Backstroke Your Way Around the World on a Swim Tour


Swim tours take aquatic-minded travelers up and down open water. (Photo: Heather Perry for SwimVacation)

You’ve heard of cycling tours, where vacationers ride bikes from destination to destination. You can also take running trips, touring the rugged countryside or city landscapes by foot.

Now, add swim travel to that list.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, with a growing number of swim tour operators. Vacationers can take a dip in the Gulf of Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Montenegro. Or swim their way across the British Virgin Islands. The companies take care of all the logistics, including boat lodgings.

“It’s becoming really popular because people are tired of going to the beach and doing nothing,” said Nina Strel, of Strel Swimming Adventures, which takes people on trips to the waters of Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Lake Powell in the U.S.

Strel and Swim Vacation are two of the major swim tour companies, along with Swim Trek and The Big Blue Swim. While details vary between trips, most of the itineraries include a planned swim in the morning to a hidden cove, across a gorgeous reef, or to explore underwater shipwrecks. You have lunch, go for a hike, and get some feedback on your stroke before another swim in the afternoon.


Croatia is among the most popular swim-tour destinations. (Photo: Strel Swimming)

Each trip tends to have a landmark unique swim — the sort of thing you wouldn’t be able to do if you just took a normal vacation. Swim Vacation’s travelers make the journey from Dead Chest Island to Dead Man’s Bay — famous for being the spot where the pirate Blackbeard marooned his mutinous crew, and where the whole crew died while trying to make that same swim. Of course, Swim Vacation hasn’t lost a swimmer yet.

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“The places we swim are very safe,” said Hopper McDonough of Swim Vacation.

Swimmers should be able to swim a steady and reasonable pace (generally about 30-40 minutes/mile), and should be relatively fit and ready for long days in the sun. Non-swimmers are often welcome too, since many people take vacations with friends or as a couple. Those who don’t want to swim a few miles each day can just kayak or paddle-board, or jump in the water for a little bit.

“Almost every group, there’s one person who’s not a swimmer,” Strel said.


Swimming through Lake Powell. (Photo: Strel Swimming)

The trips are strenuous, though only as strenuous as you want them to be, and while some people do feel uncomfortable at first with wildlife or wide-open waters, McDonough said what is actually common is for someone to have a meltdown halfway through the trip, in the middle of one of the swims. It rarely has anything to do with the swim, itself, but is often about stress or personal problems or other issues they happen to be dealing with.

“It all comes out in the ocean,” said McDonough.

Guides are always available to help a tired swimmer aboard a nearby boat or kayak.

The fjords of Eastern Europe and turquoise waters of Croatia are particularly popular for swim trips, followed by vacations to the British Virgin Islands or the Caribbean. Swim Trek offers the widest range of options — even an itinerary to the fjords of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz — while The Big Blue Swim does just one big trip to Greece in September. Swim Vacation has all its vacationers stay on a boat for the week, while Strel puts them up in a hotel and suggests hiking excursions as well. If the ocean isn’t your thing, there are also lake trips and one-day expeditions, like from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco.

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Photo: Heather Perry for SwimVacation

While the trips understandably attract dedicated swimmers, they also draw people simply looking for a different kind of vacation or those who just want to spend some time in the ocean.

Nina Strel is the daughter of Martin Strel, the famous long-distance swimmer who has set five Guinness world records for long-distance swimming, including the Amazon River and the Mississippi River. Martin was the subject of a critically acclaimed 2009 documentary, Big River Man. And it was sometime while he was touring the world to promote the movie that his son, Borut, got the idea to bring those sorts of swim experiences to the masses.

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A shallow-water soak in Slovenia. (Photo: Strel Swimming)

A little over 10 years ago, McDonough, a former D-I swimmer, had a similar revelation. He and his wife had taken a cruise — the only one they’ve ever been on — and they weren’t having much fun, he said, so they kept getting off the boat at the ports and going to swim at faraway beaches. After that, swimming in pristine waters each morning became a part of all their vacations.

But it wasn’t until he swam through the British Virgin Islands with a friend, who was writing a magazine story about it, that he thought other people might like to do this too. His friend and him were huddled on a beach, sleeping in the rain one night, after they had swum from one island to the next, said McDonough, “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did this, but on a charter boat instead.’”

He launched Swim Vacation and led his first trip of swimmers to the British Virgin Islands in 2008.

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