In the same way that surfers travelled the globe in the 70s, seeking out the best breaks, swimmers are now on the move: travelling the globe to find new places to get in. If you had to choose the seven best swims in the world, what would they be? Kate Rew, director of the Outdoor Swimming Society, had a try when asked by Newsweek for a bucket list of international swims in 2016.
The rediscovery of what it feels like to be immersed in a river, or lake, or sea, is a large part of what’s driven the recent revolution in swimming. But now it’s landscape that is driving the community forward. Water is one of the last terrains where we can still make our own original discoveries and the choice for swimmers is far bigger than river, lake, ocean lido: there are wadi’s to dip in, remote tarns to reach, cenotes, ice holes, waterfalls…. So many different experiences, and all of them glorious. Here are seven greats.
Downstream swims don’t come much more spectacular than River Dart in Devon, or British swims more iconic. Flanked by old oaks and rolling Devon hills, the Outdoor Swimming Society Dart10k is an education in water and landscape. Swimmers spread out across the water which begins narrow and relatively fresh, and becomes more brackish and wide the closer swimmers get to the coast. The 10km course is marked out by natural markers – the cormorant tree, the Sharpham Bends, the entrance to a huge creek – and as they progress downstream together swimmers turn into a collective rather than competitors. They even invented their own collective noun to suit the experience: ‘a contentment of swimmers’.View on map »
The Bosphorus is a sea strait that runs through the centre of Istanbul. It operates as a major shipping channel but once a year it opens for an annual swimming race, the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim Challenge. With huge tankers held up at either end of the 6.5km course, close to 2000 swimmers take to the water. The water itself is fast, clear and furious.
There is a major current – take all the advice you can get from other swimmers about avoiding eddies (swirling currents) around the island, and when to start heading towards the finish line to avoid being swept right past it – and you swim under two of Istanbul’s huge landmark bridges.View on map »
Iceland is a swimmers paradise: full of hot pots and pools that make use of the island’s geothermal energy, giving warm swims in a cold climate. You can swim in hot rivers, whizz down water slides in most towns and dip in hot pots that are signposted from highways everywhere. Most hot pots are free, with changing shelters to keep you alive in the cold winds. They vary between purpose built pools and repurposed cheese tubs.
Of all of these swims one of my favourite swims is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool: a 28x10m pool hidden in the Seljavellir valley. Filled with hot spring water and originally constructed in 1923 to teach Icelanders how to swim, it occupies possibly the most stunning location of any swimming pool on earth. One side of the pool is a cliff, the other drops down into a gravel river valley.
It takes 10-40 minutes to walk there from a parking spot at the end of a gravel road, rock hopping all the way along the Laugara river and it’s black sand beaches. It’s a peaceful, joyful, uncontrolled place, and the water when the sun hits is a green as spring grass. Above are snowcapped mountains and a melt flow river falling down a gully in stages.
There are no lifeguards, no rules – except, perhaps, be friendly to other bathers and take away all of your own litter (and perhaps anyone else’s if it exists).View on map »
The limestone bedrock is so porous in the Yucatan area of Mexico that rivers are swallowed whole. In places the rock above collapses, exposing underground pools or cenotes (’sacred wells) where it is possible to swim. The water is filtered by the earth, rendered transparent and pure. They are startling to find: above ground there is jungle scrub, dirt and dust.. beneath: a bright blue subterranean world, with tree roots acting as rope swings and ladders.
Floating on your back looking back up at the sky, the aperture framed by hanging vines and giant tropical trees, is likely to be an un-tequila related highpoint of any trip to the Yucatan.
I long to go back, 25 years after my random encounter, to make a map. Cenotes now are frequented, signposted, with walkways and within eco-parks, with some swimmers and divers venturing into cave systems with headlights and torches. On my list to visit (early in the morning before the crowds arrive): Cenote Azu, Cenote Dzitnup, Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Sacactun and Cenote Yokdzonot. Go clean and freshly washed – deodorant and sunscreen hurts the biota.View on map »
Wadi’s are riverbeds in the desert that are usually dry but contain water in the rainy season, with some fed year round because by natural springs. The juxtaposition of desert and oasis, green blue water and golden gullies, is striking.
Wadi Shab is a popular local place for a swim and a BBQ. Not far from Muscat it involves a 40 minute hike in. The top swim here is found by wading through the pools at the bottom of towering rock stacks until you reach what appears to be an impenetrable wall of rock. Closer inspection will, reveal a crack to swim through to a water-filled cave with a waterfall. “If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sun filtering through the roof and the rainbow it creates,” says one swimmer.
Other wadi’s that reliably offer a place for a discreet swim: Wadi Damm, Bimmah Sink Hole, and Wadi Hawasinah. At Wadi Bani Khalid, which is fed by a natural spring, there are picnic spots and coffee shops. Two warnings – wadi’s are prone to flashfloods which can be fatal and it is conventional in Oman to swim in a t-shirt and shorts.View on map »
An ice swimming craze is sweeping the UK, South Africa and the USA, and alongside it an international chain of ice swimming galas. But the idea of making a hole in thick ice in a lake because getting in will make you feel wonderful is not news in Finland, Siberia, Sweden, China or many other Baltic and Nordic countries.
On my bucket list of places to swim is Finland, summer and winter – there are so many lakes in summer you can practically swim across the country, or stay in Finnish summer house on a tiny island (Tove Jannson ‘The Summer Book’ style) but in winter the real fun begins. Next to ice holes sit saunas, allowing the dipper to heat up then chill down – and all in a controlled environment. The combination of frozen lake, epic snowy landscape, ice hole and smoke sauna are compelling – and in Lapland the chances of the Northern Lights being part of this already elemental combination are higher.
Most ice holes are maintained by local clubs so there might not be access for tourists, and the idea people want to visit Finland to do this kind of thing is new, but the fell centre Kiilopää has hotel rooms and cabins that allow you to river swim and smoke sauna in style.
Lush vineyards, warm summers, bald eagles, epic sunrises, hiking and cycle paths: the Finger Lakes of upstate New York offer a potent mix of pleasures before you get to the swimming. But the lakes here scream ‘swim me’, and pontoons, inland beaches and change houses welcome families. My ideal trip would be to rent a house with a private dock, maybe even a spare kayak, on Seneca or Cayuga, for swimming adventures. Try Air B’n’B or FlipKey for properties.