From the best sky-high hotel swim spots to the secret destinations for a snap, here are some of the best places to take a dip across the globe
As temperatures rise, there’s one way we’re all cooling off – taking a dip in a refreshing swimming pool. While for now, we’re happy booking in at some the UAE’s best staycation spots with private pools, that doesn’t mean we can’t dream bigger, wider, deeper for our next swim.
Whether you prefer muscle-pumping laps across a rugged lake or stargazing lazily on a city rooftop, here’s our pick of the best swimming spots in the world – to infinity pool and beyond.
Poster Perfect Plunge
Raa Atoll, the Maldives
If you’re lucky, you’re the first person here at Raa Atoll in the Maldives. You pad a virgin trail of footprints from bungalow to sea, and stretch out on the cool sand. Picking up snorkel gear, you chat with the hut attendant about recent star sightings (‘There’s a lionfish about — you might have to dive down to see it’), before your flippers propel you past the shallows, to that crescent of pulsating coral you’ve become addicted to. Here, 20 strokes from the beach and an arm’s length from your mask, sea that looked a blanket turquoise from your seaplane reveals swirls of Day-Glo parrotfish, sail-shaped Moorish idols and blue tangs. Then, there’s that surly lionfish. You watch its striped Mohican slink down to where the reef drops off to an intimidating indigo. Head full of ocean colour scenes, you paddle back to laze by the pool for an hour at least. That reef’s not going anywhere.
The Great Barrier Reef
Zig-zag clouds of yellow snappers, tornadoes of electric-blue fusiliers and forests of rainbow staghorn coral: diving in the GBR is like swimming in a giant psychedelic cocktail. There are countless ways to explore this sprawling 2,300km-long reef, but if you’re serious about your sea life, head north to, say, the Ribbon Reefs, for the richest variety of fish. Accessed by seaplane, then a live-aboard boat, it’s not the easiest or cheapest spot, but you get uncrowded waters and pristine coral for your trouble. Huge swathes of the reef were bleached by the El Niño weather phenomenon, so it’s vital to go with a responsible operator that knows where to find flourishing regrowth and how to prevent further damage. Conditions range from mirror-like (ideal for drifting alongside Labrador-sized potato cod) to choppy and wild, but even novices can dive here with a skilled team to guide them safely into the depths.
La Maddalena, Sardinia
Are you floating? Or are you flying? The clarity of the water surrounding Sardinia’s virgin Maddalena archipelago can play tricks on you. As you lie suspended in the aquamarine liquid, ears submerged so that all sounds are dulled to a drowsy murmur, the sailboat that delivered you here looks as if it’s dangling in mid-air — it’s almost impossible to gauge where the sky ends and the sea begins. You knew Sardinia’s northeast coast would be a corker: its white-sand coves pick up best-beach awards as breezily as daisies. But the Maddalena islands’ shores are a notch up: so pristine and well-protected, the judges don’t yet know to add them to their shortlist. Of the 60-plus islands, you can only camp on a handful, so a boat trip is the best way to make this fantasy swim real. Dario, the skipper of ’20s wooden sailboat Pulcinella, knows the Maddalenas like his own children, and always delivers his group (of 12 max) there ahead of the pack. While he drops anchor, shimmy your way past others onto the first dinghy headed to shore — that way, yours will be the first body of the day to hit the crystal waters. Go in September: the shallow bays are tub-warm and you might even spot a dolphin or two.
Grace Hotel, Santorini
Santorini splash you’ve dreamt of — all smooth white edges meeting endless Mediterranean shimmer and honeymooners chain-ordering bubbly. Plan a walk for later (the bell-shaped Skaros Rock is in view, as is the coastal trail to that postcard town Oia), but for now, accept that the Grace’s pool scene is all about soaking up rays, grazing on sea bass carpaccio in the shaded nooks behind it, and people-watching from behind your shades. Rise early to nab the loungers to the far right of the pool as you face it: they’re the evening suntraps.
Koh Hong, Thailand
Everyone should take a boat trip in southern Thailand. Nowhere else in the world will you experience a more VIP-feeling voyage for so little cash (five hours’ gliding about costs from just $15). On your elegant longtail boat (speedboats are faster, but less romantic), strike a supermodel pose as you crane your neck to marvel at the mossy outcrops of the islands in the emerald waters off Krabi. Everyone does the Phi Phi islands, so head instead for the Hongs — Koh Hong National Park is the wild James Bond seduction fantasy you’ve always pictured. Book the right boat and its skipper will take you for a swim in the secret lagoon encircled by rock face at the island’s centre, before depositing you on fine, gold sand, under imposing, vine-tangled cliffs. The beach should be quiet, but up your chances by going in the shoulder season (late November or May).
3 City Swims
Thermae Bath Spa, Bath
You can’t swim in the ancient Roman baths here, but you can idle in the mineral-rich waters at this multi-level spa. Paddle through pools up to a heated open-air pool surrounded by spires and Regency rooftops.
Urban beaches pop up in summer from Paris to London, but Berlin’s is the coolest, a full-on neon-blue pool immersed in the Spree river. Go for mingling, beats and bars on its wooden deck.
Piscine Molitor, Paris
The grande-dame Art Deco pool is a photographer’s dream (and filmmaker’s: it had a cameo in the film Life of Pi) with its crisp balconies and doorways. To use it, you’ll need a key to the Hotel Molitor Paris.
Bucket List Destinations
The Dead Sea, Jordan
Cleopatra bathed here, King David hid here from Saul, Jesus was baptised upriver — even Herod slipped on his Speedos for a dip in The Dead Sea. You’re floating in a sea of history, and the amazing thing is, despite the corporate hotel chains thronging the shores, it still feels transcendent on Jordan‘s coastline. That salt stings, though, which is why it’s best to access the water via a hotel’s (with its freshwater pools and showers for after). Try to keep the salt out of any cuts or grazes, and don’t shave any part of your body the day you plunge!
Pool or sea? The dilemma has never been more delicious than at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach, where the sandy southern reaches meet an Olympic-sized, man-made swimming pool (and a smaller kids’ one) known as ‘the Icebergs’. The swimming club it’s named after was founded 90 years ago so that Bondi’s lifeguards could train year-round, and there’s nothing more exhilarating than being smacked in the face by salty surf while powering across its wind-rippled infinity pool. Don’t miss the sauna, included in your ticket price.
Faraglione di Mezzo, Capri
It was in front of this ancient oceanic arch that David Gandy smouldered for that Dolce & Gabbana advert — and Capri boat trips have never had a lull in business since. As life is not a fragrance ad, it’s choppier than you’d think, the deep water chilly ’til mid summer. So get your photo, take a dunk into depths as ice-blue as Gandy’s eyes, then climb back on board for a Prosecco. This swim is all about the posing, anyway.
The Blue Lagoon, Iceland
Waste products from power stations don’t usually look this ethereally beautiful. But this is Iceland — so this man-made ‘lagoon’ is geothermal, the water luminously blue (it’s the silicates, since you asked), and sociable soaks in it are part of the culture. Travel snobs will tell you that real Icelanders are more likely to go to smaller, local pools (which is true), but none of those municipal baths offers the same dramatic black crags or haunting mistscape.
3 Pop-Culture Pools
The Esther Williams one: The Raleigh, Miami Beach
Hollywood’s ‘million- dollar mermaid’ filmed many of her sleek synchronised- swimming routines in this Art Deco pool. Now you can stay in her namesake suite.
The Club Tropicana one: Pikes Hotel, Ibiza
A mega-bronzed George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley cavorted by this slim, tiled pool for their holiday anthem’s music video. Bring your own lilos/trumpets.
The Faye Dunaway one: Beverly Hills Hotel, Los Angeles
Terry O’Neill’s ‘morning after’ portrait of Dunaway reflecting on her 1977 Oscar win made this pool synonymous with Hollywood glamour.
Secret Splash Spots
Pigeon Island, St Lucia
You didn’t come here to swim, but you’ll miss out if you don’t. Pigeon Island is a former British military fort, now a national park, at St Lucia’s northern tip. Stretch your legs on the spiralling hike to its hilltop, snapping the obligatory photo with the cannons there. You’ll be trekking back down just as the sticky heat of late morning sets in — so first slip down to the curves of sand on its south side for a secret swim. There’s a public loo to change in, and shade from the trees. Kick off your shoes and plunge into the Listerine-fresh ocean.
Yucatán’s beaches can get a little TOWIE. For a more thrilling swim, drive 90 minutes inland to paddle under Gaudíesque rock formations and leap from vines into the fresh, teal water of the cenotes. The peninsula is punctured with thousands of these prehistoric limestone sinkholes, overgrown with tropical jungle and open year-round. Some, such as Dos Ojos, are cool, vaguely claustrophobic caverns; while others, like Escondido, are splashed with sunlight. It’s like swimming in a tropical luxury spa — clean, quiet, almost baptismal. Sunscreen is verboten, unless it’s biodegradable. With hardly another body bobbing around, you’d think tourists were, too.
The Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye
At the foot of Skye’s brooding Cuillin mountains, the river fizzes into a string of crystal-clear ponds. Clamber down from the trail onto broad, flat rocks so you can shed your gear and dive into the limpid water of the first pool. It’s freezing so bring a wetsuit outside of summer. Emboldened by that icy adrenaline? Dive down to swim under the submerged stone arch that connects two of the pools. They’re an easy half-hour hike along gently ascending hillside from the nearest car park (Glumagan Na Sithichean).
Wadi Shab, Oman
Look up: youngsters are diving off the cliffs, screeching into the soup-warm water. Their splashes are muffled by the slender Wadi Shab ravine, a deep valley of emerald-green pools edged by sandstone and palm trees. But you’ve already had your adrenaline fix scrambling over sandstone boulders for half an hour to get here (after a 2.5-hour drive from Muscat), so skip the jump and drift lazily into the pool. Swim through the shaded depths until you find the narrow arch at the end of the ravine. Here, the Wadi reveals its secret: a hidden cave pool, framed by a narrow waterfall, like a sultan’s secret
Elbow Beach, Bermuda
Swimming here is like gliding across a mag cover. Stroll east from the resort-owned private stretch of Elbow beach to the public bit — a glorious swathe of sand known only by locals. Its pink-tinged sand gives the sea an extra-luminous aquamarine hue.
Angle Tarn, Lake District, England
It’s nippy all right, but after a sweaty slog up from the valley below, nippy is precisely what you’ll be wanting. Dive in, surrendering to its icy embrace (a swimming cap will help), as your exhilarated whoops echo around the amphitheatre of lonely crags towering above. For swimmers, the Lake District is an all-you-can-eat buffet of lakes and meres, river pools and tarns, but if anywhere up here puts the ‘wild’ into ‘wild swimming’, it’s this mountain pool, marooned halfway up England’s highest summit, Scafell Pike. Distance swimmers need not apply—it’s only 200m from shore to shore. But lazybones should take their Speedos elsewhere: it’s dizzyingly remote, reached only after a two-hour ascent from Seathwaite, Wasdale Head or the Langdale Valley. Wild paddlers should budget for longer: all routes up (on excellent, waymarked paths) follow stunning mountain streams that twinkle and tease at every turn. Wild camping is the way to do it, if you can — a flat, grassy shelf on its northern shore is crying out for a tent and stove.
Paxos has dreamy swims by the dozen, but the beach you want is Lakkos, a cliff-hugged splodge of white pebbles in the Ionian island’s northeast. Swim laps around the curl of the bay, or float over fish-silvered seaweed and spiny black urchins (mind your feet). Go in May, when the sea is warming up and you get the beach to yourself. Steps back up lead to a steep path best tackled barefoot — you’ll slide out of your flip-flops.
3 Wildlife Swims
Swim with dolphins in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Invest in an underwater camera or case: seeing a pod of these wild bottlenose dolphins frolicking around your flippers is a memory you’ll want to replay.
Snorkel with whale sharks in Ari Atoll, Maldives
This full-day excursion, run by the five-star Huvafen Fushi resort, makes snorkelling with these giants feel like a one-on-one. Float calmly as they glide past.
Dive with turtles in Sipadan, Malaysia
Turtle-spotting off Sipadan Island doesn’t feel as intrusive with access limited to 120 people a day. Go April to September, when females nest on the beach.
Heavenly Hotel Swims
Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como
Outside Grand Hotel Tremezzo, you have the glittering expanse of Lake Como and a ‘secret’ garden pool — all visible from your room. Inside, there’s a velvet-red staircase to sweep down as you head for dinner in your best holiday togs. But, floating in the lake, as smugly as George Clooney on his hols is this special swim spot. It’ll get in the way of your Como sightseeing — lizard-still on the hotel’s loungers, drink in hand and the gelato-cool pool right by you, you’ll watch the tourist ferry pass by with no urge to move.
Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard, London
Swimming above London’s helicopters — in the Shard’s 52nd-storey ‘Skypool’ — is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime spend for a swim, as the pool is open only to guests staying at the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard. Note to fitness swimmers: it’s diddy, at just 11m long. Note to parents: kids are only allowed between 9am and 11am and 3pm and 5pm. Note to daydreamers: there are sofas and free coffee, so make a morning of it.
Four Seasons Serengeti
A dust-dry plain sprouting baobab trees, clouds scudding across a burnt yellow sky, and herds of elephants, buffaloes and zebras at feeding time. A baby elephant clambers into the water to cool off just metres from the lip of the infinity pool where you’re doing the same. From sunrise to sunset, this glimmering water gives you a front-row seat for the Tanzanian watering hole’s daily dramas (keep your eyes peeled for trotting warthogs), as well as miles of empty savannah ahead. You’ll see the most diverse wildlife during the dry season (July-October).
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Singapore’s streets are the ultimate swimmer’s selfie. A 6am swim before the crowds arrive, with dawn breaking behind the sharp-shouldered towers of the financial district, is worth the price of the stay at Marina Bay Sands alone.
Palais Namaskar, Marrakech
Atlas Mountains beyond, the pool is so serene it seems a shame to disturb it. Despite its vast proportions (long enough for lengths, but with shallow steps for kids, too), it is heated, so go in February/March when it’s 26°C by lunchtime, but the peaks are still snow-capped. Most guests use their private villa pools, leaving this one perpetually peaceful.
3 Perfect Pools in the UAE
Anantara the Palm Dubai Resort, Dubai
At Anantara the Palm Dubai Resort, it’s as easy as opening the door of your over water villa and dipping straight into the tranquil swimming lagoons that weave their way through this Thai-inspired resort on Palm Jumeirah.
The St. Regis, Abu Dhabi
Back with a fresh new look and feel, this luxury hotel’s infinity pool, at Nation Riviera Beach Club, draws design lovers with its elegant mix of colour and pattern. Chill while overlooking the private beach when you stay at The St. Regis Abu Dhabi.
Address Sky View, Dubai
Take the plunge and soak up the panoramic city views at the Address Sky View‘s sparkling infinity pool. Perched high up on the Sky Deck, this elevated oasis in Downtown Dubai is best enjoyed with a drink in hand at the pool bar.