Wild swimming! We’ve made such an industry of it recently, such a ‘thing.’ I’ve realised Caroline has swum outdoors more in her 9 years than I have in my entire life! Yet most people would never think to swim in a river and many people will never swim outdoors.
My parents’ generation grew up outdoor swimming in rivers and lakes; my Mum and Dad swam in Tarn Howes in the Lake District before they were married!
As a child I envied the Famous Five their outdoor bathing in almost every adventure so my sibs and I swam in rockpools, the sea and the river at Symond’s Yat whenever we got the chance. By then the pools of my Wild Grandma’s childhood, though still accessible, were no-swim areas. People weren’t swimming outdoors anymore.
I guess blue-green algae happened, perhaps the acid rain and pollution problems of the 80’s and no doubt health and safety had something to do with it. Or maybe we all just got lazy?
The Invention of Wild Swimming
Then a few years ago someone ‘invented’ wild swimming. Now, there are books and articles galore on the best locations where outdoor swimming is safe and ‘allowed’.
How did something so previously natural become so organised and convoluted? It’s not a bad thing though. People are thinking about swimming outdoors again so bring it on, I say!
We’ve just returned from a fab family adventure holiday in Madeira where we swam daily for 8 days in the hotel pool, in the sea off the beach and a sailboat, in natural lava rock sea-pools and in an achingly cold mountain top waterfall pool at the end of a levada walk.
Plan Your Wild Swim in Advance
Wild swimming takes some forethought and extra planning, particularly with children; pack swimmers (obviously) and extra layers of warm clothes for afterwards, even in Madeira.
It’s exhilarating fun for the whole family, and kids especially love it when there are fish in the water, as Caroline can testify.
Here’s my pick of our favourite Madeiran wild swims.
Where to go Wild Swimming in Madeira
1. The Sea
Not so obvious on Madeira which is essentially a giant volcanic rock island with few beaches, most of which are rocky.
Seixal – in the north-west is the island’s only natural sandy beach – black sand at that due to the igneous nature of the rock – Praia de Laje beach, which is fascinating to look at as well as a paddle and swim in. The views from the beach and down to it from the road are stunning. Surf lessons are also available and there is a handy shower to rinse off the fine black sand afterwards.
Calheta – a small town on the south-west coast where tonnes of Saharan sand was brought in to create a man-made golden, sandy beach. It’s not picturesque but it’s great for shallow family swimming and snorkelling with lots of fish close to shore. We swam once but it got a little murky with soil run-off after a big rain storm so time your visit well or just enjoy sunbathing on the warm sand if the water isn’t clear enough.
TIP – whilst not recommended for swimming, the marina at Calheta has perfect conditions for fish spotting, where we saw many different species from the harbourside.
Cabo Girao – take a boat trip from Madeira’s capital, Funchal in the south of the island, and swim at the foot of some of Europe’s tallest sea cliffs, rising 1902 feet (590m) from the sea.
After jumping from our sailboat, a full-size replica of Columbus’s Santa Maria, we had an exhilarating swim with some glittering silver fish (which I can only think were a type of bream as I’ve struggled to identify them online).
Caroline was thrilled to be the first in and last out of the water, the only child in the water and one of the only ones to jump in rather than use the rope ladder. That’s my girl!
I highly recommend the Santa Maria trip for kids, or hiring a small boat for longer, as we would have happily swum there all day.
It was Caroline’s first time swimming with fish and a highlight of the tour and holiday. She took her goggles and was amazed to find them all around us; slightly unnerved initially but then enthralled. Snorkelling next time!
TIP – as with all wild swimming, goggles or snorkel mask really add to the experience
2. Natural Pools
Seixal – after a paddle off the black sand beach above, we popped over the harbour wall to a large natural pool in the volcanic rock (man-made concrete wall and steps added). There were lots of fish and a tethered raft for resting. It’s also a fab suntrap for lunch after your swim and the food at the Lounge Bar Clube cafe/restaurant is excellent; good portion sizes and great value.
TIP – swim shoes were useful here as it’s a stony bottom, worth considering for most wild swimming
Porto Moniz – at either end of the village of Porto Moniz in Madeira’s north-west are fabulous natural lava rock sea pools. Those at the south end of the village are free entry, more rugged and picturesque with a lovely looking café and restaurant, Restaurante Cachalote. We didn’t discover these until the end of our visit – they looked very enticing though might perhaps not be as clean as those at the other end of Porto Moniz which are pay to enter (very economical at 1.50 euros per adult/1 per child for the whole day!)
The paid entry pools are augmented with concrete walls and steps and fantastic views of waves breaking over the jagged outer volcanic rocks. Stunning. There are toilets, changing rooms and a basic café. There were a few fish and seaweeds to check out whilst swimming so goggles or snorkel were useful here too.
Between swims it’s great for sunbathing, selkies basking on the rocks before another dip, and is undoubtedly busy in high season. A perfect afternoon of swimming for my wannabe mermaid.
TIP – the sunbathing here is on concrete so take a blanket or hire a sunbed!
3. Mountain Pools
Alecrim Levada Walk, Rabacal – Madeira’s levada walks are unique to the island resulting from the miles of aqueducts created in the 1800s to irrigate the lower slopes with water from the mountains. We picked Alecrim with its flat, child-friendly length (7km round trip) to allow for Caroline’s recovering energy levels, and for the promise of a wild swim in the middle. The walk itself was fascinating (see my post on levada walks), with a lunch stop at the levada’s end where we found the waterfalls. Lots of shallow pools but a rope required to reach what would have been a great swimming area. Disappointing.
To find the actual swimming pool, (phew!) we had to climb a wall seemingly blocking the route next to a weir. Most people don’t realise you can get beyond this point, let alone swim up there.
Scrambling along the bank and over stepping-stone boulders across the river, the pool soon opened up before us.
There was no dithering; clouds had come in, the temperature dropped and it was a now or never moment. We stripped to swimmers and took it in turns on the camera while the others swam. Boy was it icy!!
Rather amusingly a couple of hikers in more layers than we’d even started with spotted us and clambered the rocks to watch! They clearly didn’t believe we would actually get in and swim, especially Caroline, so we got an impromptu round of applause too!
Caroline, in goggles again, loved the trout sharing the pool and I either trod on one or it tried to wriggle under my foot! We were totally immersed in nature, (though not for long.)
We all went in twice then quickly dried off and headed for the 3.6 km return walk, wearing three more layers than before.
TIP – take extra layers including a hat or hood and keep moving afterwards. Something to stand on when changing on rough ground is useful, and a waterproof bag for putting wet things in the backpack. We used our Pacmat to wrap around Caroline on top of her clothes to keep the wind off until we were dressed! High energy snacks are good for post-swim energy replacement too!
There are no doubt many more pools and waterfalls for wild swimming in Madeira.
If you visit you must remember to include swimming gear in your backpack for the chance to enjoy one or many fantastic outdoor swimming experiences.
We had the most amazing holiday and fabulous, unseasonably warm and dry weather. To find out more read my Madeira holiday with kids guide, and for details of the fascinating and unique levada walks read levadas for kids.
Challenge your family this year – where will you go wild swimming and dare you do it when you get there?! Let me hear about it below.
Get the Gear
Find out where you can swim wild in the UK and Ireland with some of the many books available. Click the images to browse.