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Golden Bay, or Mohua in te reo Maori, is where the blue-green ocean meets pristine sandy beaches at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. The whole area is sun-kissed and laidback, filled with people who want something more than the big city rat race offers.

Part of Golden Bay’s lifestyle attraction lies in the long journey there. Unless you fly in, it’s not that easy to get there, thanks the notoriously long and winding road over Tākaka Hill. That journey’s tiring in a car — especially if you get stuck behind a toiling campervan, which is pretty much guaranteed — and a mammoth push on a bicycle. 

Still, many thousands of people brave the hill each and every year to experience the warmth and beauty of Golden Bay. Once you get there, it’s easy to understand why.

Enjoy an Endless Array of Golden Sand Beaches

Beach and ocean view in Golden Bay, New Zealand

Golden Bay is famous for the many safe, sandy beaches along its coast, but you’ll also find areas of deeper water perfect for boating and waterskiing. 

Many of the beautiful beaches have holiday parks close by, so if you’ve got a bit more time, it’s easy to set yourself up for a typical Kiwi summer holiday for a week or two.

Here are some of the best-known beaches, along with a few hidden gems, in Golden Bay.


A ten-minute drive from the main town of Tākaka brings you to Pohara, a gorgeous flat beach just north of the Abel Tasman National Park. 

Pohara’s vast, sandy sweep is perfect for blokarting (think: windsurfing on wheels), and walking along the beach when the tide goes out. When the tide’s in, you’ll find beachgoers kayaking, swimming, windsurfing, or just picnicking under a shady tree. 

From Pohara, you can walk up to the Abel Tasman Monument and drive past the boat club marina and round the coast to more golden sand at Ligar Bay and Tata Beach. I spent a glorious week at Tata Beach helping celebrate a milestone birthday for my Dad, and it remains one of the best family holidays I’ve ever had.


In complete contrast to Pohara is Rangihaeata Beach, near the mouth of the Tākaka River. 

Yes, there’s still a flat beach and golden sand, but it’s also home to rocks and stones, twisted driftwood, and the ragged stumps of a 7000-year-old kahikatea forest that you can see still standing on the beach when the tide’s on the way out.

If you like to combine your sunbathing with a bit of exploring, this is the place to do it.


You probably won’t even see Tukurua marked on the map. This gorgeous little beach has a public entrance at one end, but most beachgoers come from the Golden Bay Holiday Park, sitting right on a private beachfront. 

Tukurua is a safe swimming beach, and is perfect for families. It has great fishing from the shore at low tide, and is very popular with boat owners. Campers get to use the private boat ramp, so you’ll often find a lot of boaties staying at the holiday park with you.

Wharariki Beach

Wharariki beach view of sand, ocean, and large rocks

At the far end of the bay, past Collingwood and the turnoff to Farewell Spit, you can walk on a well-marked track for 20 minutes or so across private farmland and down to wild, windswept Wharariki Beach. 

Completely different to the calm, safe havens of Golden Bay, Wharariki is all about rocky arches, towering cliffs, and fascinating caves. Take a sweater or jacket — the wind is bound to be blowing a gale on the beach, even if it’s calm in the carpark (but especially if it’s not!) 

Once you’ve negotiated the stroll down through the manuka and coastal forest, you’ll find gigantic sand dunes in every direction, perfect for rolling, jumping, and otherwise launching yourself down. My little nephew was having so much fun here, he barely made it to the rest of the beach!

If you’re lucky, you’ll see seals and their pups on the rocks or playing on the beach, and at low tide, you’ll be able to walk to the rocky arches.

There’s a basic campground nearby, but most people visit Wharariki as a day trip. On a clear day, it’s also worth driving (or walking) to the nearby Cape Farewell lookout for stunning views over the cliffs and ocean. For something different, try horse riding along the beach with Cape Farewell Horse Treks as well. 

Farewell Spit

View of sand and ocean at Farewell Spit, New Zealand

Wind and water from east and west, north and south, conspire to form Farewell Spit, a 34km stretch of sand at the top of Golden Bay that’s one of the largest natural sand spits in the world.

It’s the last part of New Zealand that Captain James Cook saw before he left in 1770 (hence the name), and was a camping place for early Maori as they trekked to the west coast. 

The Spit is a protected zone that’s home to more than 90 species of wetland and migratory birds, including godwits, gannets, and oyster-catchers. Access is strictly controlled: you can’t just rock up for a swim the way you can on most Golden Bay beaches, although you can walk 4km along the ocean beach and 2.5 km along the inner beach on your own. 

To get out and see the rest of Farewell Spit, you need to take a tour with a licensed operator. Tour guides drive along the beach to explore and explain the story behind the sand dunes, Fossil Point, and Cape Farewell lighthouse, along with the gannet and other bird colonies along the spit.

Find Great Food, Drink, and Crafts in the Townships


At the western end of State Highway 60 on the Ruataniwha Inlet, Collingwood is Golden Bay’s oldest and second-largest town, and the northern gateway to the Kahurangi National Park.

Settlers collected in Collingwood during the 1857 gold rush, and you can still try your hand at prospecting today with Gold Hunting Adventures. Steve teaches all the latest tips and techniques with gold pans, sluice boxes, and what to look out for when you’re searching for a likely spot on the river. 

Collingwood is a beautiful little town, with many fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings. It’s worth walking the short Heritage Trail past the old cemetery, police station, and post office buildings before sitting down to lunch at the old courthouse, now a fine cafe. 

A short drive or cycle away is Bainham and the Langford Store, one of New Zealand’s oldest general stores, and still run by the family who opened it in 1928. The store was a lifeline for rural folk in the past, and is now an established icon, with a cafe and art gallery, as well as groceries still on the shelves.


Towards the southeastern end of Golden Bay is Tākaka, the area’s largest town and the central hub for tourism, shopping, and the surrounding rural community.

There’s plenty to explore in Tākaka itself, with many good cafes and artisan shops including jewellry, boutiques, art galleries, pottery, glassblowing, and the delicious Choco Loco chocolate store. If you’re in Tākaka on a Saturday in summer or autumn, check out the village market: there’s usually live music and a bunch of craft and food stalls worth visiting.

There’s also a quirky village theatre that doubles as a cinema and playhouse, and a small museum with interesting displays on early Maori and the area’s many industries (like flax, timber, gold, dairy, and coal).

Enjoy These Unmissable Activities

Te Waikoropupū Springs

View over still water and bushland at Te Waikoropupu Springs, Golden Bay, New Zealand

Not far from Tākaka lie the southern hemisphere’s largest cold water springs. In the past, Maori tribes used Te Waikoropupū as a place of spiritual healing. The sacred springs are now protected by a “wahi tapu” that prevents anyone from swimming in or even touching the pure waters, but you can still look.

There’s a short but lovely loop walk from the carpark to a curved viewing platform that juts out over the springs. Gazing out over the crystal clear waters and down into the depths gives you time to appreciate the beauty of wai ora (the waters of life). It’s a stunning place to just sit and reflect, especially on a sunny day.

Be sure to read the fascinating information panels at the start and along the track to understand why the local Maori have placed Te Waikoropupū springs under such strong protection.  

The Mussel Inn

Plate of mussels with lemon slices, at Mussel Inn, Golden Bay

If you ask the locals “where can I get a drink and a good meal in Golden Bay?” the chances are they’ll point you in the direction of The Mussel Inn near Onekaka.  

Less of an everyday pub and more of a local institution, there’s often live music in the evening, and plenty of outdoor seating for enjoying a drink in the sun. The steamed fresh mussels are the Mussel Inn’s most famous feature, but there’s more than delicious shellfish (and a roaring fire in winter) on offer here.

They brew their own craft beer next door at the Mussel Inn Brewery, and grow their own Onekaka hops, which they handpick in March. Everyone’s welcome to help, but take some sturdy gloves along if you plan to join the harvest. Hops have tiny sharp spikes all along the bines, so you’re risking more than a few scratches if you turn up unprepared.

Anatoki Salmon and Trout Fishing

The Anatoki is a small, shingle-bed river that flows over farmland from the Tasman mountains to join the Takaka river. It’s well-known for its excellent brown trout fishing, so if you’re handy with a rod and reel, you’ll probably want to buy a license and head out on your own.

However, if you’re more interested in fishing for salmon to eat, head along to the Anatoki chinook salmon farm. There you can catch your own fish and take it to the café to have it prepared while you wait, either smoked or raw as sashimi, to eat on site or packed appropriately to take away.

If you don’t fancy catching it yourself, never fear: the cafe has plenty of salmon dishes on offer as well. I can vouch for the deliciousness of the salmon here regardless of how it comes: after several trips over the years, I think I’ve tried all of the available options!

As well as salmon, you’ll find large longfin eels in the water as well (at least during the warmer months when they aren’t hibernating). Buy a bag of food from the cafe and hand-feed these gentle giants: some of them are believed to be nearly a century old!

Wainui Falls

A 45-minute ramble through nikau palms and rātā trees — and over a long swing bridge — takes you to the spectacular Wainui Falls, where the Wainui river tumbles between narrow granite rocks and thunders down into a deep pool below. 

These are the largest and most easily-reached waterfalls in Golden Bay, and are an easy half-hour drive east of Tākaka township. Keep a lookout for snails on the walk: if you’re fortunate, you might spot a powelliphanta — a giant, native snail with a pinkish-golden shell. Unfortunately they’re very rare these days, but still, you never know!

If you’re visiting during the warmer months, be sure to stop in for a drink, meal, or icecream at Palmville Coffee Co when you get back to the carpark. This seasonal outdoor cafe is a great place to hang out with the local wildlife: the weka in particular aren’t afraid of coming right up and saying hello!

Labyrinth Rocks 

Another a-maze-ing free walk is the natural limestone maze of Labyrinth Rocks Park, between Tākaka and Pohara. 

These moss-covered walls are often described as Jurassic Park meets Fairyland. You’ll see characters, shapes, and faces naturally worn into the rocks, but you can also spot dozens of tiny witches, kissing pigs, and other figurines secreted in nooks and crannies along the rocky walls. 

You can pick up a map at the entrance to guide you on your scavenger hunt, or brave the labyrinth with no additional aid if you’re feeling confident. Expect to spend around an hour here.

Hike on the Great Walks

Hiking trail overlooking bush, beaches, and ocean, on the Abel Tasman track near Wainui, New Zealand

Golden Bay is the start/finish point of two of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks. The Abel Tasman is a 60km stretch of native forest with two track options, an inland or a coastal route. The latter is one of the most popular Great Walks in the country due to its relative ease of walking, stunning surroundings, and access to beautiful beaches all along the way.

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, take a detour to Cleopatra’s Pools to slide down the slippery, mossy rock chute into the deep natural pools below.

While the full route typically takes four or five days to complete, you can also walk the track in sections thanks to a water taxi that calls in at several bays between Marahau and Totaranui.

From the Golden Bay side, you start/finish at the carpark at Wainui. Day hikes are also an option from here, either out and back for whatever distance you like, a tougher 25km loop to Totaranui and returning via the steep Gibbs Hill track, or if you’ve got two vehicles, a one-way, 16km walk to the Totaranui campsite carpark.

By contrast, the Heaphy Track is a walking and mountain biking trail that goes around 80km from the Kahurangi National Park (near Collingwood) to Karamea on the West Coast. The longest of New Zealand’s Great Walks, it winds through tussock plains and alongside the Heaphy River before wandering into the nikau palm groves and down to the beach at Karamea. 

Many people choose to walk or bike just part of these protected tracks, while others don their backpacks and grab their sleeping bags to tramp the whole way. Either way, if you love walking and natural surroundings, either of these Great Walks offer a wonderful Kiwi experience that you won’t forget.

Sea Kayaking 

One of the most popular ways to see the Abel Tasman National Park (other than walking the track, that is) is by sea kayak. Golden Bay Kayaks offers groups of two or more people the chance to hire kayaks and paddle along the shoreline from Tata Beach all the way to Marahau. 

This is a self-catered, multi-day trip. Set an energetic or leisurely pace — your choice — and stay at Department of Conservation (DOC) huts or campsites along the way. Swim, paddle, and spot the sea creatures along the way. Sunbathe on the beach and watch the sun rise and set from your sandy campsite. Magic!

However, if you’d rather do a half-day trip, or even just a couple of hours on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, this local family business offers shorter guided and independent options too.  

Scenic Flights over Golden Bay 

There’s nothing like flying in a small plane to get a spectacular birds-eye view of pretty much anywhere, and Golden Bay is no exception. 

Adventure Flights has several different routes covering the two National Parks or out over the Bay and Farewell Spit. It also offers a special flight for hikers and mountain bikers from Nelson, Motueka, and Takaka to either end of the Heaphy track, or from one end to the other. With nearly 500km of road between the start and end points, this can save a lot of driving time. 

Golden Bay Air is the other company offering scenic and charter flights around the Golden Bay area, out to Farewell Spit and the Abel Tasman. Passengers wear two-way headphones to hear the pilot’s commentary and talk to other passengers. The company also has regular scheduled commuter flights between Takaka, Wellington, and Nelson.    

Ngarua Caves

Take a break on your journey over the Tākaka Hill and visit the Ngarua Caves, just beyond the summit. Stalagmites and stalactites abound, as well as many strange plants that thrive in the “twilight zone” just inside the cave entrance. There’s even a moa skeleton on display!

It’s well worth taking the guided tours, which depart hourly during summer and by appointment during winter. They cost $25 per adult, $10 per child, and are free for under-fives.  

Abel Tasman Canyons

Whether you’ve never been canyoning before or have plenty of experience, Abel Tasman Canyons has an adventure to suit. The company offers guided trips through five canyons spread throughout the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national parks and Mt Richmond Forest. 

For the uninitiated, canyoning is a fantastic challenge and a whole lot of fun. It’s abseiling, climbing, and swimming all rolled into one, with plenty of jumping, scrambling, and screaming down mountain streams, rushing over rocks, down waterfalls, and into icy-cold pools. 

The company offers a range of trips for different ages and experience levels, including those with less experience and confidence and children as young as 12. At the other extreme, go for the Guts and Glory option, which adds skydiving into the mix just in case you didn’t have enough of an adrenaline rush already!  

Technically, this adventure isn’t in Golden Bay, since you’ll have to go back over Tākaka Hill to get there. Free pickups are available from Takaka for some of the trips, though, and it’s such a fun activity that I just had to mention it!

All images via author

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