Wellington’s location has blessed the city with lots of stunning beaches.
According to Maori legend, the north island of New Zealand is a large fish pulled up by the Polynesian hero Maui. Wellington, located at the southern tip, is the Head of the Fish – Te Upoko O Te Ika a Maui. Which is supposed to be the sweetest part!
The head of the fish is surrounded by water, giving Wellington an extensive waterfront. Not all of it is accessible, particularly on the western side where steep cliffs drop directly into the ocean. But the eastern side, where I am fortunate enough to live, benefits from many bays and beaches, each with its own particular attractions. Some are the traditional, sandy, family-friendly kind, while others are stark and wild.
My list of best beaches in Wellington roughly follows part of the Great Harbour Way, heading east out of the central city. I’ve divided it into the 4 main geographical sections along the route: Wellington City itself, Evans Bay, the Miramar Peninsula and the south coast.
Some of these beaches are located in small residential communities, and car parking is at a premium. I’ve therefore mentioned public transport options where available. Cycle hire is a good choice for those so inclined.
1. Oriental Bay
Being the most central city beach, Oriental Bay is by far the most popular of all beaches in Wellington. On warm weekends it gets as crowded as the Costa del Sol. Located on the southern side of the harbour, the sands stretch from the Freiburg pool and leisure centre at the city end, to the northern end of Oriental Parade – one of the city’s most desirable addresses.
Overlooked by the gorgeous villas and apartments of Mount Victoria, the beach is bordered by a wide pathway which is popular with cyclists and skaters as well as walkers. The fine sand was shipped across from Golden Bay in the south island and is regularly topped up by the city council.
There’s a swimming raft offshore and there are usually life saving folk on duty during summer weekends, keeping an eye on the swimmers and handing out sun tan lotion.
You can enjoy some great cafes and takeaways along the beach-side and on the Parade itself, such as Coene’s, Lola Stays and Beach Babylon. For amazing ice cream head to Kaffee Eis. Nearby attractions include 2 attractive marinas – Chaffers and Clyde Quay – and the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa.
Oriental Bay is beautiful at night, when the fountain is illuminated, fairy lights twinkle in the trees and the city towers sparkle across the harbour. It’s easily reached on foot from the city centre, or on bus numbers 14 and 24.
Evans Bay is a scoop out of the main harbour, on the south side. It has many small bays and coves in the twists and turns of its perimeter, most of which are rocky. But a couple of small beaches in the bay are worthy of mention. They are both along the route of the number 24 bus.
2. Balaena Bay
Balaena Bay is noteworthy for 3 reasons: car parking, public changing facilities and safe swimming. The car park, located on a small headland at the north end of the bay, has room for 15-20 vehicles. Naturally it fills up quickly on sunny days.
The beach is pebbly with dark sand. The water is relatively shallow and calm near the shore, even on Wellington’s famously windy days. Opposite the beach is a colourful mural on an embankment at the foot of Mount Victoria, which was painted by students and staff of the former Wellington Polytechnic. See my post on Street art of Eastern Wellington if you’re interested in this, and other street art, in the area.
3. Hataitai Beach
A little further south of Balaena Bay is Hataitai Beach, another safe swimming beach with toilet and changing facilities. Like in Balaena Bay, the sand is dark and pebbly. Hataitai beach is hugely popular with families and swimmers. It gets very crowded in summer, and hardy swimmers can be seen there all year round.
At the southern end of the beach are the colourful Evans Bay boatsheds, which are highly prized – one sold recently for around $300k!
At the northern end is Cog Park, a pleasant lawned area with seats, loungers and a tennis court.
A short walk from there is the Greta Point Cafe – my own local – which is a lovely place to go for breakfast, lunch or a coffee. I particularly like it on wild windy days when I can watch the huge waves in the bay while enjoying a hot coffee and a chocolate brownie (they are the best in Wellington).
The peninsula was once an island, but a succession of earthquakes lifted the nearby seabed, forming an isthmus that attached it to the ‘mainland’. The isthmus now houses Wellington Airport and the suburbs of Rongotai and Kilbirnie.
Miramar is home to Wellington’s famous film industry and has some notable residents including Sir Peter Jackson himself. Although the peninsula is urbanised, parts of it are still uninhabited, wild and unspoiled. The locals are keen to keep it that way and are very proactive, for example with establishing a predator-free zone to protect wildlife.
4. Scorching Bay
Probably the most popular sunspot on the peninsula, Scorching Bay is an attractive community overlooking a golden sandy beach. The main attraction, apart from the beach itself, is the Scorch-o-Rama Cafe.
Crowds descend at weekends for brunch, so it’s worth arriving early in order to have any hope of a car park or a seat. Unfortunately there is no bus service except at peak hours on weekdays.
5. Seatoun and Worser Bay
The pretty and desirable suburb of Seatoun sits alongside the channel that leads from the Cook Strait to Wellington harbour. It stretches down the hillside to Worser Bay and the long sandy beach, which offer great views towards the Eastbourne hills and the Orongorongo ranges on the other side of the channel.
The small retail centre has cafes, bars and some nice independent shops. Seatoun has the benefit of a regular bus service to Wellington city, the number 2.
Wellington’s south coast faces the Cook Strait, one of the wildest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world. Communities along this coast feel the full force of southerly winds when they blow up from the Antarctic. Temperatures can be very chilly in winter! But the conditions also create good surf.
6. Lyall Bay
Easily reached on the number 3 bus, Lyall Bay is a lovely sandy beach extending southwards from Moa Point, where Wellington Airport’s runway begins. It’s therefore a great place for plane spotters.
Lyall Bay is probably Wellington’s most popular surf beach. When the surf’s up, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of surfers and paddle boarders out there. The beach itself is popular with families and dog walkers, and gets plenty of sunshine.
Some of my favourite eateries are in this area. The Spruce Goose cafe does great food and coffee, and is the best place to watch both surfers and planes. Further south is The Botanist, which is vegetarian.
The iconic Maranui Surf Club cafe is right on the beach and often has waiting queues of customers stretching down the road. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan called in during their visit to New Zealand in 2018.
7. Princess Bay
Much smaller and usually less crowded than Lyall Bay, Princess Bay is a small stretch of sand close to Houghton Bay (see beach no. 8). Its location is sheltered from the prevailing north westerly winds, which is a considerable advantage in the world’s windiest capital!
Princess Bay is also a good place to view the huge waves racing towards nearby Houghton Bay and Island Bay. There are no local amenities, so self-catering is the way to go.
8. Houghton Bay
Houghton Bay is a small suburb in between Lyall and Island Bays. The tiny sandy beach is very popular with experienced surfers. The waves that crash in here are massive! We love to watch the wild boiling surf, and the amazing skills of the surfers who ride it.
Houghton Bay can be reached on the number 23 bus, which runs half hourly from Wellington city centre.
9. Island Bay
Island Bay is a popular beach-side suburb with a good regular bus service – the number 1 – from Wellington city. The sandy beach curves between 2 headlands and is the bay is dotted with colourful fishing boats moored offshore. Island Bay has a long association with Wellington’s Italian community.
Another feature, which gives the bay its name, is Taputeranga Island – a popular stop for kayakers.
Strong experienced swimmers do sometimes make the swim across to the island from the main beach, but I would advise caution. There are dangerous rip tides off Island Bay. I once witnessed swimmers getting into difficulty who had to be rescued. They were very lucky.
Island Bay’s main retail centre is about a kilometre inland, but there are a couple of takeaways near the beach selling coffee, Chinese food and fish and chips. There’s also a fascinating Marine Education Centre and Bait House, where you can find out about the unique and diverse marine life in the Taputeranga reserve.
10. Owhiro Bay
A little further west from Island Bay, the coast becomes wilder and darker, and on a clear day you can spot the south island of New Zealand in the distance. In winter you might see the snow-capped peaks of the Kaikoura ranges.
One of my favourite Wellington cafes is in this area. It’s called the Beach House and Kiosk. The views, and the brunches, are wonderful – as is the coffee. When we lived in Island Bay, I used to treat myself to an occasional weekday walk around to the Beach House just for their coffee and cake. The wilder the weather, the better the view!
Owhiro Bay is the last beach accessible by car on this part of the coast. It’s largely a residential settlement, but one of its attractions is the nearby seal colony of Red Rocks. At certain times of year, you can see the seal colony resting on the rocks and taking the occasional dip into rock pools.
You can walk around the base of the cliffs from Owhiro Bay to Red Rocks. Some people take 4-wheel drive vehicles round there, but I wouldn’t advocate that myself. You wouldn’t get the same experience.
There’s no direct bus from Wellington city centre to Owhiro Bay, but you can take the number 1 bus to Island Bay and change there to the number 29. Changing buses doesn’t result in a higher charge for your point-to-point journey, provided you don’t let more than half an hour lapse in between.
Makara is probably the wildest and most remote of all beaches in Wellington. It’s reached through the western suburb of Karori – which, incidentally, is the largest suburb in New Zealand.
Not that you’d know it, because as you head beyond Karori to Makara, it feels like you’re out in the wilds. You’d never know that you were so close to a capital city.
Makara is a small residential community next to a stark beach popular with watersport enthusiasts. Unlike most of Wellington, it benefits from a westerly location. On a fine afternoon we’ve bought our fish and chips in Karori and headed down to Makara with picnic chairs to enjoy the sunset.
Unfortunately there is no bus service to Makara beach, so driving, cycling or a taxi from Karori are the only options.
To keep this post a reasonable length, I’ve focused only on those beaches in Wellington City. However, there is no shortage of beautiful beaches and eateries within a short distance which happen to fall within the boundaries of neighbouring regions – Hutt City, Porirua and Kapiti Coast.
My favourite Hutt beaches are Petone and Days Bay. The latter is connected to Wellington by a ferry service, and makes for a very enjoyable day out. My favourite cafe at Petone is Seashore Cabaret, and at Days Bay it would have to be Chocolate Dayz.
Porirua has the lovely Titahi Bay, Plimmerton and Pukerua Bay, which are nice to visit for a change of scene and a view of the west coast.
The Kapiti Coast is particularly magical because of its wonderful sunsets and views across to the mysterious and brooding Kapiti Island.
My favourite beaches in Kapiti are Raumati and Paekakariki. Raumati has another of my top cafe bars, the Waterfront. There’s no better place to watch the sunset with a glass of wine and a plate of good food.
On warm sunny days, Wellington can feel almost tropical. The sea has that lovely aquamarine colour and the harbour can be as still as a millpond, with white lacy trails left by yachts and ferries.
On other days, it is blasted by ferocious southerly winds and horizontal downpours. Low cloud can blot out the whole of the Miramar Peninsula from view. When it’s really bad, the Interisland ferries don’t run. I’ve taken a bus from Evans Bay into the city centre on such days, when the bus windows are lashed by sea spray from the huge swells!
Depending on your preferences, Wellington’s beaches can be enjoyed in both extremes of weather. Watching wild waves from the cosy confines of the Spruce Goose or the Beach House is great fun. But so is a fish and chip supper on the beach with a glass of wine on a balmy evening.
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