Postcards of Sydney flaunt images of Bondi Beach, its ridiculously muscular, bronzed lifesavers and lithe women in bikinis. But the emphasis on this famously flamboyant curve of Sydney sand and sea is misdirected. The city, clinging as it does to miles of sparkling coastline and cradling a sprawling, majestic harbor at its centre, has multiple other equally lovely coastal attractions, most particularly in the form of vintage “sea baths.” From Palm Beach at the tip of the “Northern Beaches” to Shelly Park Beach on the city’s southern fringe, more than 30 ocean swimming pools are carved into rock platforms and cliffs. Most are happy accidents of history, a collision of the alluring coastline with 19th-century municipal pride and the thoughtful provision of public amenity. For eons, First Nations people swam in natural rock pools here, but it was earnest borough fathers (alas, not mothers – they barely could dream of dipping a toe in the water) who dug them deeper and fortified them with concrete walls. Victorian wisdom rightly held that bathing in sea water was healthful, a balm for the body, mind and soul. Today’s bathers—vigorous, dawn-catching men and women—know that the soul of the city dwells in the pools and that when weather turns the waves into wild things, they can be sheltered refuges where the essential salty rhythm of Sydney life continues.
Freshwater Rock Pool
The beach at Freshwater Beach – “Freshie” to locals – is beloved among surfers for its generally 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, felt a sea-salted revitalization and returned to the world feeling lighter.
Fairy Bower Rockpool
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 deliciously positioned at the side of a scenic walkway between the thronged Manly and Shelley beaches, overlooked by Art Deco apartments, and heralded by bronze sea nymph sculptures, but the fringing reef beside it is an intoxicating lure. Daily, just after dawn, a hundred or more sea-swimmers leave Manly Beach bound for Shelley, stroking past the rockpool and through an aquatic reserve in which docile dusky whaler sharks, giant cuttlefish, turtles and schools of fish happily play.
Murray Rose Pool (formerly Redleaf)
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.
Parsley Bay Swimming Enclosure
It might be Sydney’s most egalitarian indicator: Some of the city’s most exclusive mansions nestle around the skinny emerald-green harbour inlet of Parsley Bay in Vaucluse, but anyone from anywhere 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 graceful vintage cable suspension footbridge tracks from cliff to cliff above the water, a grassed park perfect for picnics runs down to white sand, and for those with a face mask and a snorkel, the marine life underwater is bountiful.
Swimming Pool, Bondi Icebergs Club
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. As a million or more Instagram shots taken from the street-side cliff above show, Icebergs is gorgeous. At pool-level below, 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. They also know that the preening sunbathers who prance around the edges are pool pretenders, not to be taken seriously in the least. As one leathery, seasoned swimmer has been known to say: “I visit Dr. Pacific every day.”
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, the cars coming down the hill 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 or more ago: brilliant and calm emerald-green on clear days, wilder jade green and lashed by whitewater when the weather turns and even the surfers retreat from the adjacent beach.
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 fabulous flitting little fish with electric-blue markings can distract from any work at hand. High above the historic pool and its copper-green verdigris embrace, a cliff-hugging deck is a fine place for sunbathing.
Shelly Beach Rock Pool
This sea pool is at the southernmost tip of Sydney, where the suburbs and the drowned valley estuary of Port Hacking nudge the boundary of Australia’s oldest national park, the glorious Royal National Park. Regular swimmers know that 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 has a sandy-bottomed entrance that deepens gradually. Mostly, it’s protected from the weather, but when the surf’s seriously up, breaking waves turn a swim here into an adventure ride.
Figure Eight Pools
These natural pools carved into a rock platform within the Royal National Park are exquisite, showing the remarkable erosive action of the sea. At low tide, the most photographed pool forms the shape of the digit “eight” and can be packed with sightseers. But as the tide rises, the pools and the rock shelf on a remote headland become deadly, lashed by powerful waves. A trip to the Figure Eight Pools needs to be carefully planned: the four-mile walk to the pools through the national park is on a narrow slippery track and can take up to two-and-a-half hours.
Stephanie Wood is an award-winning former staff writer at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s “Good Weekend” magazine, now freelancing for publications including Good Weekend, Vogue magazine and The Guardian. She has worked internationally as an editor at London’s The Independent and The Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong and is a former editor of The Age Good Food Guide. Stephanie is the author of the acclaimed 2019 memoir, Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies, published by Vintage, (Penguin Random House, Australia.)