Guided Swimming Vacations: A New Twist on Adventure Travel

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The website for your vacation hotel advertises a pool, so you pack your goggles, eager to swim a few laps and stay in shape. When you arrive, you find out that the pool is only 10 yards long, three feet deep and ninety degrees warm. No workout for you. Later, you jump in the ocean for a quick mile, only to be waved in by a lifeguard who tells you that you're not allowed to actually swim at this beach, but you should try the pool at your hotel.

Many swimmers are realizing that enjoying themselves on vacation includes exercising. After working out, they are in a better mood and have more energy. The sun seems to shine brighter, food tastes better and adult beverages feel well-deserved. Enter the swimming-based vacation.

As evidenced by the increasing number of companies offering them, guided swimming vacations are the hot new thing in adventure travel. Fueled by the recent explosion in the number of open water swimmers (due largely to triathlon and the new 10K Olympic event), week-long swimming trips are available all over the world, many led by experienced long-distance champions and channel-crossers. But even though the guides can swim like a yellowfin tuna, their clients need not grow gills to enjoy these adventures.

"We like having clients with diverse swimming abilities", says Tim Fitzpatrick, a guide for SwimVacation, a small adventure travel company that offers swimming vacations in the British Virgin Islands. A former Division I collegiate swimmer and veteran of many grueling long-distance races, Fitzpatrick says "It's not about swimming as fast as you can; it's about enjoying the underwater scenery and the camaraderie of fellow swimmers. Our motto is swim, relax, repeat—with an emphasis on relax".

Vacationing swimmers, especially those from northern climes, are looking for a break from the mind-numbing repetition of doing laps in a 25-yard pool. From the exotic to the historic, guided swimming vacation companies have dreamed up dozens of chlorine-free adventures. SwimTrek, based in the United Kingdom, offers week-long trips to Sicily, Malta, Germany, Scotland, Croatia, and the British Virgin Islands, among several more. Many of SwimTrek's trips are island-hopping adventures, so luggage is hauled by boat from place to place. Simon Murie, a former mining engineer in Australia, Africa and the Philippines, founded the company in 2003 and now hosts over 500 swimmers each year.

Distances vary from day to day, but most swimming adventure companies have one or two daily swims that range from one to three miles. Oceanducks offers swimming excursions to California, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Their Chilean trip includes some one and two mile swims in a beautiful cove called Zapallar, but they also offer stronger swimmers a six-mile swim in rougher waters.

One common theme among all of the swimming adventure companies is safety. Boats or kayaks accompany the groups at all times, and swimmers are encouraged to hop in the trailing vessel if they become too tired. Swimmers are also encouraged to arrive for their vacation in good physical shape as another safety measure. SwimTrek even provides a detailed pre-trip training plan for their clients.

Accommodations for these adventures tend to be on the comfy side. SwimTrek clients stay in hotels and inns as they hop from island to island. Many of Oceanducks tours include lodging in an inviting local home. SwimVacation clients live aboard a spacious 65-foot trimaran sailing yacht.

Good food in large quantities is crucial to tired swimmers, and most vacationing groups take their meals together to discuss the day's adventures. A sense of accomplishment is enjoyed by the group as they sip local libations and watch the sun set over a body of water they just swam across.

Gary Emich, a SwimTrek guide and one of the first people to have made the Alcatraz crossing 100 times (he's now crossed over 500 times), is a big fan of the swimming vacation, "I think the thing that's great about them is that you can eat, drink and be merry as you would on any other vacation, but when you're doing a swimming vacation you work it all off the next day and go to even greater excesses the next evening." Well said, Gary.

SwimVacation offers 7 days of tropical open water swimming aboard the Promenade, a luxury trimaran sailing yacht in the British Virgin Islands. $2,850 to $3,600 all inclusive.

SwimTrek offers many far-flung adventures to destinations such as the Croation Dalmation Coast, the Isles of Sicily and the BVI. $380 to $2,100 for 2-day to 7-day trips.

Oceanducks, based in Santa Barbara, California, offers ocean swimming excursions in California, the Caribbean, Central and South America. $1,750 for the Chilean trip.