In the seventies, an athlete by the euphonious name of Diana Nyad made a big splash by swimming around Manhattan island. I thought of Nyad recently while undertaking my own aquatic marathon, lap-testing the island’s indoor swimming pools in hotels, gyms, rec centers, and private clubs from TriBeCa to the Upper East Side. I didn’t have to contend with floating garbage or slicks of oil like Nyad did, but in my circuit around the island I did encounter pools the size of postage stamps, with funky tiles and chlorine levels verging on the toxic. I learned that while Manhattan has many indoor pools, some of them aren’t much fun to swim in. But there are a few, beautiful exceptions: clean, uncrowded pools patronized by serious swimmers with proper lane manners, pools big enough to allow you to swim in one direction long enough to build up a little speed. All offer reasonably priced day passes or very inexpensive memberships, so anyone can get his or her feet wet (though I couldn’t resist including one kids-only pool).
Stuyvesant High School
345 Chambers Street, 212-374-0973; six-month membership is $100.
TriBeCa residents would probably prefer to keep this neighborhood secret to themselves: It’s a high-school pool, and at 75 feet long a rather nice one, but it’s open to the public on evenings and weekends. Go on a weeknight and you’ll feel like a pasha in his private bath; on weekends the families-with-kids contingent takes over, and it can get noisy, but the views north on the Hudson ought to help you maintain your peace of mind. The two lanes are a cool 80 degrees (warm water saps a lap swimmer’s strength); clamp on your goggles tightly, as the chlorine level is a tad high.
Carmine Recreation Center
1 Clarkson Street, 212-242-5418; annual membership is $25 for adults, $10 for youths and seniors.
This Parks and Recreation gem has seen plenty of traffic over the years, but the three-lane, 69-foot-long pool is still clean and well maintained, if a little over-chlorinated. Lane swimming is for adults only; children swim separately. The precise schedule varies from month to month, but there are always available times in the morning and evening. The facilities are bit rudimentary (bring your own soap and shampoo), but at $25 a year, you can’t afford not to join.
The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers
Pier 60, at West 23rd Street, 212-336-6000; day pass is $40 Monday through Friday, $50 on weekends.
Doing laps alongside the Hudson, you can easily forget where you are. Instead of glimpses of monochrome tiling, you get seagulls, yachts, and cottony clouds filtering into your peripheral vision. The pool is a crystal 75 feet by 135 feet, six lanes, and 83 degrees. The price is a little steep, but the attention to detail compensates: The tiling is immaculate, the locker rooms are stocked with body wash and shampoo from Origins, and the towels are at least as thick as any you’ve got at home. One caveat: Be prepared to catwalk in your swimsuit past the noisy café and lobby en route from locker room to pool.
Manhattan Plaza Health Club
482 West 43rd Street, 212-563-7001; day pass is $25.
The retractable cover on this rooftop pool is translucent, so swimmers get drenched with sunlight as well as water. It’s 82 degrees, has four lanes, and measures 75 feet by 30 feet. There’s lap swimming all day during the week, and kids have their own special alcove area separated from lane traffic. The best times are late morning and early afternoon. Built as subsidized housing for artists, Manhattan Plaza is mostly populated by up-and-coming actors, so keep your eye out for the next Billy Crudup.
The Vanderbilt Y
224 East 47th Street, 212-756-9600; day pass is $25.
Night owls and insomniacs take note: The Vanderbilt Y’s 75-by-40-by-4-foot pool is now open for lap swimming 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday. The twelve-year-old pool is clean and well run, and, during the day at least, humming with activity; it has six lanes and is kept at a cool, lap-friendly 80 degrees. The original 1931 pool is a more temperate 86 to 88 degrees and is used primarily for classes.
St. Bartholomew’s Church Community House
109 East 50th Street, 212-378-0203; weekly parent-toddler swim is $270 for six weeks.
St. Bart’s venerable 60-by-25-foot pool, built in 1928 and part of a health club for many years, is now used exclusively by the church’s preschool and children’s choir. But in the summer it hosts parent-toddler swims and a two-month swim camp for children aged 3 to 9. And sometime next year the church will begin renting out its pool for children’s birthday parties; a lifeguard and in-pool chaperones will be provided.
The Parker Meridian Hotel
119 West 56th Street, 212-708-7340; day pass is $50.
Forty-two floors above midtown, floating beneath a huge skylight, is one of Manhattan’s more luxurious swimming holes. The three-lane pool may be only 40 feet by 20 feet, but the water is a balmy 85 degrees, the towels are unlimited, and the chlorine level is minimal (and therefore much gentler on your skin and hair). Afterward, settle into one of the poolside chaise lounges where waiters from Norma’s, the hotel restaurant, serve post-swim refreshments (and the odd martini) to towel-swaddled guests. On-the-spot swim lessons are also available.
Excelsior Athletic Club
301 East 57th Street, 212-688-5280; day pass is $25.
The palm and ficus trees planted around the perimeter of this sunlit, four-lane, 46-by-20-foot pool are a civilizing touch. Used mostly by office workers and athletic Wasps from Sutton Place, the 25-year-old pool is in excellent condition; its temperature is kept between 82 and 84 degrees. In good weather, the roof bubble is retracted and the deck fills up with those who still tan.
All Star Fitness Center
75 West End Avenue, at 63rd Street, 212-265-8200; day pass is $25.
A hidden treasure for neighborhood folks and employees from ABC studios, this five-year-old pool doesn’t get used half as much as it should. It’s invisible from the street, and you have to snake your way through the apartment building to get to it. The four-lane, 75-by-25-foot pool is 82 degrees, immaculate, and rarely ever crowded.
90th to 92nd Street, at York Avenue; 212-369-8890; day pass for pool only is $20, $25 with fitness center.
At first sight, this pool, the only privately run Olympic-size pool in Manhattan, is bound to make any swimmer’s heart beat a little faster. Even during peak times, you won’t wait long for one of the eight lanes. Pick the correct lane for your level and do not give yourself an upgrade; lifeguards are known to downgrade laggards to slower lanes. The water is 79 degrees and moderately chlorinated. Heated towels, a steam sauna, and wonderful, almond-scented soap round out the experience.