Dive holidays where you scuba past fanciful fish, maybe a disinterested turtle, are all well and good. But there’s no greater start to a romping maritime yarn than a shipwreck – just ask Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis-Stevenson, Swift, Shakespeare, James Cameron…
Yes, a captain’s misfortune can be a dive enthusiast’s dream. We’ve gone deep and found the top six dive destinations for exploring the most historic and dramatic ships that never reached port…
1 THE EDUCATIONAL ONE: CORNWALL
The Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre is on terra firma; but this engaging museum is being revamped by Sir Tim Smit – founder of the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. He’s described the spot as a ‘walk through my romantic imagination’, so with him taking the wheel, it should land smoothly. Highlights include artefacts retrieved from the wrecks of the Lusitania and the Titanic.
For IRL dives, there are around 3,000 wrecks off the Cornish coast (yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, indeed), and Charlestown, where Poldark is filmed, is known for its handsome tall ships. And, if you hear whispers of Cornish pirates, fear not – it’s just the local rugby team…
Where to stay in Cornwall
Antonia’s Pearls are a sweet set of family-friendly cottages made to feel just like home, with carefully picked antiques and upcycled seaside artwork. Those travelling with little landlubbers will find all the kit they need.
2 THE OLD-SCHOOL ONE: GREECE
Off the coast of the tiny Aegean isle of Dokos lies the world’s oldest known shipwreck (as approved by the Guinness Book of Records), which has languished on the seabed for more than four millennia. It was first discovered in 1975, and although it’s cargo was a disappointingly mundane load of old crockery, and the actual ship has long since disintegrated, it’s well worth ducking under to see if you can spot any of the amphorae still lying around.
The island has a tiny population, numbering in the tens, most of which are monks, and its main land attraction is a petite lighthouse, but it’s a promising spot for wild hikes. The car-free neighbouring isles of Hydra (where songstrel Leonard Cohen owned a property) and Spetses are heavenly Hellenic spots for boat rides and coastal chilling.
Where to stay in Greece
Amanzoe is a 20-minute drive and short boat ride away from Dokos near Porto Heli. This Peloponnese hilltop showcases Aman’s famously slick service and sleek minimal look in alabaster stone within a paradisiacal setting, and adds a few Classical touches in its Parthenon-copycatting form and abundant columns. Oh, and more amphorae…
3 THE STRANGELY ATTRACTIVE ONE: FIJI
The wrecks off Fiji’s paradise islands have a distinct eerie beauty – shoals of barracuda flicker in and out, sea anemones sway in the current, crabs and shrimp settle within, and soft coral colourfully coats the skeletons of scuttled ships. The deliberately sunk SS Salamanda, beyond the Malolo Barrier Reef, makes for an atmospheric dive (for advanced divers). Another haunting and unique sight is a downed WW2 B26 Bomber from World War II off Beachcomber Island.
Underwater is where it’s at in Fiji – above ground most people are spending their ‘Fiji time’ depleting a swim-up bar or smoothing on suntan lotion. Go down at Bird Rock for giant moray eels and the famed Supermarket dive spot for shark sightings.
Where to stay in Fiji
Actually, there is some action overwater, especially at Likuliku Lagoon Resort, where you’ll find the only overwater bungalows in the country. The resort is adults-only, and for good reason: it’s as romantic as it is eco-friendly (and let’s just say, they’ve conserved a lot of turtles and coral…) When you’re not hanging out on your terrace or frolicking in the lagoon – just a ladder’s drop from your door – staff will do all they can to facilitate your dive dreams.
4 THE SPOILT FOR CHOICE ONE: CAPE TOWN
In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European mariner to successfully clear the Cape Peninsula. Presumably he was somewhat wobbly legged back on land, because he dubbed it the Cape of Storms. Later, in a savvier PR move, it was renamed the Cape of Good Hope. However, Dias was on to something, as more than 3,000 wrecks are scattered over the notoriously treacherous spot (and its where the mythic Flying Dutchman is cursed to bimble back and forth till Doomsday).
As such, it’s an enticing spot for wreck rubberneckers. Advanced divers can glimpse the SS Lusitania amid kelp forests and blasé marine life. For a full-penetration wreck (ahem) travel to Knysna Heads to rummage around in the Paquita, a century-old German barque. The sea life is especially vivid here, with acid-yellow Cape seahorses and lurid nudibranchs cavorting about Smitswinkel Bay, but fans of irony may want to paddle towards felled navy frigate SAS Good Hope.
Where to stay in Cape Town
To combine sandy bottoms with lush green stretches, stay a little inland at Grande Provence hotel in Franschhoek, a breathtaking wine estate with mountain views and a well-stocked cellar. To dive at Knysna Head, check in at former monastery The Old Rectory in Plettenberg Bay.
5 THE BIGGIE: CANADA
The year is 1998, the chorus to Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ swells in the background. You mouth along to the words by now: ‘I’m the king of the world!’, ‘That was the most erotic moment of my life…’, ‘I’ll never let go’. Jack could have stayed on that door, you know – you’ve done the math. Fast-forward to 2018, and on the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking, Bluefish are arranging expeditions to the wreck site, embarking from Newfoundland.
Maybe you can find it, the Heart of the Ocean. Maybe Jack’s still alive down there somewhere. Maybe you haven’t seen the film and simply want the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the world’s most famous wreck. Whatever your reasons for shimmying down 3,800 metres to see a grimly intriguing monument to hubris, your ticket will be costlier than first-class passage for the original voyage, with dives starting from around US$60,000 (and presumably a hefty bribe to convince the team leader to let you reenact the ‘I’m flying, Jack’ scene).
Where to stay in Canada
When you’re not origami-ed into a submersible, why not head north to wonderfully wild Fogo Island, to stay at Fogo Island Inn, a futuristic outpost perched on rugged rocks. It’s cosy on the inside, staggeringly beautiful without, and it’s dedicated to bigging up the island’s local culture, hauling in native artists, fishermen and boat builders to give guests an insight into island life.
6 THE SORT-OF-CHEATING ONE: CHINA
Around a 90-minute drive east from Chengdu, in a small town in Sichuan Province, there’s an enormous hull resting in a valley. What is this hull doing around 1,000 miles inland from the sea? Well, it’s the beginnings of a Titanic theme park whose completion has now been delayed by years. Perhaps the ambitious developer didn’t realise that even James Cameron only built half a ship for the film due to cost. But, when completed, guests will be able to experience the gentility and abject terror of life aboard the fateful ship.
Unsurprisingly, it’s had its detractors, but if the limited spaces for the last dive to the real Titanic sell out, or of you don’t have a spare US$60,000, this might be the next best thing. Don’t pack your flat cap and tails just yet – with the budget spiralling and resources running low, the project may yet follow the trajectory of its inspiration…
Where to stay in Chengdu, China
The Temple House brings together old and new in central Chengdu, with restored Qing-dynasty buildings alongside sleek modern towers. Its looker of a bar has an accomplished cocktails list and a traditional tea house sets the scene for meditative ceremonies. Still disappointed at not boarding the new Unsinkable Ship? The pandas at play in Wolong National Park will cheer you up.
Featured image via Into the Blue Scuba Dive Centre