Manu Bay, also simply known as “the point”, which gained notoriety from the 1966 cult classic film, The Endless Summer.

This is far and away New Zealand’s most famous surfing break, and can be ridden by an experienced surfer for minutes at a time.

On a particularly substantial swell, a surfer can chase the wave of a lifetime by dropping in at Indicators, a point break down the coast, and surfing all the way to Manu Bay.

This is the holy grail of surfing in New Zealand and can produce rides of up to ten minutes long and well over a mile in length. Simply put, it’s a goofy foot’s dream, and attracts surfers of all levels from all over the world. 

Manu Bay can hold swell up to triple overhead and works on all tides, though it gets hollow with steep drop ins at low tide, perfect for barrel-chasing.

If you’re more comfortable in softer waves, high tide can be much more inviting.

Manu can get extremely crowded when it’s going, and you should only paddle out if you’re an advanced surfer. 

For beginner and intermediate surfers, Raglan is also home to a sandy beach break known as Ngarunui Beach.

Surf schools offer lessons pretty much year-round, and in the summer, the water can get crowded with swimmers, lifeguard boats, and jet skis.

Ngarunui Beach is home to a variety of peaks up and down the beach, offering both lefts and rights.

If you’re just visiting, there are plenty of options for board and wetsuit rentals on the beach (but head into town for a better deal). 

Like Piha, Raglan thrives off of a solid swell from the west or southwest and is solid in all seasons, though the fall, from February to May is best in terms of consistency and size.

E or SE winds are ideal and can make for some otherworldly conditions.

In the winter, you’ll want a 4/3 wetsuit at least, though a 3/2 will be fine most other days of the year. 

Whether you are looking to score perfect barrels and mile-long rides, or even if you are just learning how to paddle and pop up, Raglan is the place to surf in New Zealand. 

Spot 3: St. Clair, Dunedin 

It’s a wonder that Dunedin is so often overlooked when it comes to surfing in New Zealand, as it boasts some of the best waves on the planet.

Perhaps it’s because the city is so remote, or is better known for being a rowdy college town.

Maybe it’s because of its rugged coastline, cold water, and the seemingly constant pounding of swell from the south that’s not always suitable for beginners.

In any case, Dunedin locals know it as ‘cold water Bali’ for its sheer number of quality breaks.

Many of them migrated to the region for precisely this reason, and it was certainly the main reason why I spent six months there chasing waves and occasionally attending class at the University of Otago. 

Dunedin’s most famous spot is St. Clair, just minutes away from the city center, and exposed to any swell from the south.

St. Clair is a sandy beach break suitable for surfers of all levels, and is also home to a punchy shorebreak on one side, and an awesome right hand point break on the other.

Oh, and, it’s also home to Hydro Surf, the closest surf shop to the south pole. 

St. Clair is best at low tide and with N/NW winds, and the conditions can vary widely throughout the day. Luckily, Hydro has a free webcam covering the beach, the point, and the channel.

Summer at St. Clair is mellow and perfect for a learner. But in the winter, it’s exposed to a barrage of swells originating from storms in the deep south, and is better suited for the more experienced surfer.

Regardless, there’s a surf school near the beach that operates year-round, and you shouldn’t have trouble renting quality gear if you’re just visiting. 

In the summer, a 4/3 wetsuit is just fine, but I would recommend a 5/4 hooded suit with gloves and booties if you want to stay warm during the rest of the year. 

Watch out for crowds (especially in the summer), and don’t be surprised if a playful sea lion decides to catch a wave with you, or if you see a penguin or two on the rocks. Dunedin is the wildlife capital of New Zealand, after all. 

Spot 4: Otago Peninsula: Whareakeake (Murderers) 

On the other side of Dunedin, just north of the Otago Peninsula is a legendary right-breaking point break known as Whareakeake, or Murderers.

Compared with St. Clair, which almost always has surfable waves, Murderers requires a significant swell from the east and rarely goes off. I spent six months in Dunedin, and only saw it break a handful of times.

Essentially, if you are planning a surf trip to the area, don’t count on it to break. But when the stars align, there probably isn’t a better place to be in New Zealand, and perhaps even in the entire southern hemisphere (if you surf regular stanced, that is). 

Murderer’s is extremely isolated, compared to the other breaks in Dunedin. It requires a long drive from the city, over the extinct volcano that makes up Otago Peninsula, and down a steep rutted dirt road. If something goes wrong, help is a long way away. 

This isn’t a deterrent to many, however: it’s the kind of wave that will make even the most casual of surfers drop everything and grab their boards.

It’s no surprise that it tends to be pretty crowded when it’s on.

The break itself is pretty punchy, and is best suited for experienced surfers and high-performance shortboards.

A much mellower point break, known as Potato Point, is just up the coast and is a haven for longboarders. 

The east coast of the Otago Peninsula is also home to the rarest species of penguins in the world, the hoiho, or yellow eyed penguin.

If you’re ever surfing at dawn or dusk, you might be lucky enough to spot one waddling across the beach. 

Spot 5: Kaikoura: Mangamaunu 

Kaikoura is a small town on the northeast coast of the South Island, best known for its whale watching - it’s one of the only places on earth where sperm whales can be spotted year round. 

Kaikoura is also home to a beautiful wave: Mangamaunu, a right hand point break beneath the snow capped Kaikoura ranges, one of the most picturesque surf breaks in the world.

Mangamaunu features a rocky bottom and is best suited for more advanced surfers. When it’s going, it can get crowded. And, strong currents and rips can pose a hazard, especially when it’s big.

But, the reward is a long, peeling wall of water that an experienced surfer can ride for hundreds of feet - be prepared to walk back up the beach after a good ride! 

Look for SE/E swells and W winds, and for a little bit of size - at least chest or head high.

Unfortunately, Mangamaunu (along with most of the South Island east coast) can get pretty flat in the summer. However, it boasts reliable surf through the winter.

This means you’ll need a thick wetsuit - a 5/4 hooded suit with gloves and booties is recommended. 

For beginners, check out Gooch’s Beach, a beach break right near the town. It offers a much gentler peak that is perfect for learning. 

Spot 6: Mount Maunganui 

Perhaps the greatest stretches of coast for beginner surfers can be found in the Mount Maunganui region of the North Island.

It’s home to warm water, white sandy beaches, gentle waves, and prevailing offshore winds.

Centrally located on the coast of the Bay of Plenty, Mount Maunganui is exposed to swells originating from the Pacific Ocean to the Northeast. 

While there are plenty of surfing beaches in the area, there is none more popular than Main Beach, which lies right off of downtown Mount Maunganui.

It’s a consistent beach break with soft peaks up and down the beach, perfect for learners.

But it’s also home to the blow hole on the south end of the beach, a right breaking wave that breaks off of Moturiki Island, that’s better for more experienced surfers and is often sheltered during an onshore or crosswind. 

Main beach and the blow hole work best with a SE swell and NE winds. It’s extremely reliable in the summer, although that’s also when the break is most crowded.

Keep an eye out for swimmers, other surfers, and when it gets big, strong rip currents and a nasty shorebreak. For a vast majority of the year however, Mount Maunganui is perfect for beginners, and is home to multiple surf schools and rental shops.

If you are new to surfing, and want to gain experience in a forgiving environment, this is the place to be. 

Spot 7: Whangamata Bar 

Just north of Mount Maunganui is an epic spot on the base of the Coromandel Peninsula called Whangamata Bar.

It breaks on a sandbar at the mouth of Whangamata Harbor, and when it’s on, produces a beautifully shaped left-breaking wave that was deservedly called the “jewel of the Pacific” by surfing legend Gerry Lopez.

It offers intense rides, especially at low tide - steep, fast, drop ins and a consistent barrel section that’s best suited for experienced surfers. 

Similar to Mount Maunganui, the bar is best with a NE swell and SW winds.

It can hold swell up to double overhead and offers some of the longest rides on the northeast coast of New Zealand

when it’s going. However, this also means it gets crowded, especially in the summer where you’ll have to watch out for swimmers as well.

Fortunately, there are beach breaks up and down the coast that are often pumping when The Bar is especially crowded. 

Unlike many of the other spots on this list, Whangamata Bar suffers from relatively inconsistent swell - it’s often too small, especially in the summer.

But in the winter, when the crowds are thinned out a bit, the bar can go off, so be ready to grab your board when it does.

You’ll have to get a bit lucky to score peak conditions though - shifting sands at the mouth of the harbor can impair the wave, making it even more special when it does decide to produce. 

What To Do In New Zealand When the Waves Are Flat 

Photo courtesy Taira Blakely

You’ll rarely find a day where you can’t surf in New Zealand. However, if you need a break from the waves, New Zealand offers some great alternatives.

Specifically, the country is famous for its adventure sports: bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, whitewater rafting… you get the idea. Essentially, it’s a paradise for any adrenaline junkies out there. 

Queenstown, on the South Island, is nestled right within the Southern Alps and is a hotspot for these activities.

It’s home to a phenomenal downhill mountain bike park (my favorite in New Zealand), high quality snowboarding (and skiing, if that’s your thing), and some of the best hiking (or tramping, as Kiwis call it) in the world.

Simply put, it’s a hub for adventure seekers around the world. 

Or, if you’re looking for a relaxing break, New Zealand has some of the best sightseeing in the world - consider a trip to Milford Sound, the self proclaimed “eighth natural wonder of the world” if you have a couple of days. You won’t regret it. 

The Bottom Line: Surfing New Zealand 

The sheer quantity of quality breaks, the consistency of the swell, and the low population of New Zealand make it very easy to find yourself in an empty lineup among perfect waves.

Whether you are just learning to surf, or chasing massive waves along the rugged south coast, New Zealand has it all. In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated surf destinations on the planet, and should certainly be atop your bucket list.


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