The Hotel du Cap, Antibes, France
In an age of the selfie and the hyper-fit, hotel pools have become what the grand hotel lobbies used to be. They’re gathering spots, places to have a light lunch and, as a bonus, get a bit of sun. With coastal southern Europe set on broil, pools are also places to cool off, and depending on what the ravages of time have done to you, they’re where you can strut around with very little on. I wish I was one of those people, but I’m not. I love swimming and I love pools. But I’m not one for strutting around with very little on. And you should thank me for that.
The result is that I have spent very little time in hotel pools, but a lot of time looking at them. The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Pellicano and the Sirenuse all have justifiable world-class pool reputations. But when it comes to the top spot, I have to go with the opinion of my late chum Slim Aarons. And that means the glorious, curved pool of the Hotel du Cap in Antibes. Slim’s iconic photo of the pool area was taken before the age of infinity edges, when it was just a rectangle. Everybody in the picture is slim and sun-tanned. They all look relaxed and as if they’re having fun. This is presumably because they hadn’t yet seen the bill, which in those days was paid with cash only.
You almost never see a movie star in a public swimming pool any more. At least not since the advent of the cell phone and Mail Online. In those long ago, pre-cell-phone days, I was actually in the pool at the Hotel du Cap with my future wife Anna. We were gazing out over the Mediterranean when a chorus of loud, American voices broke the moment. We turned and one of them screamed as he cannonballed off the rocks and into the pool. The man who came to the surface was Philip Seymour Hoffman. He didn’t do anything in his work by half measures. And I suppose that in that serene, beautiful vessel of blue water, he was showing his appreciation, his way.
Graydon Carter is the founder and co-editor of Air Mail. Double rooms at the Hotel du Cap start at €800 per night; the hotel closes for the season on October 15; see oetkercollection.com
One of the most surreal swims I’ve had was at Seljavallalaug in Iceland, a rough-and-ready outdoor pool built into an isolated hillside beneath the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. To find it, we hiked up the rocky valley from the nearest road. It took 20 minutes or so, just long enough to raise our body temperatures so that stripping off in the shed by the water’s edge no longer felt like madness.
In Iceland you are spoiled for choice when it comes to outdoor swimming. We had steamed ourselves in the public baths in Reykjavik and panted in luxurious, gravel-bottomed springs at the Secret Lagoon near Fludir. We hiked into the Reykjadalur Valley, where the hot river sliced cleanly through 10ft snowdrifts, and lay down on the rocks to let it sluice right over our bodies. But none was quite so romantic as the spartan geothermal pool at Seljavallalaug, which we had to ourselves, and which offered an undisturbed afternoon of splashing around in the comfortable temperatures while we soaked in the view.
It was March when we visited: snow marbled the upper valleys, and clouds scudding over the sun swept the landscape with shadows. I stretched out, star-like, and watched the ever-changing sky. Later, we loitered at the pipe where fresh water pumped in, warming our hands as we might by a fire. It’s not a fancy place — the “changing rooms” are bare, the walls painted concrete. But it’s a memorable trip for those who don’t mind a bit of dirt, and offers a little insight into Icelandic culture. A bit like a Highland bothy, with a swimming pool attached. (Now there’s an idea.)
Cal Flyn is the author of ‘Islands of Abandonment’ (William Collins). Entry to Seljavallalaug is free; it is about two hours’ drive from downtown Reykjavik. For more on Iceland see visiticeland.com
Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton Pool, Sydney, Australia
A pool is for actively swimming in, ideally uninterrupted 50-metre laps, yet most pools don’t allow for a proper swim and are suited mainly for jumpers and thrashers. There are few more antagonising noises than the plunge of someone leaping into a smallish swimming pool, and it usually comes with a shriek. I speak as a former lifeguard.
Hotel pools are often misshapen or too crowded to enjoy, but if you can afford $1,500 a night for a room, or $10,000 for some of the suites, you might consider the Cipriani in Venice, a luxurious hotel on the Giudecca, which has an Olympic-size pool — the best hotel plus pool (in one of the world’s greatest cities) I have ever had the pleasure of staying in. Pass the Murano risotto, per favore.
But my happiest memory of a pool is the public Andrew “Boy” Charlton Pool in Sydney, Australia, also Olympic-sized and with an old pedigree — built in 1846, enlarged over the years, renamed in 1968 for Australia’s champion swimmer, and in 2011 refurbished to become an absolute gem. It is not only a classic pool, but is situated at the edge of Woolloomooloo Bay, with views of the magnificent harbour.
I first found it in 1983, on a visit to Sydney, and later when I based myself in the city for a time while travelling for my book The Happy Isles of Oceania, I used it every day. The book, an account of kayaking around many Pacific islands, required me to be in good shape — and I was well served by my laps in the Boy Charlton. I loved my routine, the walk to it from my hotel, the welcome at the pool, the friendliness of my fellow swimmers, the space, the light, and swimming buoyantly in seawater. As for the cost: it was free then, it’s A$7.50 now.
Paul Theroux’s forthcoming book, ‘Burma Sahib’, is a novel based on the early working life of George Orwell, when he was a policeman in 1920s Burma. Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton Pool opens for the season on September 1, see abcpool.org
Singita Grumeti, Tanzania
With luxury inflation sweeping through the east African safari industry, there has been an expanding demand in traveller expectations, for flushable loos, fancy spas and Michelin-grade wine lists — and yes, a pool to break up a dusty day in the savannah.
Among the bigger influences behind this shift is Singita, the high-end South African eco-tourism and conservation brand. In 2009, its founder Luke Bailes partnered with the American philanthropist and hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II, who leased some 350,000 acres of Tanzania’s greater Serengeti. They set up in the heartland of the Great Migration — a phenomenon that sees 1.5mn wildebeest sweep through Kenya and Tanzania on an annual 1,200-mile circuit — and made levels of investment in conservation-tourism new to the industry, balancing lavish amenities with very real community engagement and local empowerment.
The result? A collection of lodges collectively known as Singita Grumeti, which include a run of dramatically sited pools-in-the-bush — all of them best enjoyed from July to September when the long columns of migrating wildebeest spread like paint-strokes across the landscape. At Sasakwa Lodge, you can take in the show from the main pool on the top of a dramatic escarpment. For families, there’s Serengeti House (a safari home you hire exclusively for up to eight people), which has a long infinity pool with prime viewing of a natural waterhole where elephants come to drink.
My favourite is the smaller, loose-edged pool tucked into rocks at the relaxed Faru Faru Lodge; any day of the year, the view will give you mesmeric tableaux of grazing antelope, their tails striking the beat of a metronome. From here you can watch the drama unfold, with the top half of your face poking up from the surface of the water, like a hippo cooling off in the heat of the day.
Sophy Roberts is a regular FT travel contributor and author of ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ (Black Swan). There are currently five lodges and tented camps at Singita Grumeti; rates start at about £1,500 per person per night; see singita.com
Amanjiwo, Java, Indonesia
I have never swum in any pool quite as stunning as that at the Amanjiwo hotel on the island of Java in Indonesia.
You reach the pool terrace from the central rotunda of the hotel down steep flights of steps reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid, and pass through two crescents of villas with traditional thatched roofs, shaded with palms. The pool lies at the bottom, behind a tall curtain wall. It is huge and magnificent, a shimmering blue rectangle, lined with honey-coloured limestone, set between round masterworks of umbrella topiary on one side and spreading magnolia trees on the other.
Beyond, falling away in successive flooded terraces, lies a patchwork of bright green paddy fields. As I swam last November, from the end of the pool you could see in the distance lines of rice farmers carefully transplanting the young seedlings. Above, more magnificent still, rose the astonishing cloud-piercing dragon’s-back volcanoes of the highlands of Java: improbable prodigies of geology covered with virgin rainforest.
All this, on its own, would probably have been enough to make it my favourite pool in the world. But the most wonderful feature is what lies straight ahead, rising through the early morning mist and directly aligned with the pool: the great stupa of Borobudur.
Completed in the early ninth century, Borobudur is quite simply the largest and most sophisticated Buddhist monument in the world. Built on a volcanic hilltop between two mighty rivers, it brings together several complex, esoteric Buddhist concepts into a single multi-tiered, mandala-shaped step pyramid made up of nearly 2mn blocks of stone. These are arranged in terraces of decreasing size, five rectangular and four circular, symbolically mirroring the sacred slopes of Mount Meru.
Five hundred statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas look out in the cardinal directions, locked deep in meditation, focused within as they hover on the threshold of enlightenment. Beneath and around them, some 1,350 Buddhist narrative panels instruct devotees on the essence of desire, suffering, karma and rebirth, as well as the ethics of dharma.
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The plan was to represent in stone a Mahayana Buddhist cosmogram or vision of the universe. Exactly which one is much debated: possibly the three realms of Mahayana Buddhism, or the six (or 10) perfections, or it may be a sermon on the nature of causation. It was intended to lead the pilgrim towards a meticulously planned climax as the viewer ritually activates the power of the mandala and with each tier reaches an ever-higher level of consciousness.
It is true that the esoteric Buddhist designers of Borobudur probably did not intend their pilgrims to activate this engine of enlightenment while swimming in the pool of one of Asia’s most luxurious hotels; but it worked for me. There is no other place on the face of the earth that has brought me a greater sense of peace or wellbeing.
William Dalrymple’s next book, ‘The Golden Road: How Ancient India Transformed the World’ is due to be published next year. Double rooms at Amanjiwo cost from £953 including transfers from Yogyakarta or Solo airport; see aman.com
Radisson Blu Iveria, Tbilisi, Georgia
In February, I was in wintry Tbilisi researching a book and staying in the only reasonably priced apartment I could find in a rental market puffed up by tens of thousands of Russians who’d arrived fleeing conscription and sanctions. Looking to supplement my basic digs with a little luxury, I unexpectedly found it via gym membership at the Radisson Blu Iveria, an ordinary business hotel except for two things: its history and its magnificent swimming pool.
Early each morning, I’d pack a gym bag and take the metro to Rustaveli and then ride the hotel elevator up to the 18th floor. After a treadmill run, I’d head to the swimming pool and there, submerged in warm water, I’d gaze through the wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows and begin sightseeing. To one side: the Kura river, crossed by Galaktioni bridge, which leads to the theatre district of Marjanishvili and the UFO-shaped Dinamo football stadium. In the other direction: the hiking trails of Mount Mtatsminda and the silver belfry of the Church of Mikhail of Tver. On a clear day, the far-distant snow-capped mountains of the Caucasus.
And by swimming above the city, I’d also be immersed in the hotel’s intriguing history. Built as Tbilisi’s first high-rise in 1967, it started life as the Soviet-run Hotel Iveria, then in 1992 was converted into a vertical refugee camp for 800 people displaced by the Abkhazia-Georgia conflict. After falling into disrepair, it was clad in glass and in 2009 was born again as the Radisson Blu Iveria.
Most memorably of all, I once swam as a blinding blizzard blew around the hotel, giving the unique sensation of paddling inside a giant snow globe.
Caroline Eden’s books include ‘Black Sea’ and ‘Red Sands’ (Quadrille). Doubles at the Radisson Blu Iveria Tbilisi cost from about £125. Day passes to use the pool start at 100 laris (£30); monthly gym membership starts at 400 laris; see radissonhotels.com
Dandár Baths, Budapest, Hungary
Like seals we lay in the warm water, a metallic mineral perfume heavy on the air. On the grass beyond, salmon-pink Hungarians reclined, cradled in deckchairs, staring at the sky.
Dandár Thermal Baths nestles in a post-industrial district of Pest on the east bank of the Danube. Budapest itself sits on more than 120 thermal springs, and bathers have enjoyed the waters since Marcus Aurelius built the first bath complex at Aquincum on the outskirts of what is now the capital.
Architect Ferenc K Császár completed Dandár in its eponymous red-brick street in the 1930s as a public bath for abluting, not lounging. The Soviet hand remains visible — in the elderly waitresses’ lipstick in the unfunky spa café; in the floating chess boards; in a general air of desuetude. A serpentine low wall separates the two main outdoor pools in a kind of yin-and-yang pattern. Canopies shade parts of the swimming area. Butter-yellow walls rise up two or three storeys, entirely enclosing the baths complex in its urban oasis. The two indoor pools are kept at 38C and 36C.
Most tourist packages include a visit to the more famous Széchényi Baths in City Park. Széchényi is the largest thermal spa in Europe and a neo-Baroque act of homage to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Gellért on the Buda side is also hugely popular, an Art Nouveau palace of stained glass and pillared pools, the main one with a swooping glass roof. But I favour the quotidian pleasure of human-sized Dandár, where the waters reflect the daily realities of a city to my mind far more interesting than Prague.
I can picture myself now, propped on one of the snoozing stations in the corner of a pool, trailing a hand in the water. Or was it a flipper?
Sara Wheeler’s memoir ‘Glowing Still’ is published by Abacus. An ‘all in’ ticket to use the indoor and outdoor pools at Dandár costs Ft3,400 (£7.50); see dandarfurdo.hu and, for Budapest’s other pools, spasbudapest.com
Riverside Park, Jackson, Mississippi (now closed)
I was a child before regular people had swimming pools in their back yards. The rich, of course, had them. They had, and still have, everything. But Jackson, Mississippi, where I grew up, had “public” pools — big, limpid, shimmering, over-chlorinated receptacles made of concrete, open to the blistering sun and crammed all day, May to August, with kids and parents, all of it enclosed in barbed-wire fencing to ensure no one snuck in without paying the 35-cent “basket fee”. And also — our white, segregationist city fathers insisted — to make sure no black Americans thought they were free to come in and cool off, too. (Eventually, the place was shut down altogether.)
Cooling off was what the whole business of public swimming was about: seizing a chance to beat the terrible Mississippi heat. Oblivious to history and much else, I loved it at age eight and didn’t care a fig for who wasn’t permitted to be there with me. The pool was my medium of pure, cool freedom.
Riverside Park was a short drive from our house. And in those long summers when there was no school, I “lived” at the pool. I learnt to swim there (the lifeguards gave lessons). I mastered the complex strokes and dives. The butterfly, the breast and the Australian crawl; the cannonball, the jack knife, the swan, the back dive, the heady layout flip off the high board. I lolled and floated and breathed between my strokes. I held my breath and touched the deep-end bottom where the water was coldest. My mother had never learnt to swim and so was forced to wait outside the fencing, surveilling me from a distance, smoking cigarettes on a green park bench, fretful my bobbing head would disappear among the crowd of teeming, laughing faces and not bob up again.
Was this my favourite pool? I suppose. It was at least my first. Pools of later vintage have been variations on its theme; more alike than unalike, and as with memories of the Jim Crow South, imperfect in some way. These were the Palais Jamai in Fes, where the water was hot. The Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, with great glass windows underwater through which spectators gawked at me swimming like a fish in an aquarium. The alberca at the Selva in Cuernavaca, where in my thirties I swam because Malcolm Lowry had written about it in Under the Volcano. Though, always the great, cool aquatic freedom, my legs adangle, my arms groping to stay afloat, the fantasy that this will last for ever.
Richard Ford has just published ‘Be Mine’ (Bloomsbury), the last in his Frank Bascombe series
The Mondrian, Los Angeles, US
All day long, on my annual book tour, I used to hang around the pool at the Mondrian in West Hollywood. Waitresses glided from table to deckchair in sarongs, bearing drinks. Beautiful young people — pretending to be actors — struck poses while standing in the warm water. In the distance, throughout the day, was the appropriately hazy blur of LA; after nightfall, the view became a switchboard of flashing lights.
When the hotel first came to prominence, in the 1990s, it was unlike anywhere many of us had seen, with its white-on-white interiors, the blue pool in the distance. No longer did luxury mean gilt and chandeliers and heavy furnishings; in the age of movement, it meant light, emptiness, nothing at all. The property was taken over by Ian Schrager, co-founder of Studio 54 in New York; the little TV monitors in every elevator confirmed the sense that it was a place to be seen, as much as to see. At its centre wasn’t an infinity pool; the opposite. A very finite, shallow rectangle of blue, like a product placement in a nightclub.
I stretched out on a chair poolside, reading Frances Wilson’s dashing biography of De Quincey. I took long meetings — dinners with friends, in truth — in one of the alcoves beside the water. At breakfast, in the sun, I could imagine myself part of the glamorous “Industry”. No one ever swam in the pool in the Mondrian, which was ideal since, despite being drawn by the pool day after long languorous day, I was the rare soul who had never actually learnt to swim.
Pico Iyer’s latest book is ‘The Half Known Life’ (Bloomsbury). The ‘Skybar’ pool area at the Mondrian Los Angeles is open to the public, and it is possible to reserve tables; double rooms cost from about $320 (ennismore.com)
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