The i-escape blog / Michael Cullen

By Michael Cullen, Director 

When was the last time you plunged into a river pool or mountain lake, or showered beneath a natural waterfall? There’s something truly magical about bathing in cool fresh water, surrounded by mountains or woodland, then drying off on sun-warmed rocks. And, as more and more people are discovering, wild swimming is a real tonic to the system, boosting both your immune system and your mental health.

I was unwittingly baptised into it as a child – camping by French lakes, showering under South African waterfalls, hiking to Austrian tarns. And I still love an after-work plunge into Bristol’s Henleaze Lake! Here, I trawl through my memory banks to reveal 12 top spots for wild swimming in the UK, France and worldwide; plus how to get there, and my favourite places to stay nearby.

 


1  Foxham Lake, Wiltshire, UK

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Foxham Lake, UK

Surrounded by woodland and fringed with water lilies, this is wild swimming at its British loveliest. Best of all, you won’t be sharing this lake with anyone else! That’s because it’s on private land, and reserved solely for the guests of a nearby barn – which, as luck would have it, you can rent through this site. You’ll also get 200 acres of land, a rowing boat, a woodland camp, and a gorgeous 2-bedroom barn to sleep in.

♥  Best for: secluded summer dips
  Stay at: Foxham Boutique Barn (sleeps 4-5, self-catering, from £300), right on the lake
  Location: provided when booking the barn

 

2  Cascades du Sautadet, France

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Les Cascades du Sautadet, France
Les Cascades du Sautadet (© M Pole)

OK, so you may not be alone here – but it’s such a beautiful spot that we had to include it. The swirling River Cèze has gouged deep pools in limestone rocks: you can launch yourself in from the top, slip into the warm pools, shower under a waterfall, or wander downstream to a pebbly beach. Top tip: come early, before the local teens arrive. And don’t miss the gorgeous village of La Roque-sur-Cèze nearby.

♥  Best for: children of all ages
♦  Stay at: La Maison Papillons (B&B rooms from £125), 20 mins’ drive away
⇔ Location: 2km south of La Roque-sur-Cèze in Gard; ask Caroline from La Maison Papillons for details

 

3  Lake Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Lake Bacalar, Mexico

Deep in thick jungle near the border with Belize, Lake Bacalar appears almost like a mirage in the desert. Its glassy turquoise sheen – a result of the white limestone bottom – yields amazingly clear waters for swimming, snorkelling or kayaking through. And it’s home to monkeys, iguanas and amazing tropical birds. Make a beeline for Azul Nomeolvides (‘blue forget-me-not’), an adult-only forest hideaway with its own lake frontage, over-water hanging seats and floating pontoons for swimming.

  Best for: nature-loving couples
♦  Stay at: Azul Nomeolvides (cabanas from £100), right on the lake
  Location: 10km NE of Bacalar Town

 

4  Ditchling Lake, Sussex, UK

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Ditchling Lake, UK

Hre’s another private lake – they really do offer the ultimate wild swimming experience – this time in the South Downs National Park, just an hour from London.  You’re surrounded by woodland, 5 minutes’ walk from the nearest road, with no buildings in sight except a lovely wooden cabin which (you guessed it) is your home for the night. It comes with wetsuits, a hot tub, boat, firepit and a sunny waterside deck for cosy chill time. The snag? You’ll need to book up to a year ahead.

  Best for: a (skinny) dipping mini-break
♦  Stay at: The Lakeside Cabin (sleeps 2-4, self-catering, from £345), right on the lake
  Location: provided when booking the cabin

 

5  The River Douro, Portugal

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Douro River, Portugal

One thing the Portuguese excel at is praias fluviais (river beaches), and nowhere more so than along the banks of the Douro, the country’s longest river. With their warm green waters and easy swimming, they’re the perfect complement to the endless, but very chilly, Atlantic beaches. Go one step better and hire a house with river frontage, plus kayaks and SUPs on tap.

  Best for: messing about in boats (& cossies)
♦  Stay at: Casas de Pousadouro (3 cottages for 2-6; self-catering, from £155), right on the river
  Location: 2km SW of Santa Cruz do Douro

 

6  Reykjadalur ‘Thermal River’, Iceland

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Reykjadalur, Iceland
Reykjadalur thermal river (© Anna Lee / Tripadvisor)

What do you get if you cross a cold stream with a geyser run-off? Answer: a ‘thermal river’ – in this case, one which is not only warm (33-38 C) but also adjustable. By moving up or down the stream, you can find your perfect temperature. It’s an hour’s steep hike up from the (paid) car park, and there are no facilities to speak of when you get there, beyond some wooden steps and partitions for changing. But in our book, that’s more than enough; natural is best.

♥  Best for: thermal soaks in lunar surrounds
♦  Stay at: 360° Boutique Hotel (13 rooms from £300; with its own spa pools), 25km away
  Location: 45km east of Reykjavik, and 3km N of Hveragerði

 

7  Blåisvatnet (The Blue Lake), Norway

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Blåisvatnet, Norway
Blaisvatnet Lake @odavik (L); Lyngen Lodge (R)

This is one for the die-hards. Hidden among the spectacular Lyngen Alps near Tromsø, Blåisvatnet means the ‘Blue Lake’ for reasons which are – literally and breathtakingly – clear. You’re further north than Iceland here, well into Norway’s Arctic Circle, so when you reach the lake – which is a 1.5-hour hike from the nearest road – the water is rarely above 6C, even in summer. But what a place to swim!

♥  Best for: hardy swimmers (July-September only)
♦  Stay at: Lyngen (9 rooms from £450 full-board, including guided hikes), 4km away
  Location: 70km east of Tromsø, 5km east of Jaegervatn

 

8  Koslanda Waterfall, Sri Lanka

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Koslanda Waterfall, Sri Lanka
Koslanda waterfall (L); Diyaluma rock pools © Raiyans (R)

The mountains of central Sri Lanka abound with waterfalls hidden in the jungle. One of our favourites is this secret cascade near Koslanda: partly for its warm green pool (best swum in September-October after the rains), and partly for its complete seclusion.  You’ll almost certainly be the only swimmers, since the trail passes through the Living Heritage estate, who limit visitors. But if you want bigger and wetter, try the 200m-high Diyaluma Falls nearby – there are rock pools above and a huge basin below.

♥  Best for: tropical power showers
♦  Stay at: Living Heritage (6 rooms from £150), a 30-min walk away
  Location: 2km E of Koslanda, and 30km E of Haputale

 

9  Reedsee Lake, Austrian Alps

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Reedsee Lake, Austria
Reedsee (© gasteinertal.com)

They say the longer the hike in, the better the swimming spot – and that’s certainly true here. Surrounded by the ice-capped, 3,000-metre peaks of the Tischlerspitzen, the crystal-clear Reedsee tarn is 2.5 hours climb from the roadhead at Prossau. But it’s worth every step. The waters surround you like a mythical, skin-chilling nectar, after which your whole body will be buzzing all the way home. If you want a guide (and a spa afterwards), book at Haus Hirt.

♥  Best for: breathtaking hike-swim combo
♦  Stay at: Haus Hirt (from £180/room, full board), 10km away
  Location: the trail starts from Alpenhaus Prossau, Kötschachtal, Badgastein

 

10  Berg River Dam, Cape Winelands, South Africa

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Berg River Dam, South Africa
Berg River Dam (© Jo Sinfield)

Cape Province is full of spectacular swimming spots, many of which involve gorge trails or kloofing (like canyoning, only without ropes). But this one – a placid, 900-metre-long reservoir at the foot of the Hottentot Holland range – is easily reached from the gourmet town of Franschhoek. And it’s perfect for long, open swims – local triathletes love it – though you may find the water (and the legality of swimming in it) a little murky round the edges.

♥  Best for: long open-water swims 
♦  Stay at: Explorers Club (6 hideaways for 2-6, from £95), a 7-minute drive or 20-minute cycle ride
  Location: 6km SW of Franschhoek

 

11  Alqueva Lake, Portugal

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Alqueva Lake, Portugal

Friends are always surprised when I recommend staying in Portugal’s interior “because the swimming is better there”. Yet it’s true. While the Atlantic is too chilly, and often too wavy, to swim in comfort, the freshwater reservoirs of the Alentejo are warm, safe and very large – none more so than the “Great Lake” of Alqueva in the upper Alentejo. With over 1,000km of shoreline, plenty of watersports (SUP, sailing, wakeboarding, canoe and windsurfing), plus a sandy ‘beach’ for swimmers, water babies will be in heaven here.

♥  Best for: morning swims, afternoon sails
♦  Stay at: Montimerso Skyscape (15 rooms from £190), a 10-min drive away
  Location: midway between Evora and Beja, near the Spanish border

 

12  Lakes Montbel, Carla-Bayle & Cavayère, France 

the i-escape blog / 12 amazing wild swimming spots in the UK & worldwide / Lakes Montbel, Carla-Bayle & Cavayère, France 
Lac du Carla-Bayle © S. Meurisse (L); Lac de Montbel © Beaux Lent Demains (top R); Lac de la Cavayère © parc-aquaviva.com (bottom R)

This trio of lakes in the Pyrenean foothills, south of Toulouse, makes a great combination. Watersports and gentle beaches at the vast Lac de Montbel; swimming and water slides at the diminutive (and oddly named) Carla-Bayle; adrenaline-pumping chutes and over-water ziplines at ever-popular Lac de la Cavayère, near Carcassonne. Take your pick.

♥  Best for: wild and crazy swimming
♦  Stay at: Maison Ila (5 rooms from £130), a 10-min drive from Montbel
  Location: 60km S/SE of Toulouse


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