From rafting to swimming, snorkelling and diving, here's a few of our favourite water-based holidays around the world.
Eight wet and wild water adventures
Surfing at Raglan, New Zealand
Don’t be surprised if you to come to the beach town of Raglan and stay for longer than intended. Many do. Experienced surfers are drawn by the reliable swells and one of the world’s longest left-hand breakers, while beginners are seduced by the laid-back Bohemian atmosphere and their first taste of the addictive surfing thrill.
The town hugs the south side of the large and picturesque Raglan Harbour, 48km west of Hamilton in Waikato. Fresh-faced surfers go in search of gentle waves at the rock-free Ngarunui Beach, 5km out of Raglan, while the more experienced boarders head to the long breakers at Manu Bay and Whale Bay, both around 8km out of town.
Surfing lessons are provided by Raglan Surfing School and Solscape, who both rent boards and wet suits and provide a range of deals, from day-long starter lessons to accommodation-inclusive packages. Raglan Surfing School is based at Karioi Lodge in Whale Bay and has all the usual surfing facilities, including hammocks (of course), flat-screen TVs and hot tubs. But if you’re after a more back-to-nature experience you’re better off staying at Solscape, based at Manu Bay, which has an eclectic mix of accommodation ranging from tipis to recycled railway carriages and self-contained eco-cottages.
For prices, reservations and lessons at Raglan Surfing School see .
Rafting the Franklin River, Tasmania
If there’s a textbook method to psych up rafters for a ten-day expedition on one of the wildest white-water rollercoasters on Earth, the sign where you launch into the Franklin River isn’t it. “Warning!” it shouts at the handful of adventurers who dare to tackle the west Tasmanian gorge on their own. “Several people have died on this river system.” It catalogues the reasons for their aquatic ends before concluding: “Not sure of your abilities? Do not go on.”
It’s at this point that you should become aware that the safe option is to tackle the rapids as part of a group and turn to the guides of Rafting Tasmania. While solo paddlers may be at risk, they say, all it takes to embark on one of the world’s supreme rafting adventures as a team is determination and moderate fitness.
It’s not all white-knuckle water rides, though. Beyond the helter-skelter of the upper and middle sections, the tannin-stained Lower Franklin becomes a dark treacly ribbon. It’s a chance to absorb surrounding rainforest that’s thicker than the Amazon; a pristine pocket of the world where 4,000-year-old Huon pines line riverbanks and company comes from the occasional platypus or glow-worms that stage a lightshow at dusk.
Rafting Tasmania () runs ten-day expeditions down the length of the river, plus shorter trips from the river’s lower sections from Nov–March.
Wild swimming in the Scilly Isles
Like camping, outdoor swimming has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Urbanites are flocking back to lidos – a halfway house between indoor swimming pools and the great outdoors. There’s now an Outdoor Swimming Society, whose founder has recently published a book that lists many of the best places to swim outdoors in the UK.
You can even go on a dedicated swimming holiday with professionals. Swimtrek () organizes holidays in the Scilly Isles and the Scottish Inner Hebrides as well as overseas, including Croatia and Greece. In each destination you’ll swim several kilometres a day across lakes, rivers and sea under the eye of an experienced guide. For a taste of their holidays, try a weekend “short escape” in the Norfolk Broads, the River Wye or the Lake District, where you’ll swim the dramatic Western Lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere, and spend a full day crossing the isolated, picturesque Easedale Tarn.
Snorkelling around Chumbe Island, Zanzibar
In the turquoise waters around Chumbe Island Coral Park, 6km off the west coast of Zanzibar, there are around four hundred species of fish and two hundred species of stone coral. Quite simply, this tropical island nature reserve is home to one of the world’s richest coral gardens.
On day-trips to the reserve from Zanzibar, you can follow snorkelling trails along Chumbe Island’s shallow reef (fishing and scuba diving are prohibited in the reserve’s waters, though you can dive neighbouring reefs). Though there are no beaches as such, it’s possible to walk all around it at low tide, when you can poke around rock pools for crabs and starfish.
But the best thing about Chumbe is that you can stay the night on the island in beautifully designed bandas (two-tiered bungalows) with thatched palm roofs. Rainwater is collected and stored in cisterns under the floors of the bandas, where it’s heated by solar power to feed the showers and basins. The clever design of the roofs ensures that there’s plenty of ventilation – though you can detach a removable side-wall to allow natural sea breezes to waft in.
For prices and bookings see .
Diving in Mnazi Bay Marine Park, Tanzania
Southern Tanzania is the place to go if you’re looking for unspoilt reefs. Marine biologist and conservationist Martin Guard runs a PADI centre in the quiet fishing village of Mikindani in Mtwara, from where he takes divers to the 200-square-kilometre Mnazi Bay Marine Park – a little-visited protected area full of coral and fish species. You’re likely to see large turtles and giant groupers as well as channel and patch reefs, spectacular drop-offs and extensive spur and groove formations.
Accommodation is next door to the centre at Ten Degrees South – an English-owned rustic retreat with a bar and seafood restaurant staffed by locals. The dive centre also doubles as a marine research and environmental education centre. A levy of US$1 from every dive goes to a fund for the local Naida community, while US$10 is taken from each diver’s daily fee to help the marine park authorities keep this untouched area pristine and ensure the diving remains world-class.
For prices, reservations and details of the research volunteer programme see .
Surfing at Nihiwatu, Indonesia
Seventy metres from the shoreline the wave breaks, a lone surfer skillfully riding it in. Known as Occy’s Left – after the former surfing champion Mark Occhilupo – this particular wave has achieved legendary status; all the more so because so few get to surf it. The reason for this is Nihiwatu, a luxury resort located here on the remote island of Sumba in Bali. Made up of just seven bungalows and three villas, the resort overlooks its own private beach (accessible only to residents), and while it has room for up to twenty guests, it will only allow nine surfers to stay at any one time.
Everything at Nihiwatu has been designed to maximize the feeling of exclusivity and luxury: the 2km beach is hemmed in by cliffs and headlands, while the spa, built in the style of a traditional Sumba spirit-house, offers massages, yoga and Pilates. If you want to intersperse the relaxation with action, the resort also organizes game-fishing, horse-riding and day-trips to meet Sumba’s indigenous people.
For accommodation, dining, prices and reservations see .
Boating the Bolongs, Senegal
For many years civil war kept outsiders from visiting Basse Casamance, a fertile strip of southwestern Senegal. It’s a shame, as despite its recent troubles, and the ongoing presence of the army for reasons of security, the region is a tropical idyll unspoiled by mass tourism. One of the big draws is the bolongs – river tributaries with mangroves growing on small islands, which create a network of green tunnels. Birds build their nests in the mangroves’ branches, oysters grow in their roots and fish flourish in this submarine ecosystem.
On the week-long “Villages, Bolongs and Beaches” trip through the region with Help Travel, your journey starts in Ziguinchor, a multicultural harbour town where you can watch stevedores hauling crates of mangoes and bananas onto boats in the port. You’ll then head east along the river on a handcrafted canoe, piloted by a local guide, past flocks of flamingos and stands of purple jacaranda. On occasions you’ll stop for a visit to rural villages where, thanks to the many community development programmes that Help Travel undertakes, you and your local guides will be greeted like friends.
For details of itineraries, lodging and rates, and to customize your own itinerary, visit .
Rafting in Colombia
Colombia has a reputation as the world’s cocaine supplier but now another white stuff is also making headlines: water. Rafting and other adventure sports have taken off in places such as the Chicamocha canyon – and now a new venture in the north, near the Caribbean coast, takes you on a joyride down torrents of snowmelt from the world’s tallest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
After spending several years living with the indigenous Koguis people and poor communities of this area, anthropologist Fernando Tovar encouraged youths of the village of Don Diego, a scruffy roadside settlement, to help themselves out of the poverty trap. They saved up to buy three inflatable kayaks and Tovar organized some professional guiding training. Now tourism plays a key part in the local economy, with visitors coming to be led downriver for a couple of hours and then hiking up through cassava plantations and villages, past areas where coca once grew. The river is most exhilarating from September to November; from December to August there are a few small rapids but it is largely a leisurely float past tree-lined shores, where indigenous Koguis people come to fish and wash clothes.
From the town of Santa Marta, take a bus to Don Diego (1hr) or arrange transport from your posada. Life jackets are provided, though you should have at least basic swimming ability.
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