Open water swim from Manly to Shelley Beach

Shelly Beach, just sensational!

Walkway to Shelley Beach, Manly

Shelly Beach and Fairy Bower are two of my favourite places to play in Manly. Tucked away in a sheltered cove at the southern-most end of Manly Beach, the scenery is visually stunning and the aquatic life amazing!

You can walk (or swim, but more about that later) to Shelly Beach from Manly Surf Life Saving Club along a walkway suitable for wheelchairs and prams.

Park benches feature prominently along the 800m long path, so stop and sit if you need a break or just want to absorb the spectacular sights.

Underwater paradise

Steps down to Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, Shelley Beach, Manly
Step down into an underwater paradise

What makes Shelly Beach and Fairy Bower truly magnificent is not apparent until you submerge yourself under water in the aquatic reserve, Cabbage Tree Bay.

The water is usually calm, making it ideal for snorkelling and I urge anyone who can swim to bring their goggles or a mask along and discover this underwater paradise for themselves.

Enter from Shelly Beach or via the stairs at Fairy Bower, just near the ocean pool (at high tide, waves lapping at the sea wall can make it a bit tricky entering via the stairs). Wherever you choose to start this adventure, be prepared to be amazed as large schools of fish in all shapes and sizes swim beneath you.

The protected aquatic reserve is teeming with fish and other marine creatures – over 160 species, in fact – including parrot fish, blue gropers, octopus, cuttlefish, and even weedy seadragons – cousins to the seahorse.

It’s not the Great Barrier Reef, so don’t be expecting brilliant colours, nevertheless, it is spectacular, easily accessible, and free! Please remember though, Cabbage Tree Bay is a protected aquatic reserve, which means you can look, but you can’t take.

In the swim

The stretch of water from the Manly Surf Life Saving Club to Shelly Beach is a favourite haunt for local ocean swimmers.

Not only do you clock up around 2km on a round trip, you are given a visual underwater feast.

The sea is pretty calm most of the time, perfect for ocean swimming. Occasionally there are rips off Manly Beach. If this is the case, you may wish to exit the water at Fairy Bower.

Another advantage of open water swimming at Cabbage Tree Bay is that so many others are doing the swim at the same time. I know I was a bit nervous on my first attempt, but the regularity of people swimming past gave me the confidence to dive in – and I’ve never looked back! It really does beat doing laps in a swimming pool.

Iconic ocean pool

Fairy Bower ocean pool, Manly

If the open water scares you but you would still like to get wet, then ease yourself in from the sandy shores off Shelly, or take a splash in the Fairy Bower ocean pool – halfway along the promenade from Manly Surf Club to Shelley Beach.

Cut into the rocky shoreline, the iconic triangle-shaped pool with its twin statues is a lovely spot for a dip, soaking up the sun or just taking it easy.

After a swim you can rinse off under the open-air shower, get changed opposite in the toilet and change room block, and stop for a drink at the cafe.

Take a hike

If walking is more your thing than swimming, then bring your hiking boots and camera for the short bushwalk to North Head.

Commencing at the carpark behind Shelly Beach, the track zig-zags up the hill, around the rugged headland, through the bush, under an old sandstone wall and past several military relics.

It’s a moderate walk, a little steep in places, but nothing too taxing. My kids love this walk because there are so many interesting things to climb over and see on the way, and I love it for the panoramic views along the Northern Beaches peninsula.

Once at North Head there is a network of walking tracks you can take, with stunning views of the Northern Beaches coastline and Sydney Harbour.

Free parking can be found here too, so if you are prepared for the 20-minute one-way walk and the car parks are full, this is a good option.

More information on Cabbage Tree Bay marine reserve.

Getting here

The Northern Beaches peninsula viewed from Fairy Bower in Manly
Fairy Bower, Manly

Public transport

Catch the ferry to Manly from Circular Quay. It’s a beautiful and cheap way to see Sydney Harbour and will take you directly to Manly. Simply walk through the pedestrian mall (the Corso) when you get off the ferry, and turn right when you reach the beach. Follow the footpath past the surf life saving club to Shelly Beach.


If driving, park at one of the multistorey parking stations in Manly or try your luck along the beach front. Alternatively, you may find a spot at the car park at Shelly Beach. All charge a fee, although some of the parking stations are free for the first 2 hours.

Free parking can be found at North Head, near the former school of artillery, if you are prepared for the 20-minute bushwalk down to Shelly. If you have small kids, my advice is to drop them off at Shelly Beach with one parent, then drive up to the free parking and enjoy a peaceful walk through some spectacular country.




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