In a city of magnificent beaches, where life is lived outdoors with rapture, the many ocean pools of Sydney represent an embarrassment of salty blessings. There are a string of some 35 of these aquamarine wonders, often set in dramatic, craggy settings along the undulating coastline, in a metropolis where swimming is a routine ritual for those by the coast.
The pools were created during a great series of public and philanthropic works in the late 19th and 20th century, sparked by the new mania for competitive swimming, and to provide protection from sharks and dangerous surf in a country where both abound. Each responds uniquely to Sydney’s topography, their waterlines rising and falling in concert with the tides. The natural pools hug the coastline in freeform curves; the man-made ones are blasted into the cliffs in cleaner, straighter lines; and many are a combination thereof. On calm days, they’re as still as bathtubs, but their crash and smolder during a big swell is one of Sydney’s most dazzling sights.
The city is unique in that most of its coveted oceanfront sits on public land, the length largely walkable without deviating from the water. Every local has their favorite pool, and you can wander the cliffs for years and still discover new ones. While its most famous (and most Instagrammed) is undeniably Icebergs at Bondi Beach, a trove of others can be found in nearby coastal suburbs. These include Bronte Baths, which is set like an asymmetrical gem into the beach and a must-visit (as is the nearby Bronte Bogey Hole, with its natural reef protected by a fairy ring of rocks). Many swear by Wylie’s Baths in neighboring Coogee, with its 180-degree views of the Pacific and jaunty, green-and-yellow awnings largely unchanged from the original 1920s visage.
Coogee also contains a series of lesser-known but equally beguiling spots. Giles Baths is a natural pool tucked almost invisibly behind a bluff and down a steep flight of stairs: for this reason, you can often swim alone on weekdays. McIver’s Baths is a tiny Eden behind a discreet sign reading “Women and Children Only”. Enormous smooth grey rocks are the perfect surface for reading, sleeping and nibbling on pastries, undisturbed but for the distant cry of seagulls, and nearby squeals of children plunging into the deep pool’s perennially cool water.
Further afield are the Figure Eight Pools in the Royal National Park, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney. The walk can be treacherous at high tide, but low tide reveals their spectacular aquamarine curves. North Curl Curl pool on Dee Why Head is studded with a stunning natural boulder that mirrors the encompassing rock formations (and doubles as a picturesque spot to catch your breath between laps). And the 50-metre Bilgola Rockpool is best enjoyed after a hike along the South Bilgola Headland Walk, perfumed with the quintessentially Australian scents of tea tree and casuarina.
Increasingly, these natural wonders offer the opportunity for yoga and massages, and nearby places to eat and eat well; the traditional Australian beachside fare of hot chips and ice-cream making way for almond lattes, acai bowls, and coconut everything. And while all these things are nice, none of them are necessary. The pleasures of ocean baths are elemental. There’s something incredibly curative, almost monastic, about bodies of water carved into millennia-old layers of rock, smoothed by the relentless power of the waves. Listening to the ocean roar and fizz as it constantly replenishes the depths is a meditation. And the pools are living, ever-changing things, lined with moss and seaweed, surrounded by native grasses, undulating with tiny fish, and occasionally visited by dolphins and octopuses.
While the last of Sydney’s ocean pools was completed in 1960, when municipal bodies started constructing aquatic centers instead, taking a dip in one of these freely accessible public amenities among total strangers on a bakingly hot summer day remains one of the great democratizing traditions of Australian life. Indeed, on the driest continent on the planet, where the populace clings steadfastly to the coastline, they endure as immoveable monuments to the country’s vision of itself as an egalitarian, water-loving society.
Kate Scott is a writer living in Sydney.