On Sydney’s sparkling coastline, more than 30 ocean swimming pools are carved into rock platforms and cliffs. Here’s our definitive guide to Sydney’s emblematic ocean baths—rugged yet refined monuments to the city’s egalitarian spirit.Less
The beach at Freshwater Beach—“Freshie” to locals—is beloved among surfers for its decent beach break, but swimmers gravitate towards the sea pool nestled on a rocky platform against a cliff at the northern end of the beach. On the grand tour of Sydney sea pools, it’s one of the more serious venues—Olympic-sized and with lanes marked on its concrete floor. For a hundred years people have stroked up and down this pool, one of the first to be built on the Northern Beaches.
In the blue-green bliss that is Sydney’s sea pool passeggiata, Fairy Bower is a tease, promising more than merely a swim within human-made concrete walls. The triangular pool is positioned at the side of a scenic walkway between the thronged Manly and Shelley beaches, but the fringing reef beside it is an intoxicating lure. Daily, just after dawn, swimmers leave stroke past the rockpool and through an aquatic reserve in which docile dusky sharks, giant cuttlefish, and turtles happily play.
In Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, this enclosed, shark-proof harborside pool is a magnet for bright young things, daredevil teens who take heart-clutching back-flips off the pool’s surrounding deck, and patrician locals. Lean, sun-bathing bodies stake space on the pontoon in the centre of the pool and a backdrop of bobbing yachts and luxury cruisers are but a few lazy laps away.
Some of the city’s most exclusive mansions nestle around the skinny emerald-green harbour inlet of Parsley Bay in Vaucluse, but anyone can swim in this marine enclosure. Indeed, there is little doubt that this finger of water, protected by a shark net, is lovelier than any private pool in the neighborhood. A vintage cable suspension footbridge tracks from cliff to cliff above the water, a grassed park perfect for picnics runs down to white sand, and the marine life underwater is bountiful.
In a city of sea pools, the whitewashed Bondi Public Baths, nestled among rocks just south of the famous beach, is the front-running celebrity. The hardy “Icebergers” who swim through its turquoise waters every day of the year know that this pool gifts a transcendent experience, no matter how icy the waters are, how much seaweed the ocean has tossed in, or how big the waves are that might pound down on it.
Since the late 19th century, Sydneysiders have been making pilgrimages to the pocket of perfection that is the Bronte Baths. Once, people crowded into rattling trams that carried them down the hill for bathing and picnics; now, especially in summer, cars can get jammed and parking is a headache. But the crystal waters in this small bean-shaped pool cut into a pale cliff are as lovely as they were a century ago.
Wylie’s is a wild child of Sydney’s tidal ocean pools. No lanes are marked and swimmers know to expect crazy dumping waves at high tide and an underwater mystery tour: a spiky sea urchin or an octopus’s orange-rust-red arm might shift slowly at a rock edge; darting bream interrupt a stroke; and turban snails that gleam like pearls and flitting little fish with electric-blue markings can distract from any work at hand. High above the pool, a cliff-hugging deck is a fine place for sunbathing.
This sea pool is at the southernmost tip of Sydney, where the drowned valley estuary of Port Hacking nudges the boundary of Royal National Park. Regular swimmers know the best time to visit is just after dawn when the sky is brushed with gold and the day-trippers are yet to arrive. In a sheltered bay that is part of a marine reserve, the pool is mostly protected from the weather, but when the surf’s up, breaking waves turn a swim here into an adventure ride.