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Sydney’s best swimming spots: 5 hidden gems you have to visit

Sydney’s best swimming spots: 5 hidden gems you have to visit

From ocean pools to idyllic waterfalls, take the plunge at Sydney's most stunning swimming locations.

Sydney’s best swimming spots: 5 hidden gems you have to visit

Clovelly Beach

A concrete playground for swimmers, snorkellers and the sand-averse.

Type of swim: Beach, pool

Distance from CBD: 9.8km/20 min drive

Address: Follow Clovelly Rd, around the coast to the beach. You can’t miss it.

Cost of entry: Free

Kid friendly: Yes

Dog friendly: No

Ideal tide: High tide

Open hours: 24 hours

Facilities: Toilets, change rooms, kiosk, cafe

Public transport: Buses X39, 338 and 360 stop in Clovelly.

In our first book Places We Swim, we found deciding which pools and swims would make the cut in Sydney a very hard task (only four made it in, and this was one of them). It’s an absolute staple in our minds.

For many of us, summertime memories are inseparable from the smell of sun-cream and the feel of sandy feet. But some people just don’t like sand (we know, it’s weird, but one of us can relate).

There’s something about the strange, post-apocalyptic concrete job at Clovelly that really floats our boat. It’s a giant bay between concrete esplanades, essentially a concrete beach. Seriously, is this a wharf or a pool? Whatever it is, we love it.

If you think all this concrete is unnecessary, you’re probably right. It was originally poured by the Randwick Council during the Great Depression to create jobs for locals and easier access to swimming for the community.

On a real humdinger of a day, this scene is reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast – hundreds of people are sprawled on colourful towels and banana lounges or jump joyfully from the banks into the deep water below.

It’s a little-known fact that Clovelly is also the largest natural coastal swimming pool in the state (Merewether Baths in Newcastle is manmade).

The inlet is enclosed by a naturally occurring rockshelf, which protects the bay from the open sea, creating an ocean pool that’s 60 metres wide and 350 metres long.

At one end is a sandy beach and on the southern side of ‘The Slab’ is a 25-metre long saltwater pool, known as Geoff James. Like most pools in Sydney’s coastal suburbs, this one is home to a winter swim club, the Clovelly Eskimos.

Clovelly is a major stop on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, appearing over the hill just after the Waverley Cemetery when you really need a dip.

Sometimes it’s easier to swim across the inlet than to walk the iconic bright yellow line around its perimeter. But if you do walk, you’ll always find an international cross-section of people in their swimsuits, and more than a few pairs of brightly coloured budgie smugglers are on show. There’s a lot to love here.

Local knowledge

This sprawling concrete beast is also known fondly by locals as ‘The Slab’.

Bronte Baths

A beloved meeting place for ocean swimmers, horizon gazers and poolside philosophers.

Type of swim: Ocean pool

Distance from CBD: 9.6km/20 min drive

Address: Bronte Park

Cost of entry:  Free

Kid-friendly: Yes

Dog-friendly: No

Ideal tide: N/A

Open hours: 24 hours. Closure to clean the pool changes every month and depends on tides. Check the cleaning schedule on the Waverley Council website (waverley.nsw.gov.au) to be sure.

Facilities: Outdoor showers, indoor showers

Public transport: The 360 and 370 buses from Bondi Junction both stop in Bronte.

Some mornings at Bronte it feels like the whole suburb is down at the beach. Along the boardwalk people are peeling off clothes and untying shoes, placing them in neat piles next to others who are retrieving bags after a dip or a workout.

Dogs are tied up, eagerly awaiting a familiar face to return from the water, watching them like a personal lifeguard. It’s barely 6.30am and this place is alive.

Past the enclosed Bogey Hole, formed by an enclosed semicircle of rocks, and the public toilet block at the south end, is the oval-shaped 30-metre-ocean-bath.

Like many ocean pools, Bronte’s is discreetly tucked into the landscape, a honey-coloured sandstone wall divided by a white fence that winds up and around. Spots to drop your towel are tight but plenty, somehow there’s always space for yours.

Stainless steel railing guides you down into the sparkling water. Bronzed bodies enter and exit like they’re tapping on and off public transport. Some head in for a quick dip, while others linger at the sidelines, looking out over the edge to meditative views of Tama and Bondi.

Older locals discuss the water temperature but hardly flinch on entry, no matter how cold the plunge or pink their skin.

This is a daily ritual that for some includes wearing lipstick to waddle around in the shallows, hardly getting their hair wet. Various accents, laughter and the question ‘got time for a coffee?’ are familiar soundbites to this enlightening morning setting.

In the water a distinctive wooden post at the centre of the pool separates the splashers from the lappers, creating a slippery, submerged playground for kids who cling and jump from it.

Without lane ropes, swimmers careen across the surface – our tip is to keep your head above water to avoid a head-on collision.

When the swell is big, people hang from the chains on the perimeter, waiting for a wave to blast them back into the pool. On these days, surfers skate around the slippery edge, jumping off the rocks to avoid the paddle back out from the beach.

Almost every day at Bronte Baths feels like the backdrop to some kind of photo shoot. It’s not uncommon to see photographers jostling for position, while subjects pose along the infinity-like pool wall at sunrise.

It’s no wonder, as both the setting and the scene make it an utterly picturesque place to swim.

Local knowledge

The showers inside the change rooms have hot water (a rare treat at a free public pool), though you may have to queue to get one (worth it). Look out for the bird’s nest above if you are in the women’s change room.

Camp Cove

A laidback community beach with the Harbour’s cleanest water.

Type of swim: Beach

Distance from CBD: 11.6km/25 min drive

Address: At the end of Cliff St, Watsons Bay

Cost of entry: Free

Kid friendly: Yes, very

Dog friendly: No

Ideal tide: Mid to high

Open hours: 24 hours

Facilities: Kiosk, toilets, outdoor showers

Public transport: From the city take bus 324 or 324 to Military Rd Terminus in Watsons Bay, then walk 750m to the beach.

A measure of success is different things to different people. For Omer Farhy, owner of the Camp Cove kiosk, it’s how many days a year he spends with no shoes on. He glances down at his bare feet with a smile.

Omer took over this small brick building on the beach in 2016, when the previous owner retired (after 36 years). He lives just down the road with his family and used to swim at Camp Cove every morning.

Now he opens the kiosk from 7am, often with his children lending a hand before school. They gave it an overhaul, hung fresh oranges in netted bags around the outside, and started serving singleorigin coffees and smoothies with dragon fruit and Kakadu plums.

The kiosk has become a huge drawcard for this small, secluded cove, a few hundred metres from the Watsons Bay wharf. Tucked into the north end of Sydney Harbour National Park, it marks the start of the South Head walking track (see p. 155) out to Hornby Lighthouse, with sweeping views over to both Manly and the city.

From Camp Cove, you’ll hear the ferries before you see them, making the long trip back and forth across the Harbour.

Thanks to its position near the mouth of the Harbour, Camp Cove is heavily influenced by the ocean and consistently ranks among the cleanest water in the city.

The Watson’s Bay area is Birrabirragal country, and this cove in particular is a traditional camping and fishing site.

People still fish off the rocks, but swimming is the most popular pursuit. Sunbakers prop themselves up against the wall of the 240-metre-long beach, reading books and magazines, resting a towel’s length from the fringes of lavish beachfront homes.

The backstreets reveal the area’s history as a fishermen’s village, with heritage one-storey timber and sandstone cottages squeezed between larger properties.

At the south end of the beach, Green Point Park overlooks the water. Scubadivers and snorkellers meet here before slipping into depths around the fringing reef known as Squid Spot. At the north end of the beach (where the kiosk is) families cluster and set up colourful beach umbrellas, ordering flat whites in wet togs.

Just beyond the tiny pumphouse on the pier, high boulders were once used as a rifle wall to protect the Harbour, and now create a lookout point. They stand tall overlooking the beach, as locals swim laps in the sheltered blue–green bay. To us, this is the epitome of a picturesque harbour beach, and spending a day here can feel like a good measure of success.

Local knowledge

If you’re looking for the outdoor shower, it’s hidden under the big Moreton Bay fig tree at the north end of the beach, near the stairs to South Head Track.

Wattamolla

A natural water park with a cove, lagoon, waterfall and beach.

Type of swim: Beach, lagoon

Distance from CBD: 51km/just over an hour by car

Address: Wattamolla Rd, Royal National Park (NP)

Cost of entry: Park entrance fee of $12 per vehicle, per day. Entrance fees are waived for passengers on the Park Connections Bus.

Kid friendly:  Yes

Dog friendly: No

Ideal tide: Any tide

Open hours:  24 hours

Facilities: Toilets, showers, barbeques, picnic tables

Public transport: T4 and South Coast train lines run to Sutherland Station from the city. Take the Park Connections Bus from the train station to Wattamolla. Check its website for exact routes and timetables. See: parkconnections.com.au.

This place has an absurdly good combination of many epic swimming elements in one location.

A 10-metre-waterfall doubles as a cliffjump into a deep lagoon. In one direction that lagoon stretches into tranquil native bush; in the other, it dead-ends at a white-sand beach. Follow the sand to a calm bay where the water is impossibly clear.

Wattamolla is a Dharawal word meaning ‘place near running water’, and is the golden child of Royal National Park – a familyfriendly hot-spot within easy striking distance of Sydney. For better or worse, it is on most people’s radar and crowds swell on hot summer days and weekends – nothing like the scale of Bondi or Cronulla, but you are guaranteed to make a few friends while swimming.

We are of the opinion that not every experience needs to be solitary, not every beautiful place has to be a secret. Wattamolla is vast and diverse enough to accommodate the needs of every visitor, as each section offers a different experience.

The cliff-jump is the first thing that most people encounter and it is almost exclusively the territory of males aged 12 to 32.

This is where we find our friend James teaching the younger generations his patented swan dive. Please keep in mind that cliff-jumping is prohibited here and penalties apply. We didn’t do it. It’s not fun. We definitely don’t recommend it.

Down below is a mixed-use area. Partners and family members of jumpers stand transfixed and slightly horrified.

Children fill a natural wading pool, floating among a thriving ecosystem of inflatable animals. Groups laze about in the forest, pumping music from their cellphones and analysing their hangovers – past, present and future.

Upstream we join the explorers – knots of couples, families and friends leaving behind the crowds to colonise pristine beaches and flat rocks.

This is where we take a visiting parent who wants to enjoy the national park but isn’t up for a long bushwalk. A quick meander or swim and you can be fully immersed in nature, out of ear and eyeshot of the masses.

The beach has its own culture, and even without the rest of the landscape it would be a top destination. Groups of weekenders bypass the freshwater crowds, taking the stairs directly to the soft sand.

Our favourite swims are along the fringing reefs and boulderfilled edges of the bay. Clear, deep water offers prime fishing and snorkelling and even on the hottest, busiest day you feel like you’re the only person here.

Local knowledge

There are few things that anger us more than beautiful places spoiled by rubbish. Unfortunately, due to its popularity, Wattamolla can turn into a tip after a busy weekend. Set the right example by leaving with everything you brought and even carrying out some extra litter.

Minnehaha Falls

An essential waterfall experience with seemingly bottomless possibilities.

Type of swim: Waterfall

Distance from CBD: 104km/1.5 hour drive

Address: 98 Minni-Ha-Ha Rd, Katoomba

Cost of entry: Free

Kid friendly: Yes

Dog friendly: Yes

Ideal tide: N/A

Open hours: 24 hours

Facilities: None

Public transport: Take the Blue Mountains line from Sydney Central station to Katoomba. From there walk 100 metres to the corner of Katoomba St and Bathurst Rd and get the 697 bus.

It’s about 10 minutes to Minni-Ha-Ha Rd opposite Seventh Ave. Get out here and walk 100 metres downhill to the carpark and trailhead.

Minnehaha Falls is one of the most accessible swimming holes in the Blue Mountains and an important stop on any waterfall pilgrimage. It was formally designated as a recreational reserve in 1895, meaning it predated Blue Mountains National Park by over 60 years. These days, the entry hides on the edge of residential Katoomba, where the trailhead cul-de-sac straddles the border to this ancient wilderness.

On one side, it’s a landscape of craftsman cottages and the growl of four-stroke lawnmowers, on the other it’s an endless sea of blue gums and the steady gurgle of Yosemite Creek. Today, we choose the latter.

Follow the path from the small carpark for 600 metres to the lookout, where you can peer down the gorge and catch the first sight of Minnehaha’s dramatic 20-metre plunge. The valley unexpectedly falls away and the creek drops in two stages. Water explodes off the rocks, spraying across walls of ferns and moss on its way to the pool below.

Trees and shrubs visibly bend towards this mist, greedily reaching from their perches on the surrounding rock-shelves. Indeed, the longer you watch, the more you feel your own centre of gravity shifting towards the waterfall.

Descend the steep staircase and switchback for another few hundred metres to reach the base of the falls.

The track is well maintained and easy to follow, passing underneath a large rock overhang to arrive at the plunge pool. Even in the height of summer, it is one of the coldest places that you will ever have the pleasure to swim. It’s Wim Hof cold. The kind of cold that gives you superhuman powers.

The kind of cold that makes you laugh and yell with joy. The kind of cold that causes you to swim like a wild dog for the nearest rock. As soon as you get out you are so flooded with warmth and relief that you want to do it all over again.

Bushwalkers come and go. Some eat their lunch and chat animatedly on the rocks, while others dive into the pool, emerging clear-eyed and pink-skinned. A local man tells us that when he was a kid they were told that Minnehaha was a bottomless pool.

You can tell by his smile that some part of him still believes this to be true. For us, this is precisely what makes local swimming holes so special. At any age we can still laugh like children and jump into a bottomless pool. A lot of things will change in the world, but this simple act will always remain the same.

Local knowledge

The area around Minnehaha Falls was owned in the 1890s by an American company called The Assets Realization and General Finance. Co. Ltd. Whether in an act of nostalgia or colonialism, the company named Yosemite Creek and Minnehaha Falls.

The creek is a nod to Yosemite National Park, while Minnehaha is the name of a fictional Native American character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. Longfellow, who was an honorary Victorian, was much read and recited in both Britain and Australia at the time. Minnehaha is a Native American (Dakota Sioux) word for waterfall, literally translating to ‘curling waters’.

This is an edited extract from Places We Swim Sydney by Caroline Clements & Dillon Seitchik-Reardon (Hardie Grant Publishing $39.99)

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