The best swimming spots on New Zealand’s South Island

    17 June 2019

    There is something special about the water in New Zealand, whether salty or fresh. It makes you want to dive under, resurface, and open your eyes to the magic around you, whether that’s mountains, rainforest, or sand; “it’s medicinal”, a friend once said as he came up for air – someone who has swum, paddle-boarded, and surfed that same body of water since birth. New Zealand’s waters are recognised for their incredible beauty and size, so why not explore them with your body, as well as your eyes – trace their tracks, fish their trout, and plunge into their depths. Here’s where to start:

    Lake Brunner: West Coast; near to Moana/Greymouth (36km)                         

    Lake Brunner, West Coast, New Zealand

    Perhaps the best thing about Lake Brunner, sometimes referred to as Lake Moana for the lakeside town, is that even on the most beautiful summer day, you’ll have your first choice of shady beach spot; you might walk around the edge of the lake for hours and not meet another soul – the Bains Bay walk is particularly untrodden and lovely, accessed on the other side of the lake from Moana. Here the stunning Lake Brunner Lodge is located, with a newly refurbished bar and lake views. You might hear a boat launched from the jetty, or some people enjoying a beer in the excellent pub/motel just up from the waterfront, but peace breeds peace, and this lake is pure serenity: mountainous backdrop, glassy waters, and a tourist drive which gives you access the whole way around.

    The West Coast of the South Island seems to be the most underappreciated region in New Zealand, with talk of its constant rain and uninteresting towns rushing people down the coastal road. But I would argue that it is in fact perhaps the most “New Zealand” you can now find – its natural beauty, unparalleled remoteness, and feeling of untamed wilderness. Lake Brunner became our go-to spot on a sunny day while living in Greymouth: walk across the swing bridge, turn left along the path, and settle on the beach to enjoy the unique West Coast experience.

    Kaikoura: East Coast; North of Christchurch (181km)

    Lake Kaikoura, East Coast, New Zealand

    To see dolphins in their natural habitat is enough to make any person squeal with delight, but to swim in a pod of three hundred dusky dolphins is to render most completely speechless. However, this is the time to turn up your squeak, the best way to attract their attention! Kaikoura is hailed as the best place to experience dolphins in New Zealand, at any time of the year. There is only one tour operation running – evidence of New Zealand’s responsible tourism – called Dolphin Encounter. They offer a cheaper option if you choose not to get into the water (NZD$95.00), but with high quality wetsuits, careful control not to impact the wellbeing of the dolphins, and this once in a lifetime opportunity, why wouldn’t you splash out (NZD$180.00).

    Booking in advance is essential, especially during peak season, with up to a three-week waiting list; I would highly recommend the early morning tour, with the sunrise sure to wipe the sleep from your eyes – it’s also the best time to see the dolphins. With the rest of the day ahead, have a big breakfast at one of Kaikoura’s lakeside cafes, walk to the seal colony, and relax on the beach next to turquoise waters.

    Lake Hawea: Otago region; near Wanaka (38km)/Queenstown (84km)

    Hawea Lake, Otago, New Zealand

    If someone asked me to name the most beautiful place I’ve seen in New Zealand, Lake Hawea is the first that springs to mind; it stands out despite the stiff competition from New Zealand’s other natural wonders. We came across the lake unexpectedly: our friends were choosing the route, and it’s less well known than the neighbouring Lake Wanaka, so it seemed to fall out of the sky to land in our laps. A quick dip in the water revealed water so clear and somehow soft that it looked and felt like it could clean the soul. If you’re staying longer in the area, the lake offers the perfect spot for boating, fishing, kayaking, paragliding, and surfing, with the surrounding mountains providing spectacular hiking and mountain biking.

    Anchorage Bay: Abel Tasman National Park; near Nelson (65km)

    Anchorage Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

    The Abel Tasman National Park – named after the Dutch explorer to first discover New Zealand – is abounding in noteworthy swims. Along the 60km coastal trek, usually completed over 3-5 days, tiredness in the legs or ache in the back is abated by a scenic viewpoint, then cured by a swim and relax upon arrival at your day’s destination. Anchorage Bay is a personal favourite, and the first stop for accommodation when starting your walk at Marahau: white sand, turquoise waters, and set against dark green mountains, adding a drama to the beach I’d never seen before.

    Each stop offers a campsite, but with our bags already plenty heavy enough without a tent, we booked to stay at huts (NZD$70). These were a revelation: minimal but highly effective, with mattresses and kitchen area; everyone brings their own sleeping bags and cooking equipment, then tidies for the next arrivals. For a more indulgent experience, other accommodation options can be found, including the Awaroa Lodge, offering a taste of luxury in a remote and unique environment. If you’re short on time, water taxis go from Kaiteriteri to different bays along the track; this boat is also the perfect way to end your trip (Tōtaranui to Marahau), with the chance to see the National Park from the sea, and if you’re lucky, spot seals and dolphins enjoying the waters too.